Union tactic a matter of course

Undercover: Needing campus IDs to gain access to part-time faculty members at New York University, organizers sign up for classes.

March 06, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - After the first meeting of a screenwriting class she was taking at New York University last fall, Wendy Giman sidled up to the instructor, but not to ask a question about the syllabus or homework.

Instead, Giman wanted to reveal the truth about herself.

She was, she told the instructor, no ordinary student, but rather a union organizer with the American Federation of Teachers, taking his class to gain access to part-time faculty members such as him.

"I waited until after the other students left ... and fully identified myself. It wasn't awkward at all," said Giman, 34. "Other people handled the follow-up conversations. I just made the initial contact."

For New York, it is one more consequence of Sept. 11: union organizers going undercover as college students in one of the largest and potentially most significant labor campaigns in the country.

After the terrorist attacks, NYU, a few subway stops from Wall Street in Greenwich Village, shut down for 10 days. When it reopened, it was with greatly heightened security. Only those with NYU identification cards - students and faculty and staff members - could get into campus buildings.

That presented a problem for the AFT, which is vying with the United Auto Workers to organize NYU's more than 3,000 part-time, faculty members, called adjuncts. Adjuncts are often difficult to track down, and the security crackdown kept AFT representatives from reaching them at the one place they could be sure to find them, the classroom.

That's when the leaders of the AFT campaign had the idea of enrolling the AFT's 15 or so organizers as NYU students so that they could get university ID's. The order quickly went out to all organizers: Sign up for a course, any course, and the union will pick up the tab.

For the organizers, it was an easy command to obey, as they enrolled in subjects they'd long wanted to study - labor relations, playwriting, U.S. history - at no cost to themselves. A few weeks after the attacks, the organizers had their ID cards and were back at work inside the buildings.

"You can't go on the subway without seeing their ads saying: `Take a class at NYU.' Well, we finally took them up on their offer," Michael Sylvester, a lead organizer of the AFT campaign, said on a recent morning in the union's office, hidden away over a Belgian beer garden in the heart of the campus.

Whether the AFT organizing strategy proves successful could have serious implications for NYU and colleges around the country. Last month, NYU signed a contract with graduate student teaching assistants represented by the United Auto Workers. It is likely to face major cost increases if it also has to negotiate with its part-time instructors, who far outnumber NYU's roughly 1,600 tenure-track professors.

Nationally, an adjunct union victory at NYU - the largest private university in the country, with 36,000 undergraduate and graduate students - would give momentum to other efforts to organize part-time professors.

The nation's estimated 420,000 adjuncts make up more than 40 percent of college faculty members, but only about 75,000 are unionized, mostly with the AFT and mostly at public institutions.

Colleges and universities have increased their reliance on adjuncts partly because, at a median salary of less than $3,000 per class, they cost far less than full-time professors.

"It's really about the future of our institutions of higher learning," said Julie Kushner, a UAW director working on the NYU adjunct campaign. "There's a trend away from tenured faculty to adjunct faculty who are underpaid with no benefits. These are terrific minds who are contributing to the life of the university but are absolutely unrecognized."

Kushner said the UAW, which has been expanding onto campuses to offset losses in the auto industry, had fewer access problems after Sept. 11 because most of its organizers are NYU adjuncts with university ID's. "We never had to skirt around [security] to enroll people as students," she said.

Sylvester and fellow AFT lead organizer Trip McCrossin say there is nothing illicit in the AFT's strategy for maintaining campus access, which is costing the union about $500 a course.

The organizers, they say, are not just pretending to be students, but are participating in their courses, most of which are in NYU's continuing education department. (Giman even typed up notes for classmates who were absent. "I'm a nerd," she said.)

Organizers are candid about their union role with fellow classmates and are careful not to lobby faculty members when they are busy with students, the campaign directors said.

Having organizers double as students has boosted the campaign, the directors said, by giving them a better understanding of the issues facing NYU and its faculty.

"To establish a relationship with the adjuncts in just a few minutes before or after class is a challenging thing to do, but it helps to be enmeshed in the university community," McCrossin said.

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