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When Marwan Shalaby moved from Egypt to New York in 2019 to start a PhD in Engineering. at New York University, he had $ 700 in his bank account. He thought that would be enough to settle down.

But Mr. Shalaby had to pay the deposit for an apartment, a mattress and winter clothes. After going to the emergency room with a kitchen injury, he began to take on debt.

As he anxiously awaited his first graduate student allowance, which would total $ 2,500 per month, Shalaby realized that those checks would barely cover the cost of living in his new hometown. Instead, the time and energy he wanted to spend studying for class was spent worrying about his bank account.

“My learning experience was not optimal because my mind was so concerned with how I would pay for the essentials,” he said.

This week, Mr. Shalaby, 28, joined more than a thousand New York University graduate students on strike over higher college salaries, among other demands, like better health care and a change in the school’s relationship with the police department.

While on strike, graduate students refrain from their professional duties, including teaching assistants and filing papers, leaving campus in limbo as university and union continue to negotiate the terms of the new student contract.

More than seven years ago, NYU graduate students became the first in the country to gain voluntary recognition of their union by a private university. The resulting contract expired in August and the graduate students, who are represented by the United Auto Workers, have spent months locked in heated negotiations over the terms of its renewal.

At the center of the conflict between the union and the university, among the most expensive in the country, is the demand of graduate students for higher wages. The union’s organizing committee initially proposed an hourly wage of $ 46 – more than double the current hourly wages of graduate students there, who start at $ 20.

The organizing committee has since lowered its proposal to $ 32 an hour. The university responded with a proposed increase of about 22% over six years, which equates to a $ 1 increase in the first year of the contract.

NYU executives contend that graduate students earn more than their counterparts at other schools. They noted that Harvard graduate students, for example, recently entered into a contract that awarded an hourly wage of $ 17.

“This strike did not have to take place,” John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU, said in an email. “The university has made generous proposals as part of this contract renewal.”

The university president emailed parents of NYU students this week and called the strike “unwarranted, untimely and regrettable.” The email sparked backlash and a slew of social media jokes from some graduate students, many of whom were over 30, whose parents received it. (“If I’m grounded, I still can’t go to work,” Chloe Jones, 26, doctoral student, tweeted.)

Organizers of the NYU graduate students said the comparison to the Harvard contract was inappropriate due to the higher cost of living in New York City. NYU organizers determined their proposed salary using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, which takes into account the constraint that graduate students can only work 20 hours per week.

And while Columbia and Harvard graduate students have gone on strike in recent years to secure their first union contract, NYU graduate students are negotiating a second contract, after settling their first in 2015, and have therefore made demands. more ambitious. (The Columbia strike, which began in March, came to a halt as students vote on their contracts, which would take students’ hourly wages to $ 20 within three years.)

“A first contract lays a basis for future negotiations,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. “In the second contract, the union seeks to broaden and extend its benefits. It is very common for a second contract to be more demanding. “

The urgency of the union’s financial demands has been exacerbated by the pandemic and economic crisis, as the university job market has been squeezed by the hiring freeze.

“They’re trying to intimidate us into making our salary proposals go down more and more,” said Ellis Garey, 28, a union organizer and fourth-year doctoral student in history and Middle Eastern studies at NYU. graduate workers on the picket line.

The crowd that gathered near NYU on Friday, chanting and parading, heard several city council candidates as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, who called to congratulate the strikers. “If we respect education in this country – if we know how important it is that we provide the best education in the world to our young people,” he said, “it is imperative that we have good teachers. paid who are treated with respect and dignity. “

Unionization and collective bargaining among graduate students dates back decades in the public sector, which saw its first contract of higher education in 1970 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But in private schools, the question of whether graduate students should be treated like students or workers has been more controversial. And NYU has long been a battleground for the problem.

The National Labor Relations Board first recognized the right of graduate students to collective bargaining at private universities in 2000, in a case that started at NYU. But the board, whose five members are appointed by the president, had a conservative majority under President George W. Bush. . In a 2004 case at Brown University, the board overturned its decision, leaving private unions of federally graduated students unprotected.

The board has hesitated on the matter since the White House changed hands. Although Republicans still hold a majority until at least late summer, the council said in March it would withdraw a proposed rule on the Trump-era issue, once again leading the way to students graduating from private schools to unionize.

There has been significant growth in the total number of unionized student employees nationwide, from around 64,680 in 2013 to over 83,000 in 2019, according to a Hunter Center study.

The question of whether graduate students should be classified as students or employees is more urgent than ever, Herbert said, as the federal government examines how to classify on-demand workers and the workplace protections that are offered to them.

Many leaders of private universities have traditionally maintained that the primary obligation of graduate students is their studies, not their work. But striking NYU graduate students argue that there is no distinction between their work and academics – and that the university could not function without their paid work.

“When I do my research, it benefits the university,” Ms. Garey said. “I make presentations at conferences, I organize workshops within my department, I publish articles, I publish translations. These are all things faculty members do as part of their compensation. “

Compensation isn’t the only problem creating a wedge between NYU graduate student organizers and the university. The graduate students also asked the university to refrain from calling the New York Police Department except when required to do so by law or when a violent crime has been committed. They don’t want the police to be called in cases of vandalism, for example, citing the risk to people of color and other vulnerable students.

Graduate students have also made pandemic-specific demands, including asking for a payment of $ 500 from teaching assistants for their efforts to move to distance education.

Virgilio Urbina Lazardi, 28, fourth year doctorate in sociology. student, had planned to spend last spring refining an article for submission to an academic journal. He had to suspend the project to be able to double the number of hours devoted to teaching assistants. The professor he helped was having difficulty with Zoom, so Mr. Lazardi made an appointment to visit the professor’s home and install his technology.

“There was a lot of extra stress this semester and it fell disproportionately to me with no extra compensation or recognition,” Lazardi said.

This week, all of the tasks that graduate students are paid for – scheduling classes, sending emails to students, hosting office hours – have been halted.

Some union organizers have approached the moment as an opportunity to educate their undergraduates about the broader struggle for student worker rights.

Arundhati Velamur, 33, who obtains his doctorate. in education, spent the semester conducting a course on teaching geometry. She opened her first class with a discussion of the book “Flatland”, an 1800s satire on the Victorian social hierarchy, which imagines a fictional world populated by forms whose power is determined by the number of sides they have; a hexagon, for example, would be more powerful than a square.

Ms Velamur returned to the text to explain why she was skipping class for the strike – because in NYU’s “Flatland” hierarchy, Ms Velamur said, she and her peers were fighting for more power.

She told her students in an email that she wouldn’t be able to teach until a deal was made, and smiled when she received their response: Her undergraduates were passing their time to think about ways to support the union.

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