A thousand contingent faculty at NYU, who have long worked without union contract protections, have struck an agreement with the university to hold union elections. We talked to faculty about the organizing drive and what they hope to get out of a contract.

Full-time contract faculty at NYU reached an agreement with the university to hold a union election. (Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images)

At New York University (NYU), contingent instructors known as “contract faculty” make up about half of the school’s full-time instructors. Unlike most other academic workers at NYU, these instructors are not yet unionized — but on January 3, contract faculty reached an agreement with the university to hold a union election.

The faculty, who are seeking to organize with the United Auto Workers, say they have majority support for their effort. In the wake of the agreement, Jacobin staff writer Alex N. Press and contributor Sara Wexler spoke with three NYU contract faculty to talk about their organizing drive and what they hope to achieve with a first contract.

Sara Wexler

On January 3, you signed an election agreement with NYU. Can you tell me what this agreement entails?

Peter Li

In the agreement, NYU agreed to a fair and neutral election, and we also figured out who can and cannot vote.

Alex N. Press

What’s the significance of a neutrality agreement?

Jacob Remes

We have agreed with the administration that we’re going to have an election that’s run and supervised by a mutually agreed upon third party. They’re going to confirm what we have had for the past several years, which is that a majority of contract faculty at NYU wants a union and wants to collectively bargain.

There’s a couple of key things. One is that this avoids the possible delays at a variety of different points that could happen when one goes to the National Labor Relations Board. So the administration has agreed that if we win the election, they will start bargaining with us in good faith, that there’s not going to be any kind of legal shenanigans to slow things down.

They’ve agreed that we are employees for the purpose of collective bargaining. So it avoids having fights over who’s a manager, who’s a supervisor, who is and is not really an employee. That’s the thing that I’m really excited about as a labor scholar.

Academics wear a lot of different hats. We’re not just teachers, we’re not just researchers; we also do important work that permits the university to run. We call it service work — it’s sitting on committees, it’s making decisions about who does what, it’s partially running things. And now the administration has agreed that, despite that crucial role that we have, we are primarily professors, we are employees, we can collectively bargain.

We negotiated a bunch of compromises. For instance, department chairs are not going to be in the unit, and assistant and associate deans are not going to be in the unit. People whose jobs are more than half administration work are not going to be in the unit for the time when they’re having those positions. For certain positions, for people who help run programs, we agreed that for that part of their job where they’re an administrator, that won’t be under the union’s jurisdiction, but for the part of their job where they’re a professor, it will be. We think that this is showing the way for how other faculty like us can organize our unions.

Sara Wexler

Who all is covered in the unit?

Peter Li

It is about a thousand contract faculty across the university. This agreement or the union will cover all continuing contract faculty — faculty who are not part-time adjuncts. It also does not cover faculty who have tenure or are on track for tenure. It includes most schools of NYU.

Sara Wexler

How did you arrive at such a large, inclusive unit?

Ahmed Ansari

We arrived at this unit after many months of negotiation with the university. Our organizing committee, which regularly liaises with the rest of the faculty and whoever is interested in joining these conversations, was engaged in these negotiations. So over the course of several months — most of last year — we were able to eventually arrive at the size of this unit.

Peter Li

When we first started negotiating with NYU [last spring], we were fairly far apart between who we thought should be in the union and who NYU thought should be in the union. Over the last couple of months negotiating back and forth, we came to this agreement.

Alex N. Press

It seems like the scope of the bargaining unit was in fact a big point of negotiation. NYU originally wanted to make it very small and fragmented. This agreement avoids that; you’ve now agreed on scope here. But what was going on as you were working out this agreement?

Jacob Remes

We went back and forth a bunch of times, where the university started off trying to exclude lots of people on the basis of titles that seemed like they might be more administrative roles, but that we, as faculty, knew we were actually professor titles. Professors and other workers know how the university operates better than the people in the Provost Office, better than their lawyers, could ever possibly know.

They would come to us and say something, and we would have somebody in the room who had that job. And the person would say, “No, what are you talking about? That’s not my job,” or “That’s not what I do.” That’s what was going on in the room with these kinds of conversations. We would always have a couple dozen workers in the room with us for that purpose, because we know our job, and we could talk about their jobs.

Professors and other workers know how the university operates better than the people in the Provost Office, better than their lawyers, could ever possibly know.

Outside the room, for months now, we have had various actions in which we demonstrate that we have majority support across the university. We had visibility actions, we had posters around campus, we wore buttons. We had some public rallies. We had hundreds of students sign solid solidarity statements with us. We passed out leaflets at various events that the administration really cared about: we passed out leaflets when the Korean president came to talk, we passed out leaflets to prospective students.

The other thing that was at issue here was that the administration started off wanting to exclude the nursing school. More than half of the nursing school says they want to be part of the union. We weren’t going to leave them behind.

Sara Wexler

How have the contract faculty reacted to the agreement? What’s the energy like?

Ahmed Ansari

I can’t speak for everyone, but generally the sentiment seems to be very positive. We have a very large unit and there’s been a lot of engagement with contract faculty from across the university from all of our multiple schools. So there’s a sense of great inclusion and a sense of great positivity.

Sara Wexler

What are the next steps for the union now?

Peter Li

We don’t have an election date set yet, but that is going to be our next step. As of the signing on January 3, we have forty-five days to call an election. That should be happening soon as we are all returning back for the spring semester in the coming weeks.

Sara Wexler

How do you feel about the upcoming vote? Are you confident the union will win?

Ahmed Ansari

Colleagues that I know and have spoken to, both in my department and across the university generally, seem to be very excited. I feel very confident that we’re going to win — we have a majority, and we’re looking forward to how things go.

Sara Wexler

Assuming you win the vote, what do you imagine the main issues will be in bargaining a contract?

Peter Li

One of the biggest things is job security. This is the group of contract faculty, who are not tenured or tenure-track. We are also not adjuncts, but the adjuncts are protected by a collective bargaining agreement as well, and so are the grad students.

So, being in between, we get the squeeze a little bit. Having a union in place, having a collective bargaining agreement, will allow us to have some of these protections that other faculty and the grad students have enjoyed the last couple of years.

Alex N. Press

In a prior interview with Jacobin, you said you’re paid decently for the most part. But you also said, “Without either a union contract or tenure, there can be no real academic freedom.” Can you expand on that? What does a union contract mean for academic freedom?

Jacob Remes

What it means is that people can’t be fired arbitrarily. We will negotiate a system in which people will get a right to their job.

Obviously, we haven’t negotiated anything yet. But that’s what a union contract means. If somebody upsets a powerful donor, comes under the crosshairs of some scheming right-wing, scheming person, or gets doxxed or videotaped doing whatever, it won’t be an easy thing for the administration to fire that person. If there’s a vulnerable person, and the question is whether to fight to save that person’s job, most administrations are going to say we don’t want to have that fight. That person is gone.

What having a union does is protect you from that. I am well-paid; I have a good job. I get to act like a tenured professor. But every five years I have to reapply for it. I’m up for reappointment right now, and I have every expectation that I am going to be renewed. But technically, the university doesn’t have to [renew my contract].

What I most want from a union contract is a guarantee that I am not going to not be renewed because of my politics or because my research is controversial.

What I most want from a union contract and what I most expect to get in a union contract is a guarantee that I am not going to not be renewed because of my politics or because my research is controversial. Academic freedom is not just about politics. It’s also about the freedom to pursue truth and to violate the standard wisdom of a field. It’s the freedom to go where your research leads you.

That’s what tenured faculty have at NYU. Ironically, that’s what adjunct faculty have too, because they have a contract and a union. They can’t just be fired because the dean thinks they’re more hassle than they’re worth. Israel-Palestine has come up, but lots of other things as well.

Alex N. Press

What are members’ other priorities in a potential contract?

Jacob Remes

There is incredible disparity in how much people are paid. I have colleagues who have the same job title as me, who do basically the same job, who actually teach more than me, who are paid $50,000 a year less.

One of the big things we are fighting for is equity. Because we know generally — and I don’t know the numbers at NYU, but I strongly suspect — that when there are wide disparities like that, it tends to be women and racial minorities and immigrants who are on the bottom end of that gradient.

As someone who is a white man but also who is in a better-paid part of the university, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to make sure that those people who are being underpaid and overworked are brought up. As long as people are being really underpaid for doing basically my job, that’s always going to be a temptation that they’re going to come after me.

So pay and pay equity is a big part. Housing is part of that. Our tenure-track colleagues often live in faculty housing, so they have a five-minute walk to work. To be a contract faculty person who doesn’t live in faculty housing, you have to take the subway for an hour.

There are other [demands about] investing in us as scholars and teachers — things like access to sabbaticals and research money that some of us have and some of us don’t. Part of getting it in writing and getting a contract is the transparency to see what everybody has, to get rid of the stories that we are told that “this is impossible” — but it turns out that somewhere else it is possible.

Sara Wexler

What have you learned from the organizing you’ve been doing throughout this process?

Peter Li

I wasn’t involved in the very beginning, but I started getting involved in 2017. Back then, it was a grassroots movement, trying to get other faculty who felt the same way about wanting some kind of protection [on board].

The last couple of years, we’ve definitely seen some of that come through the adjunct union. A lot of us have said, over the past year or so, that we wish we enjoyed some of the same protections that are spelled out in the adjunct contract. We finally were able to garner majority support, even fighting through the tough times of COVID-19.

After we returned [to in-person teaching], we were able to get all the signatures on a sheet of paper, and we delivered that to President Andrew Hamilton last year. Then we started working with the university to finalize who would be included in and who would be excluded from the bargaining unit.

Ahmed Ansari

I joined the union efforts around December or January last year. For me, what was really significant was, again, seeing the kinds of benefits that the adjuncts had, but also seeking more stability and security in my work.

It has been heartening for me to be in community with faculty from across the school and to be able to talk to them about issues that we all face and know that I’m not alone.

I’m an international faculty member, and I’m on a work visa. My work is tied to my residence in the country, so job security was something that really mattered to me. I became involved in the union effort, and since then, it has been uplifting and heartening for me to be in community with professors and colleagues and other faculty from across the school and to be able to engage in conversations collectively — to be able to talk to them about issues that we all face, all the feelings that we have about the stability of our jobs, and know that I’m not alone.

Alex N. Press

You’re looking to join UAW. Anything you have to say more broadly about that, as a higher-ed worker joining that union, where many members are not in higher ed but are auto workers?

Jacob Remes

About a quarter of UAW is higher-ed workers; the UAW is a higher-ed union. That is particularly clear at NYU, where the grad workers are UAW members, adjuncts are UAW members, and where four thousand postdocs and other researchers are organizing with UAW.

In New York City, in the northeast, UAW is a cultural and academic workers’ union. It was very meaningful to us when Brendan Mancilla was elected regional director, because he is an academic worker — he understands the workplace.

When I started doing union comms work, I believed we should never talk about strikes publicly. As an organizing drive, we shouldn’t be publicly supporting workers on strike, because strikes are reasons that people don’t join unions. One of the boss’s talking points is, “If you join a union, you go on strike.”

I don’t know if that was ever right, but definitely in the last six months, that is not right. People are excited to be fighting. The stand-up strike was exciting. To be saying, “We’re with the UAW,” to have people saying, “I am proud to be a UAW organizer,” or “I’m very proud to be a union UAW member” when that was happening, when Shawn Fain was wearing his “Eat the Rich” shirt. . . .

This is an exciting moment to be organizing into UAW, because people get it. People get that they’re not just organizing for their jobs, to get more money. They’re not even just organizing for academic freedom, protection in the academy which we were also doing — but this is about being part of a movement that is protecting all, about making the country better.

Sara Wexler

Anything else?

Peter Li

Our contributions help make NYU a world-renowned university, and our working conditions should reflect that. That means compensation that will allow us to live in New York City and be able to care for our families. It means an equitable workplace for women, people of color, and international scholars like Ahmed. It means improved job security. It means expanded access to research funding, sabbaticals, and resources for academic, creative, and professional development.

Our contributions help make NYU a world-renowned university, and our working conditions should reflect that.

Ahmed Ansari

Generally, the trend in higher education seems to be moving toward schools and universities, hiring more contract faculty, and so I completely agree with what Peter says about being treated fairly and equitably, having that sense of security, being able to live and provide for our families.

Unionizing is a collective effort that engages and involves voices from faculty across the board, across different schools — regardless of what we teach, what our disciplinary backgrounds are, what kind of service we do, what kind of research we do. The fact that we’ve all come together, have engaged in conversations, and have negotiated with the university collectively — I think that is really powerful.

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