- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
At New York University (NYU), half of full-time faculty are known as “contract faculty” — they are hired on contracts lasting for between one and eight years and are not eligible for tenure. Unlike adjunct faculty — who are hired on a per-course and per-semester basis — contract faculty at NYU are not yet unionized. They’re trying to change that: on February 22, contract faculty organizing under the banner of Contract Faculty United–UAW delivered a petition to NYU president Andrew Hamilton demanding that the university agree to a “fair and expeditious” process for recognizing the union. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke to Contract Faculty United–UAW organizer Jacob Remes about the unionization effort.
Why are you all trying to unionize?
Contract faculty are half of the full-time faculty at NYU. There are about a thousand tenure-track faculty, a thousand contract faculty, and about three thousand adjuncts. We are the only group that has neither the protections of tenure nor the protections of a union contract.
We are fighting for a union for all the standard reasons that workers fight for a union: because we want more control over our workplace, because we want raises that keep up with inflation and aren’t just at the whim of our bosses, because we want a say in things like benefits. But also because of a very particular academic-worker reason, which is that we’re fighting to defend academic freedom.
Without either a union contract or tenure, there can be no real academic freedom, because we have to reapply for our jobs — depending on who we are and what school we’re in, either every year, every three years, every five years, or every eight years. You can’t have true academic freedom when you’re looking over your shoulder, when you’re having to reapply for your job with no guarantee of reappointment.
The last reason I would say that we’re organizing — that I’m organizing — is that we want to be fully dues-paying members of the labor movement, of the movement that in this country is fighting for immigration reform, for reproductive justice, for affordable college, and for student loan cancellation. We want to be part of the movement that’s fighting to make the city and this country a more just and democratic place.
Can you tell me more about the conditions that led to your organizing? What has it been like being contract faculty at NYU for the past few years?
NYU is a big, sprawling university. There are a lot of different schools and departments; there are thousands of us, and we are a diverse group. Some of us are close to the status of tenure-track faculty. We’re treated roughly the same; we’re paid roughly the same; we teach roughly the same. That’s a small portion of the unit. About a third of the unit is drastically underpaid and overworked.
In general, contract faculty get paid less and teach more than tenured faculty. But one of the things that I’ve learned by organizing around campus is how different the conditions are in different parts of the university. I have always been told that the longest possible term of a contract is five years.
But in doing this, I learned that in some schools they have eight-year contracts. In other schools, it was a fight to go from one- to three-year contracts, and three is the maximum. So one of the things that I think is driving this movement is that as we organize more, as we talk to our colleagues more, we’re learning about how the lack of transparency puts us at a disadvantage. When we are individually negotiating with our deans or with our department chairs, we only know what we’re told. But when we work together and when we organize together and we learn from each other, what we learn is that the things that are true in one school or department turn out not to be true in another school or department.
We reached majority support for the union in 2020. We dropped cards at the beginning of 2019; we hit majority basically when COVID happened. We’ve been treading water since, because it’s really hard to organize a university campus when you can’t be there in person and people are so scattered. But one of the things that sustained us during those years of treading water, especially the first year of COVID, the 2020–21 academic year . . . the university was nontransparent, kept changing what the protocols were, changing what the rules were, changing what they were asking people to do.
That was a time of confusion; we didn’t know a lot. There was no transparency with the people in the classroom, the people who were responsible for teaching these classes and trying to figure out how to do it safely, or how to do the thing that we were never trained how to do, which was move our classes online, or maybe teach these high-tech classes where some people were in the classroom and some people were on a giant TV screen. We had no say in the matter. We would often learn things after our students would learn things. It was intolerable.
So I think one of the things that maintained us during that fallow period was this sense that, if we had a union, we’d be in the room [where decisions are made], because this would be a material question of our terms and conditions of employment.
In the last couple of years, as rents have skyrocketed in New York, there’s been a lot of insecurity, and there’s a sense of, “Who knows how long we can continue doing this?” NYU deals with that for tenure-track faculty by having subsidized faculty housing. They always joke that the university administration gets away with paying tenure-track faculty less than they otherwise would have to because there’s this subsidized faculty housing. I was always told that the one thing that my dean could never give me was faculty housing — that was just not available to contract faculty. It turns out that there are some contract faculty who do have access to faculty housing, but the vast majority of us do not, and so we have these long, ever-lengthening commutes.
Very few of us live in Manhattan, but I think increasingly few of us can afford to live in Brooklyn and raise a family and be middle-class adults. That is a big concern. We’re not being paid poverty wages; we are paid well, actually. The new adjunct contract that was agreed to last fall sets a new national standard for part-time faculty. If you assume a three-three load, they’re now at parity with our pay minimum. So I don’t want to claim that we are being paid poverty wages. But I think there’s a lot of fear and insecurity because our pay raises are totally unpredictable. They’re announced in the middle of the summer, and the university says, “This is what you’re getting, period.” Usually it’s 2.5, 3 percent. And even before this run-up of inflation, that did not keep up with the cost-of-living increases in New York City, and now it definitely doesn’t. We want predictability. We want a say. We don’t want to be susceptible to the whims of the bosses.
Can you give me a timeline of how the union organizing started and progressed? How did you all go about organizing?
I was not involved in the beginning, so I’m telling you what I have heard from my fellow organizers. They started in January 2017 having conversations about organizing. They met with SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and UAW (United Auto Workers) to talk about affiliation and decided to affiliate with UAW. UAW is already on campus with the other unionized academic workers, the adjuncts and the grad workers. It was very much nonpublic, quiet conversations, trying to feel out what was possible, what people wanted.
I think all universities are to some extent like this, but at NYU especially, the different schools are very different, even regardless of employment status. I’m in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which is a small liberal arts college within NYU. I feel really separate from the rest of the university. I don’t know what’s going on; I don’t know the people. We don’t even do a good job of advertising events to each other across schools. So it was a very slow process of talking to other people. It started with the core of organizers from the Expository Writing Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, which is a program that’s almost entirely contract faculty. They built bridges across schools and then dropped cards at the beginning of the school year in 2019. That’s when I got involved. I went and had conversations with all of the contract faculty in my school.
Once we had done that, we went into other schools, and it’s a very slow, bit-by-bit process — going to find people in their offices, looking at class schedules and trying to find people outside their classrooms, before and after their classes. We’ve found that the hard part is finding people, getting to have a conversation with people. Once we talk to them, the rate of people who sign cards is extraordinary. The hard part is just the mechanical part of getting to talk to people. The easy part is once you’re there: everyone, or almost everyone, is like, “This is an obvious choice. We need a union.”
How has NYU responded to your organizing so far?
Until last week [the week of February 19], they were basically trying to ignore us. I think they were hoping that the pandemic would make us go away. We’ve been a majority for a long time. We delivered a public-facing petition with everyone’s name on it. It was more than half of the unit saying, with our names on it, that we wanted the administration to respect our collective bargaining rights, to guarantee due process before we’re fired, to allow us to grieve any termination, and to have pay raises that meet or exceed inflation. We went last week to deliver it to the university president who, not wholly surprisingly, was not interested in talking to us. We had to stand out in the hallway while he sent out an aide to come collect it from us. So we stood out in the hallway like naughty school children — the faculty who do the teaching.
We said in this petition, “We want you to promise to remain neutral, and we want you to sit down with us so we can agree on a fair and expeditious process to figure out how recognition would work.” And we said we’d like a response within a week. That was at roughly 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 22. Six days later we got an email from the president’s office saying, “We received your letter. We know you’re expecting a response, but we need some more time. We’ll get back to you in seven to ten days.” So now we’re waiting.
Has there been support from NYU students and other faculty?
Yeah, absolutely. I have been in the labor movement for half my life. I was an undergraduate union supporter working with graduate workers twenty-five years ago; I then worked in the labor movement for a while. I’m a labor historian. I used to teach at SUNY, so I was a member of UUP [United University Professions] for five years. But this is the first time when it’s been my struggle and other workers and students have shown up for me, rather than my being the person who’s showing up for other people. It is a feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced before, to be at the rally yesterday and see my tenure-track colleagues, my graduate students, my undergraduate students all there. Not because I asked them to be, but because the students know that our working conditions are their learning conditions — that if we don’t have academic freedom to teach and research, they don’t have academic freedom to learn. My tenure-track colleagues know that this is the NYU administration’s long-term end run around tenure. So if they don’t stand with us, they’re the ones the university is coming for next.
We’ve gotten extraordinary support from law students, undergrads, and tenure-track faculty, and then there are our brothers and sisters in the labor movement at NYU. It is a really well-organized campus. The graduate workers are organized, the adjuncts are organized, the security guards are organized, the custodial workers are organized, everyone’s organized.
How do you imagine a union changing the contract faculty’s experience at NYU?
The main thing is, it’s going to give us more security, and that security is going to come in lots of ways. It’s going to give us security in terms of better wages and more predictable wage increases.
There’s also job security. Last semester there was a contract faculty member who was on the front page of the New York Times, a chemistry professor whose contract was not renewed, essentially because he was more trouble than he was worth. He was a hard grader — there was a complaint about his grading, and he was fired with zero process. He was just told that he was not getting renewed.
That scared a lot of people. That made me personally feel insecure, and I’ve always felt very secure in my job. But this guy was a very famous and fancy chemist; he had retired from being a tenured professor at Princeton. If they could fire him because he was too much of a hassle, they’ll come after me when I say something politically controversial. That scared me, and I think it scared a lot of other people. So that is a type of security that we want, and I think that will change when we have a union.
The last thing is ideological. We are faculty with asterisks. Depending on the school we’re in, some of us don’t have access to sabbaticals. A lot of people are excluded from full governance of their school. A lot of people, because they’re teaching three loads and doing a lot of other student work, they don’t have time to do research and all the other things that we got into this occupation for. I think one of the things that a union will do is alleviate that status anxiety. It will give us security, knowing we’re not second-class citizens. We’re full members of this university, and we have rights that are written down on paper, that aren’t because our dean happens to like us or because our colleagues happen to tolerate us, but because they’re in writing and because they’re in a legally enforceable contract.
Have you been in touch with other unions?
Right now we’re primarily in touch with other unions on campus. We also have gotten a lot of support from other unions around the country and around the region. We got a letter from Randi Weingarten, writing to our university president on behalf of the 1.7 million members of the AFT [American Federation of Teachers], talking about why it’s important for educators and faculty to have unions and why the university should let us decide and agree to a fair, expeditious process. We got a letter from the national president of the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] talking about how collective bargaining is a central way to protect academic freedom and the economic standing of the profession.
We got letters from the five thousand members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT who are in their own contract fight right now. We got a strong letter from the thirty-seven thousand members of UUP, the faculty and professional employees of SUNY. We got a letter from PSC-CUNY [the Professional Staff Congress]. This is a sign to me that we’re in a moment of a union-organizing wave in higher education. I say this as a labor historian: it’s something from the 1930s, the way grad workers all around the country have been winning elections by 95 percent. The way there are these unions that are springing up all over the country for undergrads — that the undergrads at Dartmouth of all places, which is not a place that I would imagine would have a lot of labor militancy, just threatened to strike, and on the basis of that threat won a new contract that raised their wages by more than 30 percent. Seeing all that is putting a lot of wind in our sails.