Nickell is the point person for the school's Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), which reportedly became the nation’s first officially certified labor union for graduate students in 2000 after partnering with the United Auto Workers. Nickell says the union was created in order to increase the salaries and benefits offered to working NYU graduate students—students who, typically as teaching associates and research assistants, provide the university with a cheap yet indispensable labor force.
"Master's tuition, for example, generates NYU a huge amount of money," Nickell said. "We know that NYU made $399 million of revenue over expenses last year, so we think they can probably afford the cost of defraying the tuition of master's students just a little bit."
But such claims oversimplify the realities of higher-education economics, said John Beckman, an NYU spokesman. The $399 million number, according to Beckman, is misleading because it is not spendable income and therefore cannot be redirected to tuition remission for master's students.
Revenue specifics aside, however, it's clear that university-employed graduate students typically account for a small slice of the schools' total spending. While the salary of a full-time professor at a top U.S. college tends to be upwards of $150,000 a year, graduate workers typically receive little more than a stipend and, depending on the situation, tuition relief. Students in general aren't recognized as official employees by the National Labor Relations Board, so universities aren't obligated to follow standard labor laws when it comes to determining the students' compensation.
Now, by creating a formal union, protesting, and entering into talks with the school, NYU’s graduate workers recently became the first such group in the nation to be recognized by their university as official employees. This has allowed them to bargain for higher wages, better healthcare and childcare coverage, and other benefits enjoyed by typical working Americans.
"At private schools like NYU there’s a lot of inertia against defining graduate students as workers," Nickell said. If schools define their graduate TAs as workers, he reasoned, it gives the students a better chance of getting recognition by the National Labor Relations Board.
This inertia is part of the reason it took GSOC almost a decade to negotiate a new contract with NYU after its first one expired in 2005. After years of strikes, protests, and mediation, the group agreed to a deal with the university last month, according to the union's website. While the final agreement boosted both the salary and benefits of graduate student workers at NYU, arguably one of the greatest legacies of that long-drawn-out negotiations process is that it has sparked similar unionization movements at other schools. The public negotiations at NYU—which saw strikes, protests, and a large public-relations campaign—have spurred graduate students at Columbia, the New School, the University of Chicago, Yale, Cornell, the University of Albany, and, most recently, Harvard to begin their own efforts to organize. There are currently 31 officially recognized graduate-student unions in the U.S. and 18 more that are in the process of gaining recognition, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions.