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Students from public and private universities converged outside the Manhattan office of the National Labor Relations Board on July 23 to protest its recent decision to limit the rights of university teaching assistants to organize unions.

The students were in town for the annual conference of Graduate Student Employee Unions, hosted by Columbia University, and they spent much of their first day plotting a response to the NLRB decision. In a 3-2 vote earlier this month, the board decided that private universities are not required by law to negotiate with graduate teaching assistants, as they are with other unionized employees. The vote was a reversal of the board’s 2001 decision on the same issue.

At the conference, students and union organizers from several private universities, including Columbia and NYU, voiced concerns about pay, health benefits and workplace security. They made it clear that they would not give up their unions, organized under the broad-based International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). “People are determined to have a union at Columbia, and there is nothing legally restricting that from happening. We were never really counting on having the NLRB decision,” said Eden Schulz, organizer for Columbia’s Graduate Student Employees Union.

But the success of such unions could rest heavily upon what happens at NYU and Columbia (where this reporter is a teaching assistant) next year. Following the NLRB’s 2001 decision, NYU signed the first graduate assistant’s contract, which raised stipends by as much as 40 percent. Almost immediately after that agreement, other private universities raised graduate assistant pay.

“The contract at NYU has been a victory far more than the NLRB decision has been a defeat,” said Mike Palm of the NYU Graduate Student Union. “It has been great for everyone involved and even the administration hasn’t denied that.” Still, with NYU’s contract up at the end of the next school year, students at the conference expressed concerns that the school might move to end it. Any attempt by NYU to reduce pay and benefits for graduate assistants could have a ripple effect across all schools, similar to the one that accompanied the increases of 2001.

NYU spokesperson John Beckman released a statement declaring that the university is “gratified” by the NLRB’s recent decision. On the future of the contract, he states, “The University will not make any decisions about its next steps until it has an opportunity to review today’s [July 15] ruling carefully.”

But the NYU administration’s next steps may depend on the outcome of events this fall at their uptown neighbor’s campus. Graduate assistants at Columbia University suspended a strike last spring, but are expected to restart it in September. The success or failure of Columbia’s strike will be fresh on the minds of NYU negotiators when their assistants’ contract comes up for renewal.

In addition to upcoming negotiations, Schulz hopes the presidential election will help turn the tide for student unions. All five NLRB members were appointed by President Bush. “Our universities have betrayed us through the Bush Administration,” she said. “They claim to be liberal institutions, but seem perfectly willing to let this administration handle their labor policies.”

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