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NYU Contract Faculty Poised to Vote on Unionization

A "yes" vote would create the largest union of full-time, nontenured track faculty at a private US university.

Members of NYU’s adjunct faculty union march near Union Square on April 14, 2022, in New York City.

Contingent professors scored a victory January 3 when they got New York University to agree to a union election this semester, and to remain neutral during the process. The election is scheduled for February 27 and 28. If they vote yes, Contract Faculty United (CFU)-UAW Local 7902 will become the largest union in the country of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty at a private university, with 950 members.

Nationwide, two-thirds of faculty positions are contingent — meaning they lack the possibility of tenure. Many are adjunct instructors, who are hired on a course-by-course, semester-by-semester basis and typically make low wages and lack benefits.

But there is another, lesser-known category of contingent faculty: those who work full-time on long-term contracts. The number of such full-time, non-tenure-track faculty in the US has almost tripled since 1987.

At NYU, they are called “contract faculty” and make up roughly half of all the professors. Their contracts are typically for three to five years, but can be as short as one or as long as nine years. Once their contract expires, they must renew it by essentially re-applying for their jobs.

NYU’s contract faculty do the same work as their tenured and tenure-track colleagues, except they tend to have heavier teaching loads while getting paid less. Even among contract faculty, there are extreme pay disparities across the university’s different schools.

“Schools within NYU don’t even know what the other schools are doing. That creates incredible inequality,” said Jacob Remes, a clinical associate professor at the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study. “I’m paid $50,000 more than my colleagues with the same job title who actually are teaching more than I am.”

Remes explained that one union goal is to “create a more equitable university where the people at the bottom are brought up and are not being paid so little.” Another is to win stronger job security to ensure academic freedom: “If faculty don’t have the right to pursue truth in their research and to teach freely in their classrooms, then we all might as well pack up and go home.”

Unions at colleges and universities are on a roll. Between 2022 and 2023, there were 20 strikes around the country by unions of faculty members, student workers, or postdoctoral researchers — including 48,000 academic workers at the University of California system and 9,000 at Rutgers University. Late last year, instructors at Columbia College Chicago staged the longest adjunct strike in U.S. history (49 days); and in late January, 28,000 faculty and librarians at California State University quickly secured a tentative agreement after a one-day walkout.

Since 2022, thousands of graduate student workers have newly unionized, including 19,000 with the United Electrical Workers and 5,600 with the United Auto Workers. Adjuncts and postdocs are also forming new unions at an impressive rate.

Pressure Campaign

Contract faculty at NYU first started talking about unionizing in 2017. After approaching the UAW, which already represented the university’s adjuncts and graduate workers, they began signing union cards in 2019 and reached a majority the following year. The pandemic slowed the drive, but CFU-UAW maintained its majority and launched a more public-oriented campaign in 2022.

The union faced a legal hurdle in a 1980 Supreme Court decision that says full-time faculty at private universities do not have collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Because full-time faculty are expected to do university service like coordinating programs and sitting on governance committees, the court ruled they are “managers” under the NLRA. At public universities, which fall under state-based labor laws, many full-time faculty have the right to form unions and bargain collectively.

To avoid getting tied up in legal challenges, CFU-UAW chose not to go through the National Labor Relations Board. Instead, the union delivered a petition in early 2023 demanding the university administration agree to a voluntary process to verify the union’s majority support and begin collective bargaining. Soon after, CFU-UAW began meeting with the administration’s legal team to negotiate the proposed process and determine who could be included in the union.

The administration hoped to keep many professors out by saying they held managerial positions. But members attending the negotiation sessions countered these arguments. “They would come at us with claims about who was a manager and who does what kind of work, but we would have one of those people in the room, and they could say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not my job,’ or ‘That’s not how things work,’” Remes said. “We know how the university works, and really the provost’s office and the lawyers don’t.”

The administration also wanted to exclude contract faculty from NYU’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing. Most of them had signed union cards. “They speak on being inclusive and equitable, and yet we were not being included in the collective bargaining process like the other schools,” said Karla Rodriguez, a clinical assistant professor.

Rodriguez, who has been at the college of nursing since 2007, helped organize her fellow contract faculty, holding regular meetings to answer questions about what it would mean to unionize. Faculty in other colleges and schools across NYU held similar meetings, and wore buttons, displayed posters, and held informational pickets and rallies.

The union made sure to be present at events important to the administration. During the weekend when newly admitted students and their parents visited NYU to decide whether to enroll, union members handed out leaflets. “When the administration went into the events to talk about what a great place NYU was, they could see that the prospective students were carrying our brightly colored leaflets,” Remes said.

Groundbreaking Agreement

Thanks to this pressure, the NYU administration signed a groundbreaking agreement with CFU-UAW in early January.

The agreement specifies that the election will be overseen by the American Arbitration Association. The university administration has agreed not to interfere in the union’s campaign and to instruct all supervisors to remain neutral. The administration has also agreed to immediately recognize and begin bargaining with the union if a majority of contract faculty vote yes.

It will be an inclusive bargaining unit. Faculty from the college of nursing will be included, as will professors who perform university service. Only contract faculty whose job duties are more than 50 percent administrative — such as department chairs and deans — will not be in the unit. CFU-UAW borrowed this formula from full-time faculty unions at public universities like Rutgers.

The union hopes the agreement will serve as a model for other contract faculty at private universities.

Rodriguez said she is “elated” that she and her co-workers at the college of nursing will get to vote in the upcoming union election and be part of the bargaining process. “We want to provide the best learning experience to students,” she said. “In order for us to deliver high-quality education, we need to have the right to vote on issues and terms that matter to us and have influence on us.”

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