NEW YORK CITY, U.S.A. On December 10 and 11 2013, my fellow graduate students and I at New York University voted in favor of union representation for our work teaching and researching. In the end, my colleagues and I approved the union, the first at a private university in the US, with an astonishing 98.4% in favor. Because of what NYU represents for higher education, the overwhelming victory for unionization should represent much more than just a local story.
In recent years, New York University has positioned itself on the forefront of the corporatization of higher education both in the United States and throughout the world. Undergraduates who enter this institution face some of the highest tuition and leave their time at NYU with the highest average student loan debt of any non-profit in the country (with average debt at about $35,000).
While paying so much, a student could be forgiven for expecting a bevy of well-paid academic heavyweights teaching them. In fact, NYU has led the way in replacing tenured faculty with cheaper options, like adjuncts and graduate workers, who can be paid less, given fewer benefits, and more easily fired. Instead of allotting money to improved teaching, the NYU board of trustees increasingly dedicates funds to compensating a handful of administrators (some of whom were given interest-free loans on new summer homes), funding real estate expansion in New York that few faculty want, and opening satellite campuses in Dubai, Shanghai and elsewhere under the NYU banner.In other words, NYU has entrenched and expanded their global brand at the expense of both a quality, affordable education for students and a stable, good jobs for professors.
Unfortunately, while NYU may be amongst the worst in degrading the very concept of education it is certainly not alone. Across a variety of public and private universities, rising tuition, coupled with decreasing government support for secondary education, has created a situation where student debt in the US has now passed credit card debt as the largest source of personal debt and now stands at more than one trillion dollars. And the growth of adjunct positions continues to outpace the creation of tenure-track posts as universities throughout the country look to slash labor costs.
With tuition hikes advocated in the face of strong opposition in Canada, England, and elsewhere, and austerity afflicting much of the globe, the “NYU model” of astronomical debt, collapsing wages, and inaccessible education looks depressingly close to becoming an irreversible global phenomenon.
In this context, the graduate student union offers an opportunity to help brake the seemingly inexorable race to the bottom. Indeed that was the role the first iteration of the union played (before a 2004 Bush-era decision declared it illegal). At that time, the contract that the union negotiated raised stipends and improved benefits, and in doing so countered university attempts to pay educators as little as possible.
This time around, our union hopes to deepen and expand the benefits that all workers deserve. And because lower pay and fewer benefits for workers are, for NYU and its many imitators, part of a larger project of corporatizing of secondary education, our union can and should be part of a larger resistance as well. Thankfully, we can find allies for this daunting task in those faculty who are seeking to improve democratic governance, in students who want to learn without taking on enormous debt, in fellow graduate students who also want to unionize their workplaces, and in communities and movements all over the world who want education to be a public good that is open and accessible to everyone rather than a commodity that will enrich a select few.