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Karen W. Arenson, "N.Y.U. Moves to Disband Graduate Students Union"

"N.Y.U. Moves to Disband Graduate Students Union"

Karen W. Arenson

New York University is moving to close down its graduate students union at the end of the summer, the labor movement's only toehold among graduate students at private universities.

Union officials quickly attacked N.Y.U. 's plan and vowed to fight the university in any way they could.In a memo circulated yesterday, N.Y.U.'s provost, David W. McLaughlin, and its executive vice president, Jacob J. Lew, said that they had proposed that the university stop recognizing the five-year-old union when its contract expires Aug. 31.

They said the collective-bargaining process had produced benefits for student teaching and research assistants, like better compensation and clearer work rules, but that union grievances had threatened academic decision-making.

"We were surprised and discouraged to confront grievances that sought to undermine those academic management rights," the memo said.

N.Y.U. is widely expected to make the decision official after a 30-day comment period that will include a town-hall meeting.

"This is pretty disgusting," said Philip A. Wheeler, director of the United Automobile Workers region that includes New York. "They saw a way to get out of having the union, and they took it. They are as disgusting as Wal-Mart."

He said the union, which will continue to operate on campus representing a different group of teachers -adjuncts, or part-time instructors - would look for as many ways as it could to create problems for the university.

"They will have a fight they regret," Mr. Wheeler said. "Anything and everything we can do, we will. If there is a procedure where we can take them to court, we will. We will work to expose them politically. We will lobby against them. We will look at the whole gamut of possibilities. They are not going to treat us in this fashion."

N.Y.U. became the only private university with unionized graduate students five years ago, when the National Labor Relations Board reversed its longstanding position that graduate student workers were essentially students, not employees. It directed N.Y.U. to permit its student workers to unionize.

The students affiliated with the U.A.W. and won substantial increases in compensation and benefits. The contract approved in 2002, retroactive to 2000, raised stipends for many student assistants by nearly 40 percent, provided health care benefits and paid them overtime if they worked more than 20 hours a week.

Students on other campuses, including Columbia and Brown, raced to follow N.Y.U. 's lead, but were stymied when their universities appealed their cases to the National Labor Relations Board.

Last year, in a case involving Brown University, the board, whose composition had changed since the N.Y.U. decision, reversed the position it took four years earlier, giving N.Y.U. an opportunity to back away from collective bargaining. (Public universities, which are subject to state labor laws rather than federal regulation, have had graduate students unions for several decades.)

As N.Y.U. prepared to release its decision in late May, union officials tried to convince it to keep the union. The union brought in public figures, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, to make their case to the university. Mr. Wheeler said that the union had even offered to soften its demands concerning grievances.

"We gave them 100 percent of what they wanted," he said. "We said we will eliminate that problem; you write the language."

But Mr. Lew said that N.Y.U. had tried to frame language that insulated it from such grievances when the contract was first written, and it had not worked.

"The fundamental issue behind the grievances was: Who decides who can teach and what they can teach?" he said. "The grievances came in different forms, but they all boiled down to that."

Michael Palm, a doctoral student in American studies and chairman of the graduate students union, which represented about 1,000 students last semester, said he and others were "appalled by N.Y.U.'s decision and appalled that a supposedly liberal institution would not respect the overwhelming desire of its graduate students to bargain collectively as a union."

He said he and his colleagues would immediately start organizing for recognition again.

The N.Y.U. memo said that the university hoped to keep and improve the benefits graduate employees had won through collective bargaining, and to find other ways for graduate students to express their views.

It said it planned to increase graduate student stipends $1,000 a year for the next three years, which would raise the minimum annual base for doctoral students to $21,000, from $18,000, and that it would continue to pay for health insurance.

The university also said it would work with graduate students to develop a grievance process.

It said that N.Y.U. had come to understand the importance of giving graduate assistants "a strong collective voice" to help the university "better understand their desires, needs and concerns," and that it hoped to create a new organization to represent students.