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New York Times

‘They’re trying to bully us’: NYU students are back on strike

NEW YORK – When Marwan Shalaby moved to New York from Egypt in 2019 to start an engineering doctorate at New York University, he had $ 700 in his bank account. He figured that would be enough to be settled. But Shalaby had to pay a deposit on an apartment, a mattress and winter clothes. After being in the emergency room with a food injury, he started raising the debt. As he anxiously awaited his first scholarship payout to students, which would amount to up to $ 2,500 a month, Shalaby realized that these checks would hardly cover the cost of living in his new city. The time and energy he wanted to spend on studying for classes was instead spent worrying about his bank account. Sign up for The Morning Newsletter from the New York Times “My learning experience was not optimal because my mind was so preoccupied with how I would pay for the essentials,”

; he said. This week, Shalaby, 28, joined more than 1,000 NYU students who fought for higher salaries from the university, including demands such as better health care and a change in the school’s relationship with the police. While on strike, students abstain from their work assignments, including assistant teaching and graduation assignments, leaving the campus in limbo as the university and union continue to negotiate the terms of the students’ new contract. More than seven years ago, NYU’s graduate students became the first in the country to win voluntary recognition for their union from a private university. The resulting contract expired in August, and graduate students represented by United Automobile Workers have spent months locked in heated negotiations over the terms of its renewal. At the heart of the conflict between the union and the university, among the country’s more expensive, are students’ demands for higher wages. The association’s organizing committee originally proposed an hourly wage of $ 46 – more than double the current hourly wage for graduate students starting at $ 20. The organizing committee has since dropped its proposal to $ 32 per hour. The university has faced a proposed increase of about 22% over six years, equivalent to a $ 1 increase in the first year of the contract. NYU leaders claim that graduate students earn more than their peers at other schools. They noted that Harvard graduate students, for example, recently agreed to a contract that awarded an hourly wage of $ 17. “This strike need not have happened,” said John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, in an email. “The university has made generous proposals in this contract renewal.” The university president emailed the parents of NYU students this week, describing the strike as “unjustified, untimely and regrettable.” The email triggered a setback and a lot of jokes on social media from some of the graduate students, many of them older than 30, whose parents received it. (“If I’m grounded, I still can ‘t go to work,” tweeted Chloe Jones, 26, a doctoral student.) Student organizers at NYU said the comparison with Harvard’s contract was inappropriate because of the higher cost of living in New York. The NYU organizers determined their proposed salary using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s salary level calculator and accounted for the restriction that graduate students can only work 20 hours each week. And while graduate students from Columbia and Harvard in recent years went on strike to get their first union agreements, NYU’s graduate students are negotiating another contract after settling their first in 2015 and have therefore made more ambitious demands. (Columbia’s strike, which began in March, has stopped while students vote on their contract, which will raise the wages of hourly workers to $ 20 within three years.) “A first contract sets out a baseline for future negotiations,” said William A. Herbert, Executive Director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. “In the second contract, the union seeks to expand and expand their benefits. It is very common for another contract to be more demanding. “The pace of the Union’s financial demands has been accelerated by the pandemic and the economic crisis, as the academic job market has been pressured by employment freezes. “They’re trying to bully us into dropping our paychecks lower and lower,” said Ellis Garey, 28, a union organizer and fourth-year doctoral student in history and Middle Eastern studies at NYU. “Finally, we now have thousands of graduates on the picket line.” The crowd, which gathered near NYU on Friday, sang and marched, heard from several city council candidates as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, IV., Who called in to congratulate the strikers. “If we respect education in this country – if we know how important it is that we provide the best education in the world to our young people,” he said, “it is imperative that we have well-paid faculty members who are treated with respect and dignity. “Unionization and collective bargaining between graduate students date back decades in the public sector, which saw its first higher education contract in 1970 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But in private schools, the question of whether graduate students should be treated as students or workers has been more controversial. And NYU has long been a battleground for the problem. The National Labor Relations Board first recognized graduate students’ right to collective bargaining at private universities in 2000 in a case that started at NYU. But the board, whose five members are appointed by the president, had a conservative majority under President George W. Bush. In a 2004 case at Brown University, the board reversed its decision, leaving private graduate student unions federally unprotected. The board has been wavering on the subject ever since the White House changed hands. Although Republicans still have majorities until at least late summer, the board said in March that it would withdraw a proposed rule on the issue from the Trump era and once again pave the way for graduate students in private schools to unite. There has been significant growth in the number of total union student staff nationwide from around 64,680 in 2013 to more than 83,000 in 2019, according to research from the Hunter Center. The question of whether graduate students should be classified as students or employees is more urgent now than ever, Herbert said, as the federal government considers how to classify gig workers and the workplace protection they receive. Many private university leaders have traditionally established that the primary obligation of graduate students was for their studies, not their work. But the striking graduate students at NYU claim that there is no distinction between their work and academics – and that the university could not function without their paid work. “When I research, it benefits the university,” Garey said. “I present at conferences, organize workshops within my department, publish articles, publish translations. All of these are things that faculty members do as part of their compensation. “Compensation is not the only problem that drives a wedge between NYU student organizers and the university. Graduate students also requested that the university refrain from calling the New York City Police Department except when legally required or when a violent crime has been committed. They do not want the police to be called in case of vandalism, for example with reference to the risk of colored and other vulnerable students. Graduate students have also made pandemic-specific demands, including requesting a payment of $ 500 to teaching assistants for the efforts they have made in the transition to distance learning. Virgilio Urbina Lazardi, 28, a fourth-year doctoral student in sociology, had planned to spend last spring polishing a paper for submission to an academic journal. He had to pay tribute to the project so he could double the number of hours he spent teaching assistant. The professor he assisted struggled with Zoom, so Lazardi made appointments to visit the professor’s home and set up his technology. “There was a lot of extra stress that semester and it came to me disproportionately much without further compensation or recognition,” Lazardi said. This week, all the tasks that graduate students will be compensated for – planning lessons, emailing students, hosting office hours – have stopped. Some union organizers have approached the moment as an opportunity to teach their students about the broader struggle for student labor rights. Arundhati Velamur, 33, who is getting his doctorate in education, spent the semester leading a course on geometry teaching. She opened her first class with a discussion of the book “Flatland,” a 19th-century satire on the Victorian social hierarchy, imagining a fictional world populated by forms whose power is determined by the number of pages they have; a hexagon, for example, would be more powerful than a square. Velamur returned to the text to explain why she skipped class for the strike – because in NYU’s “Flatland” -like hierarchy, Velamur said, she and her peers fought for more power. She told her students in an email that she would not be able to teach until agreement was reached, and smiled when she received their response: Her students spent their class time brainstorming ways to support the union. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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