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Non-tenured NYU professors will hold a union election

Could become largest organization of its type in the country


Nearly 1,000 full-time non-tenure track New York University faculty members will vote in a union election later this year free from interference by university management, according to an agreement between the United Auto Workers and NYU officials signed Wednesday.

If the professors succeed, their union would become the largest of its kind at any private university in the country, according to a union official. 

The professors have been organizing into Contract Faculty United, part of UAW Local 7902, for more than seven years. They delivered a petition to NYU’s administration early last year showing that a majority of faculty supported the union and demanded voluntary recognition from the university.  

Over the last 10 months, concluding with Wednesday’s agreement, the union and the university negotiated over the scope of that recognition, the size of the bargaining unit, the terms of NYU’s neutrality and enforcement mechanisms. 

“The terms of the agreement are absolutely a win,” Elisabeth Fay, a clinical associate professor and founding member of the union’s organizing committee, told The Chief on Thursday. “Securing a fair, neutral election is a win but also the bargaining unit that we were able to win is great. It’s large, it’s inclusive and we were able to keep a lot of contract faculty in that initially the administration wanted out." 

According to the agreement, the 950 faculty in the proposed bargaining unit will vote sometime this winter in an election conducted by the American Arbitration Association. With the agreement, the professors are sidestepping the traditional National Labor Relations Board process for creating a union, which typically requires a check of union authorization cards followed either by voluntary recognition from management or an election. 

"We're pleased that our good-faith discussions with CFU-UAW have been productive and brought us to this point,” John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to maintain a mutually respectful relationship throughout this process."  

‘Very basic bare minimum’ 

Zoe Carey, the president of UAW Local 7902, said similar agreements between NYU and graduate students provided a model for CFU and gave them hope that NYU would respect workers’ right to organize and not interfere in an election. If their employer was not as cooperative, Carey said, workers may have decided to take the traditional NLRB election path.  

“We’re pleased that NYU engaged directly with contract faculty and listened to them,” Carey said. "This is a very basic bare minimum that what [management] should do is not union bust and respect the democratic rights of these workers to form a union. And it’s just unfortunate that that’s not the case everywhere." 

She added that if the professors win their election, they will officially become the largest union of full-time, non-tenure track faculty at any private university in the country. 

The election will be held in late February or March, according to a professor on the union’s organizing committee.  

Fay said that despite NYU’s openness to deliberating over a unionization agreement with its non-tenure track professors, the university’s negotiators tried to exclude many professors from the final bargaining unit. “Employers are always motivated to leave employees with as small and fragmented a bargaining unit as possible,” she said. 

Fay explained that many non-tenured NYU professors engage in service work for the university, such as sitting on curriculum committees and vetting potential hires; tasks that at many universities are reserved for tenured faculty members, deans or other administration officials. The university’s lawyers argued that some professors who engage in that service work should be excluded from the union, an argument that the union refuted by having professors detail the breadth of work duties to the school’s lawyers during negotiation sessions. 

"The central administration of the university and the lawyers that they hire tend not to have a really good grip on the day-to-day work of professors,” Fay said. “The early part of negotiations was a lot of educating the administration of how things work at the ground-level of our jobs."  

The university eventually relented, and the bargaining unit will include nearly everyone the union wanted it to, Carey said. She cautioned, though, that universities across the country could use similar arguments as NYU did to exclude professors from unions. She encouraged academic unions to push back and argue that “anyone performing this academic work belongs in the union.” 

“I’m incredibly excited and hopefully this will start a national trend of full-time, non-tenure track faculty unionization,” Carey added. "We're seeing that tenured faculty don’t always have all the protections that unionized faculty do and it's encouraging to see people realize the power of solidarity instead of their own individual tenure position."   

Fay said that her coworkers are excited to finally be nearing an election after more than seven years of organizing, and that the professors have been encouraged by contracts recently won by other unionized workers at NYU and by the UAW’s militant leadership encapsulated by its president, Sean Fain. The union president led more than 40,000 of his members on a high-profile six-week strike last fall at three American automakers that resulted in big raises, the elimination of some wage tiers and improvements to benefits.  

“UAW workers in higher education are standing up and winning major improvements all across the United States, raising the standards for all academic workers” Fain said in a statement after the agreement was signed. “We applaud NYU contract faculty for taking this major step towards winning the pay, benefits and respect they deserve, and we’ve got their back.”


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