I was almost a member of the United Auto Workers union. At the turn of the millennium, I was a graduate student working as a teaching assistant at Columbia University. While I had expected the low pay, the arbitrariness of some university decisions making left me eager for a greater voice at work. I joined other graduate student workers organizing with UAW Local 2110, which ably represents the office and administrative employees at the university. But it was not to be. The university said the work we did – grading papers, holding office hours with students, reviewing exams and teaching – wasn’t really “work” at all. Never mind that 280 undergraduate courses at Columbia were taught by graduate teaching assistants – we were not employees and were ineligible for unionization. The National Labor Relations Board thought otherwise and ordered a union election: the ballots were impounded and never counted. Then, overseen by new Bush appointees, the NLRB reversed itself and decided we weren’t employees after all.
The fight lasted far beyond my time as a Columbia graduate student and employee, and today Columbia graduate workers still don’t have a union. But grad students employed at the other end of Manhattan at New York University soon will.
Earlier this week 1,200 teaching and research assistants at NYU and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU in Brooklyn voted on unionization following a voluntary agreement between the UAW and the university. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of joining the union.
NYU’s decision to allow a vote and refrain from interfering with its graduate workers’ choice is tremendously encouraging. NYU fought its graduate student workers (and the legitimacy of the union the school had previously recognized) for eight years – long enough in many disciplines to finish even the notoriously long process of Ph.D. course work and a dissertation – but it’s never too late to do the right thing. Graduate students learn a tremendous amount in the process of acting as teaching and research assistants, but the work they do also enables multi-billion dollar universities to function on a daily basis. It’s about time this work was recognized for what it is and employees won the right to organize and bargain collectively. Someday, the National Labor Relations Board may come around to that view again.
In the mean time, if you see an NYU teaching assistant, congratulate her. She’s likely been working hard.