NYU Union Case Has Colleges Worried

Friday, November 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Graduate student workers and the universities that employ them face each other in a changed labor landscape, with both sides wondering how a landmark union ruling will reshape the way they work together.

Labor activists predicted Thursday that organizers on campuses around the country would be emboldened by the National Labor Relations Board's decision a day earlier giving graduate students at New York University and other private institutions the right to form unions.

``I think it's going to energize students,'' said Patrick McCreery, an NYU American Studies student. ``We are just very proud that we've set national precedent with it.''

Meanwhile, university officials worried that the ruling, which overturned policy two decades old, might interfere with educational decisions.

And at NYU, administrators and students waited to learn how their relationship would evolve under the new terms.

While the NLRB's ruling allows graduate students employed as teaching and research assistants to form unions, the votes from an April referendum on whether to do so at NYU have yet to be tallied. They were impounded after the university appealed an earlier decision on unionization, and are likely to be counted within a week.

The board decision cannot be appealed, but if NYU wanted to dispute it, the school could disobey the decision and defend its position on an unfair labor practices charge, NYU spokesman John Beckman said.

``But we haven't made any decisions about what our next steps are going to be,'' Beckman said.

Nervous that grad students elsewhere could organize, other private universities have encouraged NYU to fight the ruling.

``The decision reverses a long-standing precedent that has ... helped to ensure that our system of higher education remains the world's very best,'' Yale University President Richard Levin said. ``Ultimately, the federal courts must consider how the national interest would best be served.''

Yale doctoral student Carlos Aramayo predicted the ruling would energize students on his campus, where contentious efforts to unionize have been under way for years.

The NLRB's decision affects only students at private institutions. Many graduate assistants at public universities already are unionized and governed by state labor laws.

Some administrators fear unionization will make educational questions they consider sacrosanct subject to collective bargaining.

Decisions about course content, textbooks, and exams ``might be viewed as workload questions,'' said Jon Fuller of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents about 900 schools.

The universities prefer to deal with their graduate students not as employees, but as students whose work is part of their education.

But many of the graduate assistants complain about meager pay, even as universities rely on them more heavily to teach and grade undergraduate students.

And their position is strengthened by the NLRB's decision.

``It's like the Wagner Act for grad students,'' said Kim Phillips-Fein, a history graduate student at Columbia University, referring to the Depression-era law permitting unions in America.

Michael Werner, a history student at the University of Chicago, had little success organizing workers at the school in 1997, but said the new decision might re-ignite efforts. He acknowledged that forming unions can take time, citing the transitory nature of student employees as a particular obstacle.

``It's quite possible this will open enough of a window of opportunity — that someone will pick up the union drive here,'' Werner said. ``But I don't think it will happen in the near future.''