On Monday, July 17th, the SENS-UAW Bargaining Committee (“BC” for short) met for the first time with the University to discuss ground rules for our bargaining process. At this meeting, both parties delivered opening statements and the University presented a full raft of contract proposals.
The University opened the session with prepared remarks delivered by Sonya Williams, Vice President for Human Resources. Throughout her statement, Williams claimed to respect academic student workers and our contributions to the university while simultaneously demonstrating a deep misunderstanding of our relationship to the university as wage laborers, referring to our jobs as “paid work opportunities.” The bargaining committee believes that emphasizing that the goal of graduate student employment is simply to further and “support academic goals” mischaracterizes and undermines our contribution to the university as workers and allows the university to undervalue our work monetarily.
Williams concluded by communicating that the University would be pursuing a “unique” approach to bargaining by opening with a full set of contract proposals, presenting a unilaterally drafted complete contract as a generous favor to academic student workers rather than a tactical move developed in concert with a pre-written communications strategy.
There is a juxtaposition between what the university is saying and doing. The university repeatedly insisted that unless the Union presents a complete contract proposal at the beginning of bargaining they will not be able to take our input into account in their proposals. This didn’t stop them from presenting a complete contract proposal developed without any input from student workers. The BC’s position remains that we will bargain in the traditional manner over individual articles to ensure that we can work through the issues in a genuine and considered manner.
Following Williams’ presentation, BC members Danielle Twiss, Zeshan Khalid, and Aaron Berman shared opening statements on behalf of themselves and student workers. These statements highlighted a number of our key bargaining priorities and called on the University to reconsider its commitment to aggressive union-busting bargaining, expensive external council and consultants, and austerity.
The University had previously sent the BC their proposed ground rules, which included a number of provisions unacceptable to the committee, including a proposal to hold bargaining at a third party location at the shared expense of the University and Union and proposals designed to close bargaining and limit union democracy. Since there is no reason for our members’ dues to be spent on hotel conference rooms when The New School and UAW both have plenty of available meeting space for bargaining and there is no reason that our members should not be as involved in the bargaining process as they like, the BC presented a revised document without these provisions. The University is looking this over and will respond in the future.
The University accused the BC of not cooperating by revising some of the ground rules proposed to us, including the need for flexible dates. The BC does not agree to the university’s proposal of having all-day bargaining sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The BC is committed to a bargaining process that democratic, transparent, and centered on census– in order to ensure we are remaining democratic, we need flexibility in our meetings to talk with rank-and-file student workers and make decisions. Additionally, union members are not paid to participate in bargaining, and many of us use the summer to do research, attend conferences, and work other paid jobs to finance our education. Members who are parents are unable to attend early morning and all day sessions.
Although the BC has not yet had the time to conduct a full study of the University’s offer and, as of 3pm July 18th has not received a digital copy that it can share with you, the paper contract proposal the university provided on 7/17/23 contains several troubling proposals:
- The University’s proposal would strip away student workers’ rights to real recourse against harassment and discrimination. The proposal removes SENS members’ right to pursue the grievance and arbitration process with an independent arbitrator for harassment cases, instead, forcing student workers to trust that claims of harassment will be better handled by adjudicators on the University’s own payroll.
- The University’s compensation proposal is far from the generous offer they have made it out to be. This is an offer that will keep Academic Student Workers who hold one TF and one TA position each semester (the maximum workload allowed by law for international students and by TNS policy for domestic students) earning under $30,000 per year by 2029. For reference, according to the MIT Living Wage Lab, New York City living wage for single adults without children in 2023 is $53,352. Poverty wages are not generous.
- Doubling down the union-busting style that backfired so magnificently for the University in Fall 2022, the new offer seeks to further curtail our unit’s right to stand in solidarity with other workers on campus.
We proposed to meet with the University again on August 7th. This gives the BC time to review the contract proposal provided by the University, to meet and discuss with members, and democratically decide how to move forward and provide our own proposals. We retain our faith in the bargaining process and look forward to working with all members of the union and the University to create a meaningful contract that lifts our members out of poverty and reflects the value we bring to The New School.
SENS Bargaining Opening Statement:
Danielle Twiss: We’d like to use the opportunity of our first bargaining meeting to communicate some of our motivations and hopes for the bargaining process.
Over the past years, our community has been deeply affected by the University’s repeated choice to respond to a challenging economic environment in higher education with neoliberal austerity, squeezing the most vulnerable workers while continuing to provide costly executive raises for those already at the top of our extremely unequal payscale. It is our hope that the events of last year have made it clear that a course correction is necessary, morally, but also pragmatically. Pragmatically, austerity is ultimately always self-undermining, an institution that fights to survive by eating away at the living and working conditions of those who carry out its primary mission is unlikely to succeed on its own terms. Morally, academic Student Workers, no less than any other workers, deserve to be able to live a decent and dignified life in the city of their employment.
Under our current conditions, this is simply impossible.The maximum amount that an international Academic Student Worker on an F-1 visa, who is barred from any employment other than at The New School – can earn over the course of an academic year is $23,184, and the majority of Academic Student Workers, international and domestic, actually earn much less than this. Workers, again, who have no other available source of employment, are compelled by the New School to try to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world at less than half the living wage.
The University’s budget is a moral document: The question is not whether TNS can afford to fairly compensate its employees, but whether doing so is the University’s priority. Indeed, if TNS can afford to pay its governing body a sum total of over 8 million dollars, it can afford to pay its student workers a living wage.
Zeshan Khalid: My name is Zeshan. Two years ago, I had a “dream come true” moment when I received an acceptance letter to the MFA Design and Technology program at Parsons. Even though I had a 50% scholarship, the hard part began when I was in my second semester and the Pakistani currency crashed due to political and economic crisis.
I had to pay my next semester’s fee, but my savings decreased by almost 100% due to the exchange rate. At that time, I couldn’t work outside of school because of immigration laws, and the 10-hour R.A. job at school couldn’t cover my $900 rent. I asked the school for help but received nothing from the Management even after writing personal emails. I felt devastated because I thought that as an international student, my classmates were my only family and my institution was like my parent.
I had 28 days to raise at least $7000 to stay in school which I did from Gofundme but that experience opened my eyes that my school doesn’t care about me or any international student who sacrifices everything to come here and fulfill their dreams. Even if you are lucky to have the highest-paid job as a student you will still live in fear and depression because the school will always treat you as a customer, not like a parent.
Aaron Berman: Many of our members have stories like Zeshan’s to tell. While our unit includes many international students, it also includes many parents and other adults with children and dependents. The annual income required for a single adult with just one child to support in NYC is $93,426. The disparity between what TNS pays, what tuition costs, and what is required to live should be staggering, and unacceptable, to all of us.
On top of low wage rates, the majority of academic student workers are compelled to pay the New School for the privilege of continuing to work, whether in the form of tuition for which we receive no benefit as workers (and only rarely as students), or in the form of the ‘maintaining status fee’ that eats up $2,600 of our pay each academic year, more than one half of the total pre-tax compensation for a TA position.
Adding insult to injury, our previous contract secured only a partial premium rebate for health coverage for workers who participate in the University’s student plan as well as a 100% rebate for the University Services fee, but this rebate has typically been paid by the University six months after our members have advanced to the University as an interest free loan the full cost of the plan premiums and University fees.
We care deeply about this university, its students and workers, its mission and its history. The current situation is scandalous and would be a source of shame for any institution, let alone one that prides itself on its progressive values. It is well within the means of TNS to rectify this.
We share this with you in the hopes that you will recognize why it is imperative for the New School to bargain with us as workers with serious and unmet needs, rather than attempting to mischaracterize us as unruly students with nothing at stake in these negotiations. We are prepared to work with the University to ensure that our needs are met through the bargaining process. Conflict is not inevitable, but is certain to arise if the University chooses to approach this bargaining process in the aggressive fashion that characterized our part time faculty colleague’s recent negotiations. The New School community at large, from students, parents and alumni, to faculty and staff have made it clear that solidarity is a value that we take seriously and attempts to drive division between us or to intimidate workers into accepting unlivable compensation will fail, just as they did last year.