For the first time since 2005, New York University (NYU) has agreed to recognize a graduate students’ union, should those graduate students in fact vote to collectively organize.  Over the past eight years, NYU and its president John Sexton have bickered with graduate students over Sexton’s 2005 decision to cease recognition of the graduate students’ union, which at the time represented over 1,000 graduate students and research assistants.

Yesterday, NYU announced that it had changed course.  In a joint statement emailed to the NYU community, Sexton and the United Auto Workers (UAW), the union set to represent the graduate students, wrote that the University will agree to bargain with the UAW on the condition that a majority of graduate students vote for collective representation. 

"We are confident this agreement will re-establish a trusting and productive relationship between the Union and the University, will improve the graduate student experience and will sustain and enhance NYU’s academic competitiveness." 

The joint statement was also notable because the UAW has agreed to not interfere with the University’s right to manage its academic affairs that are independent of the collective bargaining relationship.

The parties concur that the ‘academic management rights’ of the university to make academic decisions separate from the bargaining relationship will be honored by the union, making clear that academic decisions are not subject to bargaining."

Apart from the union’s pledge to not interfere in academic issues, the school has promised not to campaign against the union.  Furthermore, NYU is set to allow for a quick election, which as of now is set to occur on December 10 and 11.  

Interestingly, the agreement between the UAW and NYU also provides that the UAW will withdraw its complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board against the University.  This is particularly significant for other private universities, because the UAW was arguing that a 2004 Board decision finding that graduate students were not employees was incorrect.  With the current Board composed of a majority of Democrats, the 2004 Board’s reasoning was certainly on shaky ground.

On a historical note, NYU was the first private university to recognize a teachers’ assistants union when the school did so in 2002.  However, as mentioned above, after the Board reversed course and ruled that graduate students did not have an inherent right to collectively bargain, the school let its collective bargaining agreement expire in 2004 and refused to negotiate a new deal.  

While this agreement brings labor peace to the NYU campus, university employers must remain on their toes.  It can be expected that graduate students at other schools will attempt to follow suit, either through a private agreement or through receiving a favorable decision from the NLRB.  Either way, university employers should be cognizant that major labor unions will be attempting to organize on their campuses.