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Academic unions, here and across the country, flex their muscles

NYU profs seek voluntary recognition


More than 150 NYU professors gathered near Washington Square Park last week for the second time in as many weeks to announce that they’ve asked NYU leadership to voluntarily recognize their union after turning in a petition showing that a majority of the 1,000 full-time non-tenured professors support the move. 

Graduate students and part-time adjunct professors at NYU are already unionized, and now non-tenured full-time faculty are joining together to demand union protections similarly to that of their colleagues. 

The non-tenured profs gathered last week to request a response from the university’s president, Andrew Hamilton, regarding their a petition, which more than 500 of the professors signed. The professors have been working on individualized contracts that, while they last several years, compels the professors to  reapply for their jobs when the agreements expire. 

“We deserve collective bargaining power,” David Brooks, an associate professor of art at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, said before the rally. “We all just want better rights, and job security and higher wages are big parts of that.” 

The professors join the tens of thousands of graduate students, professors, and undergraduate employees who have unionized, agitated and walked out on strike with increasing ferocity in the last year. About 60 percent of all strikes in 2022 were held by educational workers, according to a recent report from Cornell’s International Labor Relations School, and academic workers are continuing to organize and unionize in large numbers. 

Massive margins 

Several of last years’ strikes made history, including when 1,500 part-time faculty at the New School in lower Manhattan struck for three weeks last fall in what became the longest work stoppage ever held by adjunct faculty in the United States. And across the country, 48,000 graduate students, researchers and teaching assistants across several University of California campuses carried out a six-week strike that was the largest ever academic strike in U.S history. 

Elsewhere, graduate students at Temple who have been on strike since Jan. 31 voted down the university’s first contract offer in overwhelming numbers. Professors and graduate students at other universities have been forming unions as well, and they have been winning their unionization elections by astoundingly large margins.  

After a painstaking six-year organizing campaign, 3,000 graduate students at Yale voted to unionize in January with 1,860 voting in favor of joining and only 179 voting against. At Northwestern University 1,644 graduate students recently voted to unionize, with 144 voting against. Graduate student workers at the University of Southern California voted to unionize by 1,599 in favor to 122 against. And at Johns Hopkins, 2,053 PhD students voted in favor of representation with just 67 opposed. 

Decisive votes occurred in New York as well with graduate students at Fordham winning their union election 229 to 15. Other academic workers, such as 1,000 graduate students at Syracuse,  1,700 graduate students at Northeastern University and 900 graduate students at Dartmouth are set to vote soon. In January 2022, about 3,000 graduate instructors and others at Columbia University ended a 10-week strike by overwhelmingly approving their first contract, concluding a long and fractious bargaining tug of war.

Unionizing workers at universities have been organizing with a variety of unions including the Communication Workers of America, UNITE HERE and the American Association of University Professors. 

The UAW too has been a mainstay on college campuses for decades and 25 percent of their membership are academic workers, including all of the 48,000 workers at the University of California campuses who struck last year. NYU’s adjunct faculty and the part-time professors at the New School are also part of UAW Local 7902, which the full-time professors at NYU will join if their unionization push is successful. 

‘Cut to the chase’ 

The movement to organize full-time non-tenured faculty at NYU, like the organizing at Fordham and Yale, launched more than five years ago, said Jacob Remes, one of the union’s lead organizers and an associate professor of American history at NYU. “We started organizing in January 2017 and reached majority support by early 2020,” Remes said. “This was across three different NYU campuses and many different buildings.” 

Separation wrought by the pandemic hurt the professors’ organizing efforts but by the end of February the faculty sent in their petition to NYU leadership requesting to be recognized voluntarily. Leadership has not yet answered the letter but last week Hamilton sent a letter to the professors requesting more time to respond after crossing the union’s March 1 deadline, a request, the professors joked at the rally, that they typically only receive from students who can’t meet deadlines. 

Remes said that he hopes to build on the power that unionized adjunct faculty and graduate students at NYU have established in recent years, and looks to follow the militant example of the professors at the New School. “There's this incredible wave of graduate and academic organizing right now,” he said. 

If NYU refuses to voluntarily recognize the professor’s union, he is “more than sure” that he and his colleagues will win an election to unionize. But Remes says he hopes it won’t come to that, “rather than drag out this long uncertain process, the school should cut to the chase and just move forward with our union.” 




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