With President Obama poised to tap current chief of staff Jack Lew as his next treasury secretary, Republicans are already attacking Lew for supposed slights during budget talks. Some progressives may bring renewed scrutiny to his time at CitiGroup. But if history is any guide, there will be little talk about another line on Lew’s résumé: The key role he played in New York University’s campaign to rid itself of a graduate student workers’ union.
Lew, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, joined NYU as chief operating officer and executive vice president in 2004. At the time, NYU was the only private university in the United States whose graduate students had a union contract. By the time Lew left two years later, NYU graduate students had lost their collective bargaining rights. In between, picketers hoisted “Wanted” posters with his face on them.
Reached over email, Andrew Ross, NYU professor of social and cultural analysis, charged that “the administration followed every page of the union-busting playbook, as instructed by the anti-union lawyers retained for that purpose.” Ross, a co-editor of the anthology "The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace," wrote that despite broad faculty and community support for the union, “students on the picket line were threatened with expulsion. There was no indication that Lew, as a senior member of the team who executed this policy, disagreed with any of these practices. To all appearances, he was a willing, and loyal, executor of decisions that trampled all over the students’ democratic right to organize.”
When contacted for a response, White House spokesperson Eric Schultz emailed: “Jack Lew has been a strong supporter of the right of workers to organize – as has the President. And that support will not change in his new role as Treasury Secretary.”
While graduate student teachers and researchers are unionized at many public universities, their private sector counterparts didn’t win collective bargaining rights until 2000, when a Clinton-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board sided with NYU graduate students and rejected the university’s contention that they weren’t really workers. Graduate student workers do an increasing share of the teaching and research work of major universities, and they receive stipends for it. Following the precedent-setting NYU decision, NYU graduate students won a union election and negotiated their first-ever union contract with the university.
Meanwhile, administrators at several other universities resisted the ruling, campaigning against unionization while insisting that the decision would soon be reversed by the new NLRB members recess-appointed by President Bush. (This includes Yale University, where as an undergraduate activist I supported a graduate student union campaign by an affiliate of UNITE HERE, the union I later worked for.) They got their wish: In 2004, the new NLRB majority sided with Brown University, one of several Ivy League universities that had filed appeals to prevent their graduate students’ union ballots from being counted on the grounds that they had no legal right to unionize.
After the NLRB’s flip-flop, NYU could have kept recognizing and negotiating with its union, the Graduate Students Organizing Committee, an affiliate of United Auto Workers Local 2110. But the Bush NLRB had given NYU an out, and – like other universities led by avowed liberals – NYU took it.
As I reported last January for In These Times, what came next began as a complex dance, and ended with a bitter strike. NYU first announced that it would spend months listening to community input and weighing whether to negotiate a new union contract with GSOC when the current one expired. During that period, Rev. Jesse Jackson and City Council speaker Christine Quinn presented Lew with a petition from workers urging negotiations. But on June 16, 2005, Lew and NYU provost David McLaughlin co-authored a “Memo to the Community” announcing a “proposed decision” to “no longer use the union as an intermediary with our students.” An Aug. 5 memo from the same duo made it final: “the university will not negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the UAW.” Lew and McLaughlin accused the union of having improperly interfered with “academic decision-making” in a way that could have “a profound impact” on “the academic quality of the institution.” (The American Association of University Professors rejected NYU’s argument.)
In response to NYU’s decision to strip their collective bargaining rights, union members staged a civil disobedience action with then-AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. Then, in November 2005, they went on strike. Former GSOC activist Susan Valentine charged in "The University Against Itself" that NYU’s efforts to break the union included a battery of tactics that would have been illegal if not for the Bush NLRB’s 2004 decision curtailing graduate students’ labor rights. International students charged that management threats to deny future work to strikers put them at risk of deportation. Union members alleged that they were interrogated about their union activism by their supervisors. 20 strikers were fired.
By the time Jack Lew left his post as NYU COO to become COO of Citigroup Wealth Management, the six-month strike was over, and the union had lost.
When we talked last year – soon after Obama had promoted Lew from his OMB director to his chief of staff -- Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein told me that Lew had acted as “the point person” in “representing management’s position” against GSOC. She said that NYU’s choice to stop recognizing the union meant the membership “has had to organize from scratch.” But when I asked if she thought Lew’s role should have disqualified him for the promotion, she answered, “I would love it if he had a chief of staff who had a direct history of being very pro-union. But he was in charge of the budget at NYU. Within that context, he did what he did. Maybe he’s learned something from it.”
NYU, the UAW and Local 2110 did not respond to Salon’s early afternoon requests for comment; an AFL-CIO spokesperson said that an official was not immediately available to comment. Obama’s past appointments of Lew have not drawn outcry from the AFL-CIO, the UAW, or other major unions.
Meanwhile, graduate student teachers and researchers at NYU have petitioned the NLRB to allow a new union election, so they can win their union recognition back. That would require the current NLRB members – most of whom Obama recess-appointed in January 2012, prompting outcry from Republicans and relief from unions – to overturn the Bush NLRB’s Brown decision. Asked in October about complaints from some activists about the long wait for a ruling, Obama-appointed NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce quoted an old wine commercial: “No wine before its time.” Pearce told Salon, “I was never in agreement with the Brown case, primarily because I did not think all factors were taken into consideration. Now whether or not it is appropriate for it to be overturned is another question. I have to see all of the circumstances – now that takes a little bit of time.”