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Higher-Education Bargaining with the “New” UAW

Reflections on the 2024 New School Academic Student Worker Strike

April 18, 2024

What we won

After a three-day strike, academic student workers at the New School ratified a second contract on March 29, 2024 that includes:

  • Initial raises between 28 and 32 percent for all categories of workers, followed by 4 percent raises in the following two years
  • Tuition remission for all working PhDs and PhD or MA students who teach their own courses
  • 80 percent discounts on healthcare premiums for all graduate workers with no other eligibility requirements
  • 60 percent premium coverage for dependents out of a 25-thousand dollar fund
  • The first Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Care article in a US higher-education contract, which ensures that the university will continue to offer the reproductive and gender-affirming care it currently does in the event that future state or federal policy exclude these services from mandatory coverage
  • A commitment to no ICE on campus unless legally compelled
  • A pilot international student institutional housing guarantor program
  • A professional development fund
  • A university-wide childcare pilot (the first crack in the university’s refusal to offer workers any form of childcare benefit)
  • A three-year term of agreement, allowing us to maintain organizational continuity and align bargaining with our part-time faculty union siblings
  • Continued access to third-party arbitration in cases of workplace harassment and discrimination—an article the university, following Harvard, viciously gutted on the basis of a spurious interpretation of DeVos’s 2020 Title IX regulations

This piece details how we won our second contract, what we did correctly, and what we did incorrectly. Of particular interest to labor organizers in higher education, it details how we made use of reaccreditation as a leverage point in the bargaining process.

Institutional Introduction

The New School is a tuition-dependent private university with a relatively small endowment (just under three times the size of its annual operating budget of about half a billion dollars). It is exceptionally reliant on adjunct and student-worker labor. In recent decades the New School has been led by a board of trustees composed of real estate capitalists, financial capitalists, corporate lawyers, and a series of neoliberal presidents with ties to the Democratic party establishment. These presidents have been heavily reliant on consulting firms and devoid of any vision for the university’s future beyond austerity, rising tuition, and risky real estate investments.

Capitalizing on its origin in dissent and its historical role as a haven for academics fleeing Europe in the 1930’s, the New School publicly presents itself as a “progressive” institution and markets itself on this basis. The marketing works, and we do have a student and faculty base that is, publicly, well to the left of the norm within higher education. Workers across all categories—with the exception of executive leadership—are undercompensated relative to area standards in higher education. An ideology of sacrifice (ostensibly for the purpose of keeping a uniquely “progressive” institution afloat) sustained this state of affairs. This is a source of persistent tension, as newcomers to the institution become disillusioned by the discrepancy between the university’s marketing and curriculum and its institutional composition and action.

Generally, this works in the favor of organized labor, as the university’s programs typically do not attract procapitalist students and faculty, and there is a cultural pressure to pay lip service to solidarity across campus. In this regard, organizing at the New School is easier than at campuses where a substantial margin of student and faculty are predisposed to oppose worker action regardless of union strategy and communications.


Our bargaining unit is an “Academic Student Worker” (ASW) unit, not a graduate student unit as is typical in higher education. Undergraduate workers make up 5 to 10 percent of the unit at any given time. Further, graduate students at the New School, including a significant portion of PhDs, do not receive stipends and often pay between 100 and 25 percent of their tuition. While our new contract has eliminated tuition for working PhDs and some MAs, our challenge to the graduate school’s dependence on large classes of full-tuition paying terminal MAs was not fulfilled in this round of bargaining. Because proper funding packages are uncommonly awarded to PhDs (and almost never awarded to MAs) we do not bargain over stipend sizes like many other graduate-worker unions, but exclusively by hourly rates associated with each position—from course assistant (nongrading in-class assistants), tutor, research assistant, teaching assistant (grading, usually with a recitation section), and teaching fellow (instructors of record).

SENS was the first academic student worker unit at a private university to bargain a contract following the 2016 Columbia NLRB decision that reversed the Bush-era precedent that had barred student workers from unionizing at private universities. We bargained our first contract over the course of 2017–18, striking in May of 2018 and eventually reaching an agreement in December of that year. Our first contract made important gains in formalizing our working conditions and decreasing ASWs personal dependence on faculty supervisors—a feudal remnant of the university ripe for abuse. Additionally, we secured some of the strongest antidiscrimination and harassment language in US higher education, allowing ASWs to bring disputes over workplace discrimination or harassment to independent third-party arbitration.

The first contract’s most significant economic gains were introducing partial healthcare premium coverage (subject to a relatively restrictive eligibility criterion) and raising hourly rates for the least compensated positions. Nevertheless, these wage increases were eaten up by the intervening years’ exceptionally high inflation rates. ASWs were 10 percent worse off in real wage terms in 2023 than in 2018. Politically, factional divisions amongst ASWs, exacerbated by the past UAW administration caucus leadership’s emphases on “strategic” secrecy and business unionism over rank-and-file democracy and aggressive organizing, marred the bargaining process. The clear need to address union democracy was confirmed dramatically when, just after we secured a tentative agreement by striking, UAW 9A’s former regional director colluded with Columbia to establish a no-strike “bargaining framework” that sabotaged our siblings uptown.

Both parties were aware of what game we were playing; should a strike last more than two weeks, loss of accreditation would potentially put an end to the university. Our bargaining strategy revolved around balancing a militant stance willing openly make use of our accreditation leverage with clear communication about the stakes of doing so.

Consequently, shortly after signing our first contract, SENS members began to organize a coalition within our local (UAW 7902) to elect new leadership. This effort successfully placed SENS members in both the president and treasurer roles and new, more militant, communications-savvy, and organizing-minded leadership in the much larger New School Part-time Faculty unit. Simultaneously, UAW workers across the country pushed for the one-member-one-vote campaign, an increase in strike pay from $400 to $500 per week, and, eventually, for the successful election of Shawn Fain and many members of the UAWD slate (including region 9A director Brandon Mancilla, himself a former graduate worker).

These campaigns jointly amounted to a fundamental shift in the union. In 2017, UAW leadership at every level considered demands for raises greater than 2 percent unacceptable and viewed organizing as occasionally wearing a button. By 2023 our unit was aligned with broader UAW strategy when we proposed a 40 percent initial raise.


We came into our second contract negotiations in the wake of a wave of labor unrest at The New School. In 2020, the university’s incoming president responded to the pressures of the pandemic by firing over 120 support staff members, leading to anger amongst workers and inefficiency across the university’s operations. In this context, two new organizations were formed—a chapter of the AAUP, the first full-time faculty advocacy organization organizing across divisions, and a university-wide labor coalition that strengthened connections between the UAW 7902 units on campus and organized full-time faculty, Teamsters organized staff members, and the AFM organized Jazz faculty.

Although the movement against the 2020 cuts was unsuccessful, it did change the political terrain at the University by calling attention to shared struggles and frustrations with the university’s lack of financial and budget transparency and apparent mismanagement of funds. The fight against the 2020 cuts established connections between workers that would come to be crucial in the 2022 part-time faculty strike and subsequent student-led occupation.

Part-time faculty, energized by new leadership, approached bargaining in 2022 with anger stemming from their treatment during the pandemic. Ultimately, they held the longest adjunct strike in US history up to that point (Columbia College of Chicago adjuncts broke this record the following year), entirely shutting down the University for twenty-five days with solidarity support from full-time faculty, ASWs, staff, and (crucially) organized and militant students. In the final moments of the strike, students politicized by the process occupied a university building demanding the president’s resignation and a broader transformation of university governance and financial strategy.

In the charged aftermath of the strike, SENS began planning for the upcoming round of bargaining. Our organizing committee made a strong commitment to bargaining with transparency, making use of open bargaining, and minimizing the distinction between the bargaining committee (BC) and organizing committee. We canvassed to identify BC members from each of the university’s divisions and held a competitive election in the spring before bargaining began. Additionally, we held a workshop on rank-and-file democracy in the bargaining process with invited speakers from NYU GSOC, Columbia SWC, and New School part-fime Faculty (PTF).

Accreditation Chicken

The part-time faculty strike occurred amidst a review of The New School by the Middle States accreditation body. As the strike led to significant “loss of learning”, Middle States provisionally reaccredited the New School with the caveat that the University must not allow further labor conflicts to result in cancelled classes.

The university’s tenuous accreditation introduced a novel dynamic into the bargaining process. On the one hand, it massively increased our leverage. Our ability to secure such a significant contract was largely due to this factor. On the other hand, management’s threats of increased surveillance and immediate discipline (for unionized workers under No-Strike clauses) or pay and healthcare cuts (for nonunionized workers) to any solidarity strikers rendered solidarity organizing more challenging than in the past.

Both parties were aware of the game we were playing; should a strike last more than two weeks, loss of accreditation would potentially put an end to the university. Our bargaining strategy revolved around balancing a militant stance of willing to openly make use of our accreditation leverage with clear communication about the stakes of doing so. Both the bargaining committee and our constituents were aware of the damage that a prolonged strike would do, not only to university enrollment, but also to the culture of solidarity and trust amongst workers that has been vital to the success of organized labor at the New School.

The Bargaining Process: Tactical Successes and Failures

We began bargaining with the university in July 2023. Initially, the university reenlisted the same external council whose aggressive tactics had so disastrously backfired on them during the 2022 PTF strike. Her team presented a comprehensive package of proposals on the first day of bargaining and consistently pushed for frequent and long bargaining sessions. This strategy was obviously intended to allow the university to simultaneously drag their feet and bargain in bad faith, while aiming to declare an impasse and unilaterally impose a last-best-and-final offer before the members could organize a strong strike threat during the academic year.

Over the same period, nonacademic student workers testified in front of the NLRB in support of their case to accrete and join SENS, forming a wall-to-wall student worker union. Given the strength of their case, we expect an NLRB ruling in favor of either partial or full unit accretion. The university has made it clear their strategy will be to appeal any NLRB decision, in the hopes of landing their case in front of Trump appointees.

In November, the university replaced its external council with a lawyer more willing to play ball and strike a deal. Nevertheless, it took a strike authorization vote held in February to get the university to respond to our economic proposals.

To counter the university’s impasse-oriented strategy, we insisted on a set of bargaining ground rules that would allow for open bargaining over Zoom—“bargaining TV” as it came to be called in 2022, when PTF did the same. This strategy gave us the opportunity to publicly call-out and translate the university’s legalistic union-busting strategies to the broader community.

Simultaneously, we developed an extremely wide ranging and ambitious raft of proposals, including many new articles—inspired by wins achieved by other ASW unions across the county over the last five years—tailored to addressing outstanding worker issues including safety from cops and ICE, international student housing security, access to medicated abortion and gender-affirming care services, transit benefits, increased access to university space to facilitate organizing on campus, tuition remission, protections for academic and political freedom of expression, and so on. By September we had warded off the threat of impasse, filled the table with various bargaining chips, and put significant pressure on the university to replace its chosen law firm.

In the early stages of bargaining, our primary objective was to preserve our strong antidiscrimination and harassment language against university attacks designed to remove disputes over hostile work environments from the grievance and arbitration system. We anticipated the New School’s approach after having seen Harvard’s administration win on this issue using a spurious interpretation of Title IX regulations.

Thankfully, during our fight, MIT grad workers defeated MIT administration also attempting to follow the Harvard playbook. We reasoned that, given that MIT lawyers signed a contract with language like ours, the New School’s lawyers would as well, so long as we persisted. Our strategy involved proposing No Strike/No Lockout language that limited our forfeiture of strike power to disputes covered by grievance and arbitration. In effect, we countered their attempt to remove our access to arbitrators by insisting on our right to protect our members through industrial action. We maintained this language until the university finally gave up on carving out categories of disputes from binding arbitration.

In October, echoing the recent opening moves of the UAW Big-Three bargaining process, we advanced a compensation proposal that called for 40 percent raises for all categories of workers in year one of the contract, followed by two years of 13.5 percent “out-year” raises. This proposal was designed to fulfill multiple objectives simultaneously. By offering a three-year term of agreement, we set ourselves up to fall into sequence with part-time faculty, allowing us to negotiate and potentially strike together in just a few years while simultaneously mitigating the turnover and organizing attrition endemic to student-worker unions with large MA student bases. With our economic proposals on the table, we turned our attention to strike planning, recognizing that the university was going to be intransigent despite the potential consequences for accreditation.

In November, the university replaced its external council with a lawyer more willing to play ball and strike a deal. Nevertheless, it took a strike authorization vote held in February to get the university to respond to our economic proposals. Their initial offer was comically low, tacking on an additional 50 cents per position to the hourly rates they had proposed in July and holding to their miserable positions on healthcare, childcare, international student rights, and tuition. We walked out of bargaining, met with members, and immediately set an aggressive strike deadline of March 6.

With a strike deadline in effect and a commitment from both academic and nonacademic student workers to strike, the money started flowing in our direction. Spring break and a cessation of classes, was scheduled to begin after March 8, but admissions activities—staffed by nonacademic student workers—were planned throughout the break, offering us two distinct points of leverage. We bargained intensely from March 1 to March 6 with the view that the university would not be foolish enough to risk further enrollment attrition and accreditation loss by provoking a strike.

After bargaining continuously from ten in the evening on March 5 to five in the morning on March 6 we learned otherwise. The university was prepared to risk a strike in order to hold their line on the most politically important issues: refusal to voluntarily recognize or waive the right to appeal an NLRB decision with regard to nonacademic student workers and a six-year term of agreement throwing us out of cycle with part-time faculty. Upon witnessing our attempts to reach a deal before the deadline, full-time faculty (beginning with philosophy and economics) pledged to strike in solidarity, in direct defiance of the provost’s threats. Eventually, the entire graduate social sciences faculty (who make up the largest share of full-timers) unanimously pledged to do so.

Our bargaining process highlighted an often-overlooked point of leverage applicable to both public and private universities—exposure to accreditation review.

While bargaining throughout the night was politically effective and increased our support on campus, it was tactically risky. In retrospect, we gave up far too much during those five hours after midnight in the hopes of averting a strike. This left us with fewer remaining bargaining chips when we returned to the table on Thursday and Friday. Most painfully, we retracted a dental and vision proposal important to members, cut millions of dollars out of our tuition-waiver proposal, and allowed for tuition benefits to be hitched to degree-based (rather than position-based) eligibility requirements.

Worse still, with clouded judgment and bleary eyes we judged that we were close to securing a commitment not to appeal the nonacademic student workers NLRB case based on an, in retrospect, obvious ploy enacted by the university’s council. In the hopes of achieving a wall-to-wall student worker union, we came to the table after two in the morning with significant movement on our out-year percentages, believing this would be accepted as an exchange for the no-appeal commitment, or at least a weakened no-strike clause that would allow our members to individually refuse to cross other UAW 7902 pickets. Instead, the university returned at five with nothing, guaranteeing a strike. Bargaining so late was simply not worth it.

Strike and Endgame

Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of both academic and nonacademic student-worker organizers, we kicked off Wednesday’s strike on a rainy day with deafening pickets and high spirits. The university worked with the NYPD to barricade off the entrance to the University Center, offering a lane to the shamefaced line-crossers. We knew better than to physically fight this disgusting maneuver, having attempted hard pickets and verbal altercations in our 2018 strike to no benefit. The tactic would backfire again, we reasoned, given the present state of class consciousness and organization at TNS.

We returned to bargaining Thursday to significant additional movement on tuition and first-year wage increases from the university. The university tried to strong-arm us with the pathetic threat of retracting a $750 signing bonus, which we refused before leaving bargaining to discuss endgame strategy with members. That evening, we outlined the remaining issues on the table—term of agreement, out-year percentages, a reintroduced dental plan, nonacademic student worker accretion, and a more favorable no-strike clause. We should have discussed wage increase retroactivity as the final chip, but our committee believed this goal unwinnable in the final stages. In retrospect, this was another mistake.

Nevertheless, members overwhelmingly voted to prioritize issues of political power and union longevity on campus and we left with a mandate to pursue these goals. Friday morning, we opened bargaining by shaming the university by publicly detailing their strategy and illustrating both its consistent reliance on Republican jurisprudence and its utter stupidity in the face of the crises threatening higher education.

We maintained our positions at the table, and then offered the University three options—either give us: 1) NSWU recognition or a favorable no-strike clause allowing us to support their recognition struggle, or 2) dental, retroactivity, and higher out-year percentages, or 3) a three-year term of agreement. As we understood it, all three options would lead to significant gains for the union. The first option would strengthen us by tripling the size of the unit and distributing our power throughout every office of the university. The second option would represent several million in further economic gains and set an out-year raise precedent favorable to all other unions on campus. The third option would build power by aligning us with part-time faculty and ensuring a continuity of institutional memory and organizing capacity.

We expected them to take the primarily “economic” second option and were surprised when they returned agreeing to one of the “political” options: the three-year term of agreement. Our assessment was that the strike needed to wrap that day. Had we continued into spring break we would temporarily lose accreditation leverage and a great deal of faculty and staff support, in addition to potentially triggering enrollment losses that would likely have been translated into cuts.

Had we continued further past spring break the stakes would have been significantly raised. Perhaps a longer strike could have secured some additional contractual gains, but my assessment remains that this would not have been worth the damage to community relations. By closing the strike when we did, we left with a contract that drastically improves our members’ lives, builds power for organized labor on campus, and raises the standing of our union amongst students, parents, faculty and staff.

Lessons Learned

Our bargaining process highlighted an often-overlooked point of leverage applicable to both public and private universities—exposure to accreditation review. Traditionally, industrial action in higher education is understood to work by halting the commodified production of labor power. This comes with consequences common to social reproductive industries; the care relation between student and teacher—worker and “product”—falls into tension with the need to illustrate the university’s dependence on exploited labor. Students often feel like sacrificial offerings, and their parents like spurned customers. We found that targeting reaccreditation rather than the general interruption of education/credentialing mitigated this tension while simultaneously strengthening our strike leverage.

Negatively, we learned a few important lessons as well. First, the importance of controlling the pace and timing of bargaining cannot be overstated. In general, we were conscious of this and tried to use scheduling to our advantage, but in the final leg we allowed the university to lead us into a compromised position by dragging bargaining on.

Second, we learned that frequent communication across a variety of venues with members during the final stages of the bargaining process is crucial. Large swathes of membership won’t get involved with the union until a strike is already underway, but these members also have interests and positions that should be heard—we could have done a better job of preparing for an influx of new voices while on strike.

Finally, we made the mistake of bargaining against ourselves by not insisting on every issue of priority. In the hopes of decreasing the cognitive load of projecting a large number of possible end-game scenarios, we took too many chips off the table in the final two days, a move that ultimately weakened us and that may have cost us about $1 million in retroactive wage increases that perhaps could have been won had we dug in our heels a bit more forcefully.



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