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Three-Fifths Of An Employee?: The Right of Grad Assistants and Adjuncts to Organize

This Wednesday, August 31, at 12 Noon, there will be a demonstration outside of the New York University Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South [corner of West Fourth Street and LaGuardia Place] to support the right of NYU graduate teaching assistants to collective bargaining and unionization. The rally is sponsored by the NYC Central Labor Council and the New York State AFL-CIO, as well as the graduate union at NYU.

In 2000, New York University graduate teaching assistants made history when the National Relations Board compelled the university to recognize their union and begin negotiations. Since 1975, the numbers of tenured faculty at NYU have declined, despite significant increases in the student body. To fill this gap, NYU employed thousands of graduate students as teachers of undergraduate courses, since the minimal pay [without health coverage] it provided to them was a fraction of what a tenure track faculty member would earn. In short, the cheap labor provided by graduate students provided the university with extraordinary profits. By the time graduate students at NYU began to organize, it was estimated that they taught close to one half of all undergraduate courses at NYU. NYU’s story is not unique: across the United States, universities have come to depend, more and more, on cheap graduate student teaching labor. [This has led, among other things, to the decline of universities as serious centers of academic research, as the numbers of tenure track faculty which do such research has declined; the role of corporate sponsorship of research, with all of the academic freedom issues such an arrangement poses, has increased in importance.]

NYU fought the graduate teaching assistants’ union with a scorched earth campaign that would have made the most backward of anti-union corporations proud. It fired the one untenured professor who testified against it at the NLRB, leading to a sanction from the Board. But eventually it was forced to abide by the law, and recognize the union. [Indeed, there is quite a sordid tale to be told in the extent to which the “liberal” university and leading “liberal” and “progressive” scholars in positions of responsibility in such institutions as Yale, Columbia, Penn and the New School have fought graduate teaching assistant unionization, tooth and nail, on their own terrain.]

Then in 2004, in a ruling on the union organizing drive of graduate assistants at Brown University, the NLRB reversed its own precedent established in the NYU case. In a straight party line 3 to 2 vote, the three Bush administration appointees on the Board upheld the university’s contention that graduate teaching assistants have a “primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” Notwithstanding the extent to which the contemporary university is entirely dependent upon graduate student teaching, they are not ‘labor’ in the eyes of the Bush appointees. Perhaps they are only three-fifths of an employee. The dissenting members of the Board called this finding “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality,” and concluded that “[t]he result of the Board’s ruling is harsh. Not only can universities avoid dealing with graduate student unions, they are also free to retaliate against graduate students who act together to address their working conditions.”

For those who still question the negative impact of having the Bush administration in power in Washington, a short examination of the egregious decisions handed down by the NLRB under its control, of which this is only one example, will leave little room for continued doubt.

Given an open invitation from the Bush NLRB, the NYU administration has moved against the graduate assistant  teaching union. Your support for the right of unionization at NYU is important.



  • 1 get_me_a_contract
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 11:46 am

    My support for the unionization of NYU will be relevant once Randi gets the UFT a contract.

    Why isn’t Randi camped outside City Hall with a sign saying, “HERE I AM. NEGOTIATE WITH ME NOW!” Think of the publicity she would get.

    C’mon Randi–earn your quarter of a million plus salary….. Us little people (the teachers) need a raise and YOU NEED TO WORK HARDER TO GET IT!!! In other words, Randi–you are not doing enough, you are not getting enough publicity to the plight of the teachers and you are failing us!!!

  • 2 The Bellman
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    How it’s done

    Edwize has a post up today calling folks to support NYU’s grad union at this Wednesday’s rally. What’s especially interesting here is that the NYU local is affilliated with the UAW and Edwize is sponsored by UFT, an AFT affilliate. Now, I don’t k…

  • 3 redhog
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    In terms of readiness to negotiate, Randi is everywhere all the time. There is not one legal “stone” that she has left unturned. Every lawful measure must be taken wholeheartedly and in sequence. If not,the Union plays into the malicious hands of its enemies. Passion alone will do nothing but spend itself out and force untimely trials upon us all.
    In defense of our common principles, Randi has been arrested. Fighting for not only our survival but our advancement, she has taken blows that would wither a regiment of armchair revolutionaries.Our struggle for a contract is a bloody but also a delicate battle. No other union contract is under comparable attack. Civility is not weakness. Randi has been no “shrinking violet.” She is a powerful and effective voice who uses the arsenal of collective bargaining judiciously. The small minority of members who criticize her harshly on every real and imagined issue that ever arises would be the first to celebrate catastrophe. We’re blessed that Randi is an impediment to chaos and a catalyst for patient victory.

  • 4 dr_dru
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    redhog, i don’t think you are clear enough in your support for Randi.

    Honestly, is dissent a bad thing for a union? Does an outspoken opposition show a weakness of the entire union? Must a our Union march in lockstep with its leader?

    Do you feel that ad hominem attacks on the minority positions help the majority cause?

    If any of us can answer yes to these questions, we are on our way to becoming a Cult of Personality and joke of a union.

  • 5 redhog
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    On the contrary, Dr_Dru! I know that dissent is critical to the survival of any democratic organization. However, there is a difference between being wholesomely adversarial and wantonly antagonistic. From friction comes concord. But we must be tender and circumspect in the face of enemies who are gloating and licking their chops at the sight of union cannibalism.
    Who do you have in mind when you refer to “ad hominem” attacks? (Hey, an attack is an attack, “ad hominem” or otherwise. Let’s stop impressing ourselves with Latin flourishes, o.k.?) By assailing the spectre of divisiveness and upholding the principle of solidarity,is Randi guilty? Scroll up, my friend, two comments above this one. There you will see a specimen of smudge as indecorous as any “ad hominem”.
    By all means, Dr_Dru, swell the chorus of opposition, but keep your notes clean and know the score. If Randi were skittish about challenges, the input of rival strategies, and mistrustful of contradiction and alternate views, she could have censored, suppressed,or aborted the blog. It was conceived from her trust in the membership.”Joke of a union” you say? If so, it must be the kind of joke from which enlightenment draws breath. “Cult of personality”? No cults, thank you. But the members of the UFT are one helluva communion of trust!

  • 6 JennyD
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 8:45 pm

    Can I ask a question? Is this blog going to focus solely on labor/union issues? Or will writers post about the professional practice of teaching?

  • 7 get_me_a_contract
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 9:22 pm

    I disagree with redhog. Randi hasn’t done enough to justify her salary or to get us a contract. Randi should do more public relations.

    That rally we had in June was a joke. Who has a rally inside an arena and outside of the public eye? That was plain stupidity.

    The UFT commercials are not strong enough. Where are the commercials that say that this is the third year teachers are going back to the classroom without a contract?

    Where does she get that teachers in suburban schools only make 15 – 20 percent more than NYC teachers? I would say that we make closer to 40 percent less?

    Also–Randi needs to make a call to teachers to adhere strictly to the terms of the contract. We should never stay after school without pay. We should never work during our lunch. I am very guilty of all the above as are most teachers. This is not a call to a strike. This is a call to adhere to the exact agreement we made.

    Let’s see if the mayor can have the schools succeed if teachers don’t give extra.

    Randi is not fighting hard enough….and the union’s message to the public is weak and unclear.

  • 8 kombiz
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 9:27 pm


    The blog will focus on both sets of issues. There are a lot of obvious education wonks writing, and Leo can wear both hats.

  • 9 dr_dru
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 10:30 pm


    Who gets to choose the terms “wholesomely adversarial and wantonly antagonistic� when describing an opposing view?

    An attack is an attack? If the strength of my argument revolves around calling people “armchair revolutionaries� and saying that, “the small minority of members who criticize her harshly on every real and imagined issue that ever arises would be the first to celebrate catastrophe� and otherwise dismissing the opposition as “wantonly antagonistic.� Then how powerful is my argument?

    Am I impressing myself with a Latin flourish? No, I am using a term for a particular logical fallacy. As for your use and spelling of “spectreâ€? well….

    “Scroll up, my friend, two comments above this one. There you will see a specimen of smudge as indecorous as any “ad hominem�.
    That would either be you or the Bellman. If you mean get_me_a_contract, I still do not see your point.

    I did not say, we are a “joke of a Union� I said, “If any of us can answer yes to these questions, we are on our way to becoming a Cult of Personality and joke of a union.� Please don’t quote me out of context.

    “No cults, thank you� It seems a little strange to use terms such as: “Randi is everywhere all the time�, “she has taken blows that would wither a regiment of armchair revolutionaries�, “Our struggle for a contract is a bloody�, “We’re blessed that Randi is an impediment to chaos and a catalyst for patient victory.�

    I guess I don’t realize how “blessed� I am, where can I get some,�enlightenment?�

  • 10 dr_dru
    · Aug 29, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    By the way, no matter who is the affiliate or parent Union, all union members deserves our support. This includes airline mechanics.

    “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang seperately.”
    Benjamin Franklin

  • 11 busypencil
    · Aug 30, 2005 at 12:03 am

    The UFT is a signatory to a contract that doesn’t treat university adjuncts as even three-fifths of an employee. New city K-12 teachers with prior full-time college teaching experience are moved up the salary step ladder, but, as the DOE salary step guide specifies, part-time or adjunct college teaching count for nothing. I spent 16 years as an adjunct at CUNY, sometimes teaching more hours than full-timers, and had to start at the bottom DOE salary step; a number of my former colleagues are in the same boat. How nice that the UFT is supporting part-timers at NYU; now let’s see it clean its own house and remove this blatant injustice from the next contract.

  • 12 dr_dru
    · Aug 30, 2005 at 3:35 am

    In defense (or should I say defence) of the Union, adjuncts entering the DOE are a fairly recent occurance. You are probably one of the most vocal of a rising tide of people the contract was not originally negotiated for.

    You and others in your situation deserve some sort of formula in which your teaching hours as adjuncts are counted towards years of service, as judged by the average teaching load of a college instructor.

    Basically, average credits per year of a full time instructor equals one year of prior service. If I am correct quite a few adjuncts will have more years of service than a “full time” instructor.

    Anyone else have a better/fairer/simpler idea?

  • 13 JennyD
    · Aug 30, 2005 at 12:42 pm

    For the record, I think the writings about Wal-mart, etc. diminish the work of teachers, the folks represented by AFT. I’m trying to think of other professionals with organizations that would focus so much on those issues, and so little on the technical, professional work.

  • 14 redhog
    · Aug 30, 2005 at 7:56 pm

    Jenny feels that teachers should know their place and be informed on a “need to know” basis as their bosses would determine.Why should they not be involved in the Walmart labor abuses? Does she have a problem with doctors who focus on famine in Africa? Or lawyers who monitor human rights abuses overseas, away from their leather divans? Jenny reminds me of small kids who are amazed to encounter their teachers at shopping malls and elsewhere in the outside world. Kids just can’t believe that teachers have a life and purpose outside the schoolhouse. Well, Jenny, their life, intellectually and morally, is free as a bird to survey, though not on “company time”, the devastation wrought by a “Category 5″ corporate hurricane like Walmart.

  • 15 Vivant
    · Aug 31, 2005 at 12:19 am

    Well-said busy pencil! If any other former adjuncts out there have experienced this same injustice, please speak out! The UFT perpetuates the exploitation of adjuncts by not recognizing their work experience. While we labored at several colleges piecing together a full-time salary, we were cheated by not receiving full-time benefits. When applying for a DOE salary step that truly represented our experience we were told we were first year teachers. I agree, busy pencil, the union needs to clean up its act now!

  • 16 Leo Casey
    · Aug 31, 2005 at 2:13 pm

    What we have here in these comments is an excellent example of how mythology around the collective bargaining agreement is built up and perpetuated.

    There is nothing in the collective bargaining agreement regarding salary credit for those who have worked as adjunct instructors on the post-secondary level. Don’t take my word for it: go the agreement, which is on the UFT web site [www.uft.org], and look for yourself.

    In point of fact, it is through by-laws and regulations that the DOE established the policy not to grant salary credit for experience as an adjunct instructor at a post-secondary level, by-laws and regulations which go back to before there even was a collective bargaining agreement [pre-1960s]. The pertinent regulation is one which one does not allow salary credit for part-time teaching; adjunct work is, by definition, part-time, even when one is doing several stints concurrently to earn a living. I know the question well, because when I came to work for the DOE in 1984, it turned down my application for salary credit for adjunct work I had done while working on my doctorate at the University of Toronto.

    The DOE has unilateral control over such by-laws and regulations. It is not required to negotitate them with the UFT, except where they are instituting new by-laws and regulations, or changes in existing by-laws and regulations, which would impact on already existing protections members have under the collective bargaining agreement. These exceptions are known as “impact bargaining.” Other than that, there is nothing in the law that would require the DOE to bargain with the UFT over pre-existing by-laws and regulations, such as this one.

    Of course, even in the collective bargaining agreement the UFT has to reach an agreement with the DOE, and so the final product is necessarily a compromise, with parts reflecting the demands of the UFT and parts reflecting the demands of the DOE. But once you move outside of the purview of the collective bargaining agreement, and outside of the purview of what state public employees relations law establishes as mandatory topics of bargaining, the UFT only has the tools of lobbying the DOE, attempting to persuade them on the merits of an issue. On an issue such as this one, the DOE’s response is “how would it benefit us to change our regulations and pay teachers more than we do now?”

    The UFT has pressed the DOE on a number of salary credit issues, and has won some improvements over the years, such as a expansion of the number of years of salary credit a teacher could earn while working for another school system. But given the nature of the issue, and that fact that it is not a mandatory topic of bargaining, progress is never as fast as what we would like.

  • 17 Vivant
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 6:21 pm

    If I understand you correctly, Leo, the issue of paying adjuncts for previous work experience can be brought to the bargaining table. The answer to the DOE question (how it might benefit them) can be answered simply: it can be used as a recruitment tool. The DOE spends money on hiring educators from Austria. Why not start right here at home and tap into a pool of experienced educators with recent first-hand knowledge of college standards. Those of us who labored for years working full-time in colleges without the benefits of full-time status believe this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. The pension system has no trouble recognizing our years at Cuny.

    When I tried to grieve this to the union, I was just told this is the way it is–live with it. What’s a union for, if it doesn’t fight against the exploitation of workers?

  • 18 Leo Casey
    · Sep 1, 2005 at 9:26 pm


    The UFT, like all other unions, has the ability to take only a limited number of cases to arbitration. Unfortunately, that is how labor relations work under American law. It must make decisions, therefore, on which cases to take forward. We are forced to do that now more than ever, given the deleterious approach of Bloomberg and Klein to the grievance machinery, where they refuse to remedy grievances where management is clearly in the wrong. [That is why the UFT filed an omnibus appeal to the Public Employees Relation Board on the DOE’s misuse of the grievance machinery, which is now in the process of being heard.]

    One of the criteria used in making such decisions is “do we have a reasonable chance of winning this grievance?” I have sat on the committee which makes such decisions from time to time, and we always go to the extra length to see if a case can be made for a member’s grievance. But in this case, there is virtually no chance that this grievance would be won. The regulation is long-standing; it is straight-forward, with very little room for interpretation; and it has been adjudicated — and upheld — in the past. The union could not justify taking a grievance like this to arbitration while cases where members had a good chance of prevailing on appeal did not go.

    The UFT does make the argument you suggested, and many more in addition. And certainly it will continue to press the DOE to try to change this regulation. What needs to be understood, however, is that our leverage in this instance is not as powerful as it is many other instances, and so it will be harder — and take longer — for us to prevail.

  • 19 busypencil
    · Sep 2, 2005 at 12:49 pm

    The DOE’s guide to salary steps and differentials begins with this sentence: “Salary increments for teachers and other professional staff in the NYC public schools are governed by the Department of Education’s collective bargaining agreement with the United Federation of Teachers.” Is this truth or fiction?

    Either way, singling out adjuncts by their job title, rather than the number of hours they work, discriminates against a class. Note that the salary step rules state that “part-time and/or adjunct college teaching” is excluded. The phrasing is a ruse crafted to defeat arguments based on the adjunct teaching load.

    The DOE (apparently voluntarily, Leo, if this has nothing to do with bargaining) already increases salaries for newcomers with full-time K-12 teaching experience and even full-time non-teaching work experience without any clear definition of what is meant by “full time.” Elementary school teachers can move up the steps if they have taught pre-K: what constitutes “full time” pre-K? What is full time teaching in another country or at a private school? Attendance teachers can use prior work experience to move up steps; what kind of non-teaching job involves full-time duties related to those of attendance teachers?

    I do not begrudge others; adjuncts merely want the same treatment.

    Thanks for your attention, Leo, but I think there’s a clear case here. Has this ever been referred to the UFT’s lawyers or the PERB? This is an unfair labor practice and an outrage.

    And viva, Vivant, for your well-put arguments.

  • 20 Leo Casey
    · Sep 2, 2005 at 1:18 pm


    You are mixing up two things — salary increments and salary credits. Increments are the steps that you receive for the time you work with NYC schools. They are governed by the schedule in the collective bargaining agreement. Salary credits involve what the DOE is prepared to credit you as the equivalent of a salary increment, even though you did not do the teaching for the DOE. They are governed by DOE by-laws and regulations.

    Note that there are many different issues that go under the rubric of salary credits — the cap on the number of years of salary credit the DOE will grant you, what qualifies as work in teaching, and what qualifies as full time work. Note also that, as I understand it, there is nothing that says that adjunct time per se does not qualify; but rather that the teaching must be full time. Adjunct work is, by definition, part-time work for the post-secondary institutions which provide it. I understand that many adjuncts use it as full-time work, by putting together a number of different gigs, but the DOE will point to how CUNY or the other institution defines adjunct work, and say that what you were doing is a number of concurrent part-time teaching jobs, not full-time teaching.

    It is also necessary to understand that a grievance involves a specific violation of the terms of the collective bargaining agreement or the DOE’s by-laws and regulations, and that an unfair labor practice involves a specific violation of labor law. That something is unfair does not necessarily make it into either a grievance or an unfair labor practice. The UFT can be creative in finding contractual hooks for a lot of different issues, but sometimes you just can’t find one, and you have to fall back on lobbying and attempting to convince the DOE. I would always be ready to go to the UFT with a new idea of how to win something for a member s/he should have, as would others on staff here, but I don’t see such an idea right now.

    Someone at the union should have taken the time to explain all of this to you when you first raised the issue. The problem may have been if you were just talking to a chapter leader or even a district representative who did not know this area. Whatever the reason, I apologize for the fact that you were not given complete information. If you want to discuss it further, you can call me at the UFT next week — 212-598-6869.

  • 21 exadjunct
    · Sep 6, 2005 at 9:01 pm

    Leo: I’d like to jump into this discussion since I am also an exadjunct. Almost 20 years of teaching experience on average 6 hours a day and I’m considered “part-time” by the DOE. What is really ludicrous is that the TRS ( the same pension plan for CUNY adjuncts and NYC public school teachers)recognizes our years of service as adjuncts yet the DOE does not. TRS calculates 360 hours of classroom teaching is equivalent to 1 year of full time teaching. Why can’t the DOE use a similar equation? After 16 years of teaching at CUNY I was given 10 years towards my pension with the TRS. As far as I’m concerned I should have started with NYC schools on salary step 10 not 1! When I told a high ranking official at the TRS of the injustice he commented, ” I’d say you have a lawsuit there.” signed, exadjunct

  • 22 Edwize »
    · Nov 10, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    […] GSOC-UAW, the union of teaching graduate student assistants and lecturers at New York University, has been forced on strike. After the National Labor Relations Board dominated by Bush appointees issued a stunning reversal of its own precedent recognizing the right of the graduate students engaged in teaching labor to organize and bargain collectively, New York University announced its unwillingness to bargain with the union, forcing it into a life-or-death strike for its own survival. Edwize has examined the issues behind this important struggle in the past. […]