Photo Courtesy of Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

NYU Graduate Students Protest: Demanding a Living Wage in NYC

It is not just pay raises for graduate students that are on the table, the union is also pushing for an agenda that would promote a more inclusive and safe learning environment for everyone.

During one of her final weeks as an undergraduate student at NYU Abu Dhabi, Julia Tymoshenko, Class of 2021, expected to log onto her Spanish class that is hosted virtually three times a week. On Monday April 26, she received an email from the professor saying that he will not be holding class; instead, he sent resources and information about a labor union strike happening an ocean away in New York City.
“Once I started reading through the documents, I realized that one of the consequences, or rather means, of striking is that the graduate students that TA or teach classes will not hold sessions until the end of the semester and that they are also not going to grade students or release grades until their demands are met,” Tymoshenko explained, sharing her support, but nonetheless taken aback by this otherwise foreign concept.
The Graduate Student Organizing Committee, a labor union for graduate student workers at NYUNY, includes teaching assistants, course assistants, research assistants or those doing other hourly work for the university. They are currently on strike until NYU responds favorably to their demands for increased benefits and worker protections.
In September 2001, GSOC negotiated their first contract as a union, greatly improving benefits and marking the first contract for graduate employees at a private university in the United States. However, after a National Labor Relations Board decision involving Brown University in 2004 reversed the legal precedent that graduate students had the right to form a union, NYU refused to engage in contract renegotiation in 2005.
Nearly a decade later, after legal battles, negotiations and near-constant organizing from student-worker activists, a settlement was reached. This contract, which was signed in 2015, expired in August 2020 and set the stage for the current turmoil.
Since Monday, graduate student workers and allies have not held class, office hours, graded papers or completed other expected work. Instead, many have gathered in Washington Square Park for rallies and marches — they even hosted a virtual picket line. Local candidates for mayor and other high profile politicians have gotten directly involved or expressed support publicly.
Centered in GSOC’s demands is the call for a living wage — the union claims that the 20 USD per hour wage, especially given limits to 20 hours per week of work, is not a wage with which students can sustain themselves in New York City. They are, instead, asking for 32 USD per hour. The demands also include increasing stipends for funded graduate degrees and guaranteeing annual raises.
“It is important for everyone to understand when a lot of hard work is not being fairly compensated,” explained Emily Carpenter, Gallatin Class of 2021 who has been joining the virtual picket line and donating to the GSOC mutual aid fund. “Other faculty, presidents, deans… make a ridiculous amount of money… [I saw] the imbalance, the inequity in what we pay people who are doing hard work,” she added, referencing the graduate students who she has worked alongside or learned from during her undergraduate career.
“It is not just pay raises for graduate students that are on the table,” explained Mina Kim, Class of 2018 and a third year Economics PhD student at NYUNY. “The union is also pushing for an agenda that would promote a more inclusive and safe learning environment for everyone, such as greater accessibility for disabled workers, better definition of sexual and power-based harassment, police-free campus and protection and support for international students.”
The call for a police-free campus has resonated among NYU students since last summer when police brutality and mishandling of protests were at the doorstep of Washington Square. GSOC is asking for the university to end all contracts with the New York Police Department — this often happens for big events, such as move-in days — and to require law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before entering NYU jurisdiction.
“There should not be a need for police anywhere near the NYU campus because that can be detrimental to the academic experience and mental wellbeing of students, especially students and workers of color,” commented Lucas Davidenco, NYUAD Class of 2021.
“One of the other demands was also about the situation of international students who have to face a lot of added challenges,” Davidenco added, noting the demands that the university give greater financial support for the numerous immigration fees students face and ensure that NYU is a sanctuary campus, meaning no Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection on campus. The term “sanctuary campus” evolves from the “sanctuary city” concept that appeared during Donald Trump's presidency; it largely indicates that city officials or agencies will not actively work to turn over undocumented immigrations to federal authorities.
The strike for these demands, however, was not well received by university leadership, who have stressed the need for compromise and are worried about the adverse effects of an interrupted education during the final weeks of the semester. “We are writing to share with you the University's position and explain why we believe this strike is unwarranted, untimely and regrettable,” wrote NYU President Andrew Hamilton and Provost Katherine Fleming in a community-wide memorandum sent on April 25.
“While first contracts can be difficult to negotiate, renewals can normally be negotiated fairly swiftly. Not in this case: the first contract has 27 provisions; GSOC came into the bargaining for the contract renewal with 90 additional demands, quite a number of which were outside the normal scope of bargaining,” Hamilton and Fleming wrote, also citing the 16 previous bargaining sessions which did little to lower the demands.
The email stressed the high cost of the demands and GSOC’s refusal to bring in a third-party mediator to help reach a compromise. While they expressed disappointment and frustration with the union’s methods, NYUNY did not deny the right of the student-workers to collective action.
In the UAE, the act of striking is illegal and there are no independent trade or labor unions, with a few limited professional associations being legal. In 2006, news outlets reported that the UAE was planning to alter its labor laws to permit unions, under the authority of the Labor Minister. There have been no public updates regarding this proposed change.
Nevertheless, some students and alumni at NYUAD have been following the ongoing strike in New York, especially because the virtual semester means that NYU classes are more present in many students’ lives.
“I think NYUAD students should pay attention because many of the things the union is demanding align with the core values of NYUAD,” Kim commented. “These things will help shape the culture of the broader NYU community, which can directly or indirectly affect NYUAD students as well.” Davidenco echoed this sentiment, explaining his decision to sign the pledge of support.
“In general, I want to support collective action that improves the lives of workers, especially within an institution that we belong to,” Davidenco explained. “We take a lot for granted… Supporting and standing in solidarity with collective action when it does happen in the larger community, I think that can end up benefiting everyone in a way that is intangible and indirect.” The strike is continuing as students try to finish the final weeks of the semester; it appears it will only end once the bargaining reaches a level of consensus. “The work is never going to be done, there will always be a degree of inequity because of how these institutions are built,” Carpenter reiterated. “Although we are participants in them, it doesn’t mean we need to be complacent in the ways they are run.”
Caroline Sullivan is Senior Features Editor. Email her at
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