Well, it looks like there’s no going back. New York University has decided to recognize its graduate students’ union. Organized by the United Auto Workers, the school’s graduate assistants, teaching assistants and some research assistants will be allowed to collectively bargain with the university administration. Maybe NYU saw the writing on the wall. The school and the union had a case pending before the National Labor Relations Board and given the composition of the board, the case was unlikely to go NYU’s way.
A piece (http://chronicle.com/article/Union-Drive-for-Graduate/143295/) in the Chronicle of Higher Education explains the backstory:
The university had refused to renew the previous union's contract in response to a 2004 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. In a case involving Brown University, the board held that graduate assistants who perform services in connection with their studies are not employees because their relationship with the university is primarily educational.
The group attempting to establish a new NYU union, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee of the United Auto Workers, had been asking the NLRB to reverse its 2004 decision...
Even an NLRB less favorable to the interests of labor might well have decided against NYU though. After all, it is quite a stretch these days to claim that the relationship between teaching assistants and the university is “primarily educational.” For the most part, these graduate students are just cheap labor. They are tasked with grading large quantities of student papers and running discussion sections on behalf of senior professors. But those professors are not teaching the graduate students how to teach or how to grade papers.
In fact, if it strikes you as odd that graduate students want to be represented by the UAW (where is academic snobbery when you need it?) all you have to understand is that teaching assistants are often treated as lowly workers, making the university factory run. The fact that they receive a degree at the end is entirely separate from their work with undergraduates.
In an interview I conducted with the late John Silber a few years ago, he told me, "I would insist that [professors] meet with their teaching assistants for a seminar every single week. They would . . . get the students involved in writing the examinations . . . and show them how to grade papers." To the extent that many universities are simply giving graduate students a "free hand" and putting them "in a course as if they were instructors, with no guidance," then "you run into a problem."