Solidarity pours in for striking NYU student workers as universities across US witness labor upsurge

The graduate students’ strike at the New York University, currently in its second week, has received much support from within and outside the university. Meanwhile, labor groups have taken up similar battles in universities across the country

May 05, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
US students strike
A rally held by striking graduate students of New York University on April 30. (Photo: Eli Yurman/NYU Local)

Solidarity is pouring in for striking New York University (NYU) student workers from across the United States. Academic and graduate students’ unions from different universities in the US are holding a solidarity picket in support of the NYU graduate students on Wednesday, May 5. The demonstration of solidarity will have representatives of other major student and academic groups associated with the trade union confederation, United Auto Workers (UAW), joining the NYU picket line.

The Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) is leading the solidarity picket. It is joined by the Harvard Grad Students Union (HGSU) and the UAW Local 7902, which represents nearly 4,000 academic workers from universities based in New York City.

The solidarity demonstration comes at a time when student workers in NYU have expanded their strike action. In support of the striking students, undergraduate students and teachers at NYU have also opted out of attending classes. They however joined in for a “teach-in” at the picket line.

The strike at NYU has the participation of over 2,200 graduate students. It is being organized by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), another UAW union. The strike began on April 26 after multiple attempts to negotiate a fair contract failed. The GSOC has alleged that the university administration did not come to the bargaining table in good faith. The administration has also been under fire for using pressure tactics to break up the strike, including emailing the parents of the striking students.

On Tuesday, April 4, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), which represents over 675,000 teachers in New York State, released a letter expressing support to the GSOC’s strike and “their tireless efforts to negotiate a fair contract for their members.”

Wage hike has been the most contentious issue in the contract negotiations. Student workers have been demanding a tiered wage hike for masters and doctoral students of USD 1 and USD 2 per hour, respectively. The university administration has refused such a proposal and only offered a general wage hike of USD 1 per hour for all student workers.

Graduate workers are paid on an hourly basis – this too only for the nine to 10 months of active academic period in a year. The salaries of student workers are not tied to their stipends, which affects their overall income.

Even though the university administration argues that it pays one of the highest hourly wages for student workers in the State (USD 15 for masters students and USD 20 for doctoral students), according to the union, most student workers earn less than USD 30,000 annually in a city where the average cost of living is around USD 40,000.

Other issues include the proposed reduction of teaching positions for graduate students which threatens a large part of the students’ income, the presence of police inside university campuses, and medical insurance coverage.

Since its founding in 2013, the GSOC has organized several strike actions at NYU for advancing fair wages, better working environment and social justice. Despite a history of organizing students, the union had to struggle to be recognized for collective bargaining till as late 2013.

The current strike is among several attempts by student movements and trade unions in universities across the US for securing fair wages and contracts. Many of these strikes and mobilizations were inspired by Columbia University’s student workers’ strike, which came almost a year after it was authorized by a strike vote in March 2020.

The strike at Columbia dissipated after negotiations failed and a controversial decision by the bargaining committee put a “pause” on the strike on April 2. The Columbia Spectator reported that the decision to pause the strike was not accepted by most students. This was evident on April 30 when a vote on the tentative agreement negotiated by the bargaining unit was rejected with 970 votes in favor and 1,093 against. While the vote effectively revived the strike, students at the religion department had continued the picket, going against the union decision.

The Columbia University strike has sparked several similar mobilizations across the US. On April 22, student workers at Illinois State University voted in favor of strike action on a similar set of demands for fair wages and medical benefits.

In the meanwhile, the academic workers’ strike at the Oregon Institute of Technology ended on Tuesday, May 4, after nine days. The Oregon Tech chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) secured a tentative agreement that will see teachers’ salaries go up by at least 11.5% and up to 15% over the new contract tenure.