On the day of the International Women’s Strike, we offer an update on the situation of the student workers union at the New School. We are still here. We are still fighting. We stand strong in our commitment to participatory democracy and collective bargaining. SENS-UAW 7902 and the International Women’s Strike follow the vision of feminism of the 99%, believing that no one political issue is prioritized, many issues are connected, and that we must continue to show up.
We stand with all those who Trump’s administration threatens and harms. Whether related to employment, race, gender, health, immigrant status, indigenous people, or a combination, we are seeing a rise in violence, harsher limits on immigration, and many other changes that do not benefit most citizens. In terms of labor specifically, there have been threats to reorganize the NLRB completely, putting unions at much higher risk. The upcoming Supreme Court decision in Janus v AFSCME, a lawsuit funded by the Koch brothers and other conservative billionaires, is likely to greatly weaken public sector unions. Our comrades in West Virginia public schools have been striking to negotiate higher pay and benefits, and teachers in Oklahoma are likely to walk out soon. Our comrades at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are on strike as their administrations continue to threaten to pull tuition waivers (their gofundme campaign is here).
For student workers at the New School, the central issues are our precarious economic position and our unstable working conditions. A year ago, Sidra Kamran outlined these conditions in her Public Seminar piece, “I Will Not. . .”; since then, very little has changed. Our employment contracts are short, and we are consistently unrecognized as workers because of our status as students. Yet we do much of the core labor of the university, including teaching and research. Many students rely on these jobs to pay for tuition, living expenses, and health care. We face a cap on hours, but we can’t always complete our work within the allotted time, so we often essentially work for free. Many international student workers have visas that do not allow them to work outside the university, and they are not eligible for federal aid. They therefore rely heavily on their academic positions as their main source of income. We also need a union to help us negotiate relationships with supervisors who are also frequently our professors and/or graduate supervisors.
At the New School, unionizing has not been easy. Academic student workers started organizing in 2014 to address these precarious working conditions. The New School’s response to our organizing was to take us to court. Last year, the New School filed two petitions to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to challenge the legitimacy of our union, both of which were ultimately rejected. In May 2017, student workers voted to form SENS-UAW by an overwhelming majority of 99.6%. A “Request for Review,” filed by the administration prior to the election in an attempt to exclude a large number of workers from the bargaining unit, delayed the election outcome. The NLRB denied the adminstration’s request in July, and our votes were counted two months after our election.
In August 2017, the administration agreed to bargain, unlike Columbia and Yale’s administrations, both of which have declined to recognize their graduate worker unions. But at the bargaining table, the administration has not taken our demands seriously. On many issues of immense importance, such as wage increases and health care, the administration has not even responded, saying we have to finish the non-economic proposals first. They have taken a long time to agree to policies they have chosen to prioritize like health and safety protocols and discipline and harassment. In addition, the New School has repeatedly refused to include protections for late payment in our contract. Many student workers are not being paid for weeks after they have started working, and there is no procedure to prevent or grieve this in the New School’s current system. We need these wages to pay our tuition and our rent. As long as our members continue to face late payments, and as long as the administration refuses not only to claim responsibility, but even to admit this late pay norm as anything other than an inevitability of a complex bureaucratic system, we hold to our demand for protection.
In February, the bargaining committee brought our demands for protections against late pay to President Van Zandt’s attention directly. We marched to his office with a petition signed by over four hundred students. He glibly told us that contracts are hard to negotiate and these conversations should be had at the bargaining table, as if he had no say in the matter. He followed that by saying he was sure he would read it. He has said nothing further regarding our petition.
The New School’s refusal to address our reasonable demands in a timely manner is a major part of the reason the bargaining committee took a strike authorization vote last week. In a strike authorization vote, the union members — in this case active student workers — vote to empower the bargaining committee to set a strike deadline if negotiations stall or if it becomes apparent that the employer is not offering comprehensive responses to workers’ demands. Like our May 2017 vote to unionize, our strike authorization vote had overwhelming support, with 99.4% of voting members in favor.
This should not be our normal. We should not have to justify our right to be paid on-time. We should not have to spend our time and energy fighting for the protection from harassment, living wages, health care, safety in our workplaces. The only way to get our contract as we want it is to continue to fight together, keeping our collective needs as student workers at the forefront.
*To get involved with the union, we invite you to our weekly organizing meetings, 11:00-1:00 on Fridays in the University Center, 5th floor (meeting times may change each semester).
Louisa Strothman is pursuing her BA-MA degree in sociology, works as a teaching artist, and serves on the bargaining committee for SENS-UAW 7902.