Gains in Graduate Student Unionization Undermined by UAW Local 2110
Statement by NYU Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU)
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At NYU, the first private university where graduate student workers have secured a union contract from their institution, a recent attempt to cancel union elections threatens to undermine ongoing UAW unionization efforts in the academic sector. Without any prior warning, the Executive Board of UAW Local 2110 unilaterally disqualified the majority of candidates running for leadership bodies from the New York University Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) on Friday, thereby calling off the elections and installing some candidates by default. Despite the obstruction, GSOC resolved to move forward with the scheduled elections, opening the polls on Wednesday at noon. This election coincides with a referendum vote on whether GSOC should join the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. The outcome of the dispute between Executives in the Local and the graduate student workers organized in GSOC will reverberate nationwide, and send a signal especially to aspiring graduate workers at other private universities seeking a voice in their own union.
The Board of the Local invented new jurisdictional powers to impose arbitrary requirements — uncodified even in Local Bylaws — on the internal representative body of GSOC and disqualified candidates on that basis. Claims by the Executive Board to be have been clear on candidate requirements from the outset are patently false. Over the last year, the numerous sets of criteria offered by the Local Board have been inconsistent and contradictory. In the entire week leading up to the vote, numerous requests by GSOC for clarification on eligibility were deflected or ignored. Nor was this a mere dispute over eligibility requirements; it was a deliberate sabotage of the union’s ability to conduct fair elections amongst its own membership. When they disqualified candidates from the elections to GSOC’s leadership body- the Assembly of Stewards and delegates to the Local Joint Council, the Local Executive Board effectively disenfranchised the majority of GSOC membership.
Due to the contingent structure of the academic workplace for graduate student workers, most graduate students do not teach continuously, but come under the contract off and on. In previous GSOC elections, the Executive Board of the Local has recognized this and helped facilitate fair elections, but not this time. To disqualify students from representing their peers during their down time from teaching responsibilities is to automatically invalidate over half the membership who have a real material stake in their union. This seriously undermines the ability of the union to represent academic workers. All unions have to shape their approach to the particular workplace they are attempting to organize, in order to build sustainable democratic structures and ensure the organization becomes a powerful vehicle for worker’s rights. Historically, labor has fought for shopfloor democracy as essential to any vision of worker solidarity, but also to be an effective instrument in winning material gains for workers.
Public sector graduate worker unions organized in the UAW, such as the University of California and the University of Massachusetts, have managed to secure effective membership and eligibility arrangements where they have accommodated the unique conditions of the academic workplace structure and now provide union members with full rights — this is entirely possible. By not adhering to the democratic principles that undergird the labor movement, Local 2110 has potentially set back not only the struggle of academic workers at NYU — the UAW’s flagship campus — but at all the other campuses from Columbia to Harvard that the UAW is investing significant resources in unionizing.
The principles of union democracy and solidarity that AWDU espouses have proven to represent a viable and effective method of unionism for Academic Workers. Last year after mobilizing for a potential strike, GSOC won a historic contract under AWDU leadership, which saw tangible benefits for members such as health care coverage being raised from 0% to 90% for hundreds of workers, a $15 an hour minimum wage for student workers, a family health care fund, and guaranteed annual raises for graduate student workers.
At a time when universities are run as businesses, with decreasing permanent faculty and increasing administrative costs, there are immense pressures on academic workers to stay silent and keep their heads down. Nationwide, 77% of all instructional staff (including graduate student instructors) hold contingent and insecure job appointments. At NYU it is 78% or higher. Increasingly demanding and arbitrary standards pit members of academic communities against one another — with grad students used as a kind of ‘reserve army’ against adjuncts, and the swelling pool of adjuncts presenting a constant reminder to tenure-track faculty not to step out of line.
The principle of academic freedom — won by the organized labor movement in the 1930s and 40s as a workplace condition for academics — is being forcefully eroded. Not only are legal protections like tenure being chipped away at the faculty level, the self-censorship brought on by bleak job prospects has seeped into graduate student research and teaching. Such unrestrained competitive conditions discourage the emergence of ideas and critical thought that challenges the status quo of the employers. Many graduate students feel isolated, atomized, and left without a means to challenge the continual squeeze by universities. In this atmosphere of apprehension, the union could provide a way out, a bright light in the darkness. Can the UAW make good on its claims to be able to fight for academic workers?
The Executive Board of Local 2110 just attempted to suppress an election of its own members, and they made sure to prepare and execute this behind closed doors. The union, if it is going to have any success in the academy, needs to provide an alternative to that fear. To expand in the academic sector and effectively fight for academic workers, the union must once again champion academic freedom and the rights of graduates to express their mind — in the workplace, in research, and yes, in their own union elections.
Palestine and Free Speech
The struggle to reclaim political space in the academy is most clearly seen in the case of BDS. As the movement sweeps the nation, preemptive repression intensifies. Between legislation banning BDS organizing and threatening to defund student groups who support the movement, the current political climate in the US does not enable open discussion on the violation of Palestinian rights.
Justice in Palestine is one of the defining political issues of our time. NYU’s GSOC referendum on BDS is indicative of the traction the movement is gaining across university campuses, and increasingly among graduate students. Just last week, CUNY doctoral students council passed an academic boycott measure, followed by a BDS resolution passed by the Graduate Employee Organization at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Resolutions passed by aspiring academics, as educators of future generations, will have substantial impact on American discourse and expand the boundaries of permissible political discussions. At NYU, AWDU is reclaiming the union as a political space, where graduate students can deliberate on and advocate for social justice causes, and it has begun with a mass mobilization for BDS.
Collective Action Gets the Goods
AWDU and similar reform caucuses who stand for union democracy are acting as stewards for the future of the labor movement as a whole. The path to the revitalization of the UAW and other unions lies not through bureaucratic silencing and suppression, but through vigorous debate and maximal involvement — through democracy.
The strategy of the Local 2110 Executive Board offers no vision for the future. It refuses to provide its membership with a voice and thereby deprives the union of the source of its power. Against this we assert trust in our membership and solidarity as the guiding lights for a powerful, reliable academic worker union. It is high time for the UAW to act as that beacon.