New York University is one of the most exclusive and profitable private universities in the United States, situated in the heart of one of the most expensive cities in America. Like at other peer institutions, graduate student workers are the backbone of much of NYU’s core operations, providing teaching instruction, administrative support, conducting research on the university’s behalf, and more. Yet, until earlier this year, NYU offered its graduate student workers lackluster healthcare and paternal benefits, and wages that were low for New York City.
But, earlier this year, the Graduate Student Organising Council, or GSOC for short, mobilized 2,200 student workers to fight for substantial improvements to their existent agreement with the university. Their campaign resulted in a 30% across the board pay increase for hourly workers, including back-dated pay starting in the fall of 2020, improved healthcare coverage, guarantees that protect international students from federal inmigration authorities, and a full six weeks of paid parental leave for all graduate workers. These are impressive victories, even within the context of the recent successes of the labor movement on campus.
Why did NYU’s union prove so successful? What can other workers in America do to replicate their success?
GSOC pushed for open bargaining early on, ensuring every single union member would be able to witness the negotiations with the university. This move allowed student workers to continually offer feedback at pre- and post-negotiation caucus meetings. Crucially, it also forced NYU to reckon with public pressure — opening their refusal to offer a living wage and decent benefits to greater scrutiny.
But, bargaining is only the beginning. For workers everywhere — from the mines of Tuscaloosa County to the graduate student offices of the lower East side — strikes remain the single most effective way to get your employer’s attention. After months’ worth of unproductive bargaining sessions, the union moved to organize a strong three-week strike with the backing of over 96% of its members. They ensured massive, energetic participation in the strike, including international workers, through innovative tactics like online picketing. By the 21st day, NYU had approved an immediate $6 per hour raise and was eager to engage in negotiations.
The student activists behind the drive for a better contract are eager to point out the role played by individuals and organizations outside the union. They credit an outpouring of support from local student unions, like Columbia’s graduate workers union, GWC, or the City University of New York’s PSC, who helped strengthen the effort through solidary picketing and food donations for the striking workers. Undergraduate students at NYU’s Young Democratic Socialists of America organized phone banks to support their instructors.
The successful campaign would not have been possible without years of persistent community organizing. GSOC’s success, like that of many successful unionization efforts in higher education, was based on their commitment to engage their community. From phonebanking to ensure the strike vote had a high participation rate, to frequent meetings throughout the bargaining process, GSOC repeatedly strived to hear from its own membership. “A Democratic union,” says one of the lead organizers, “means a union where the collective — not a select few — informs our strategy and our actions.” GSOC’s internal structure ensured a cohesiveness that made them powerful and eased the path to a more generous contract.
NYU’s latest bargaining round is a positive chapter within an ongoing fight raging from Amazon warehouses to Harvard’s halls. GSOC’s success can serve, above all, as an inspiration, a template — a clear example of how worker power can win, and of the immense benefits that follow when it does.
The struggle for fair working conditions will continue, at NYU and everywhere else. And workers will succeed if they manage to have a powerful, democratic union right by their side.