Graduate workers announce strike vote as contract deadlock continues

After nine months of bargaining with NYU have failed to produce a satisfactory contract, GSOC has called a strike authorization vote.

Members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at NYU are starting voting tomorrow on whether to authorize a strike after NYU has failed to produce a new contract for graduate workers represented by the union and employed by the university. (Photo Courtesy of GSOC)

Members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee will start voting tomorrow on whether to authorize a strike after nine months of bargaining with NYU have failed to produce a new contract for the over 2,000 graduate student workers represented by the union. The strike authorization vote was announced in an email sent to GSOC members last week by the GSOC bargaining committee, stewards and organizing committee co-chairs.

“We were eager to see what NYU would bring to the table after our last session, where we presented a petition signed by 1200 graduate workers in support of our demands,” Arundhati Velamur, a member of GSOC’s bargaining committee, wrote in a statement shared with WSN. “But after yet another disappointing meeting with NYU, we’re coming together to take action … Our workers refuse the lack of response by NYU and are ready to strike if necessary.”

Two-thirds of GSOC’s membership must vote in favor of a strike to authorize the action. GSOC last approved a strike during contract negotiations in 2015, when 95% of the over 1,100 participating union members supported the authorization. The planned four-day strike was averted after the university and the union tentatively agreed upon a contract the night before the strike was scheduled to begin.

The previous contract, which expired in August 2020, secured graduate workers an increase in wages from $10 an hour to $20 an hour as well as better healthcare access and other compensation improvements. GSOC argues that the cost of living in New York has risen in the five years since the previous contract was negotiated, making the old agreement inadequate.  

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Among GSOC’s primary demands for the new contract are an increase in wages to at least $40 an hour with a guaranteed annual incremental raise, a severance of ties between NYU and the New York Police Department, and free healthcare including dental care. 

GSOC’s demands also include lower-cost access to immigration lawyers and tax accountants, fixed subsidies for childcare expenditures, paid vacation and leave, transit subsidies and housing stipends and an end to warrantless campus access for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol agents.

Anirban Karak, a doctoral candidate in the history department at the Graduate School of Arts and Science, said the university must also adopt a pluralistic approach to graduate worker compensation, considering that NYU’s graduate students come from a diverse range of backgrounds.

“Some people have families and children,” Karak told WSN. “If they don’t get paid then they are in a worse situation than people who don’t have families or children … For somebody who has a partner, family or children to support, [the current compensation] is not enough.”

Karak, a graduate worker and international student from India, emphasized the university’s responsibility to alleviate issues predominantly faced by international students.

Since income tax is deducted at the income source for international students from nations without U.S. tax treaties, Karak said that some of them pay more than $400 a month in income taxes in the United States — even as, in some cases, they must simultaneously continue to pay income tax in their home nations.

International students also face difficulties securing housing in New York, because they oftentimes do not have U.S. credit histories and receive limited support from the university. 

Since the previous contract expired, representatives from NYU and GSOC have held 13 bargaining sessions, but remain in a deadlock over demands and terms for the renegotiated contract. According to GSOC, the university has been stonewalling by refusing to agree to GSOC’s proposed contract or by making counter-proposals.

According to the university, a point of contention during bargaining meetings has been a proposal to introduce a third-party mediator to arbitrate negotiations. 

“We believe we should have made more progress than has been the case so far,” NYU spokesperson John Beckman wrote in an email statement to WSN. “That is why we have repeatedly suggested bringing in a mutually-agreed-upon mediator. In past negotiations with units represented by the UAW, a mediator has helped the bargaining process move along at a brisker pace, and has helped both sides come to agreement around a contract.”

GSOC is an affiliate of the international United Auto Workers union. UAW provides organizational support and access to a strike fund, which will provide striking workers $275 in relief payments per week in the event of a prolonged strike.

“Against this backdrop, the University is disappointed by GSOC’s threatened strike vote, especially since they haven’t been willing to give mediation a try,” Beckman wrote. 

According to GSOC, the university has rejected the majority of its proposals. The university made a counter-proposal to the union’s call for living wages of $40 an hour by offering a $1-an-hour increase in wages for graduate workers and an annual incremental raise.

“The University is committed to negotiating a contract renewal with its graduate employees that results in a fair contract that properly recognizes their contributions to our community,” Beckman wrote. 

GSOC members aren’t satisfied with the university’s counter-proposal, which falls well below their demand. Graduate workers currently receive a stipend as well as a wage of $20 per hour. They are limited to 20 hours per week, meaning they can earn up to $1,600 per month. The result is that some graduate workers’ total compensation — including stipend and wages — is $25,000 per year, according to GSOC.

“That NYU is doubling down on its proposal for $1 raises is insulting and unacceptable.” said Mariko Whitenack, a member of the GSOC bargaining committee and a doctoral candidate in American Studies at GSAS. “Graduate workers deserve a living wage, and we know that NYU can afford it.”

GSOC’s announcement of a strike authorization vote came less than a week after members of Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers, Columbia University’s graduate student worker union, went on indefinite strike. GWC has been on strike since Monday, March 15, after two years of unsuccessful contract negotiations.

“We believe both universities have to do the right thing and give their student workers the contracts we deserve,” GWC-UAW wrote in a statement to the Columbia Daily Spectator, regarding its support for GSOC’s strike authorization vote. 

The voting period for GSOC’s strike authorization will begin on Tuesday, March 23. It will be accompanied by a socially distanced rally at Gould Plaza at noon and a simultaneous online rally via Zoom.

Email Arnav Binaykia at [email protected]

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