Fordham Graduate Students Walk Out of Teaching to Demand a Better Contract
Dissatisfied after seven months of negotiations, hundreds of teaching assistants are ditching classes through Wednesday.
More than 300 graduate student workers at Fordham University’s Arts and Sciences school began a three-day walkout this Monday, resulting in hundreds of canceled classes amid growing frustration with the state of their union contract negotiations with the university.
On Tuesday morning, about two dozen picketers marched in front of Fordham University’s Rose Hill Campus in The Bronx, while others demonstrated at Lincoln Center Campus in Manhattan. Drivers sped along East Fordham Road toward Webster Avenue and honked their horns in support as the strikers bellowed, “Who’s got the power? We got the power! What kind of power? Union power.”
The Fordham Graduate Student Workers union, which formed last May and is made up of 360 graduate teaching assistants, is calling for significant pay increases, more administrative support for international students, adoption of a “just cause” standard for disciplinary actions, university-provided computers, a ban on non-disclosure agreements, and $4,000 in annual child care subsidies for workers with children under the age of 5. Communication Workers of America Local 1104 is the parent union.
“We don’t make a living wage, actually, we make less than half the living wage when adjusted for the New York City cost of living,” Molly McCargar, a sixth-year doctoral student in biological sciences, told THE CITY at the Bronx rally on Tuesday. “We’ve been at the bargaining table for eight months now, without a single movement away from the status quo.”
Amal Zaman, a graduate student worker on the bargaining committee, said that the walkout will end on Wednesday, but is a sign that a strike remains on the table ahead of the fall semester.
“If by the end of the summer, there is no contract and we feel they have not ended their practices of bad faith and surface bargaining, we have no choice but to extend the labor stoppage,” Zaman said.
About three-quarters of the workers in the bargaining unit collect an annual stipend, currently about $28,000, which they seek to raise to $60,000, according to union leaders. A smaller number of grad students get paid hourly and are looking to earn at least $28 an hour. Master’s students on an hourly wage now make $18.96 an hour, while doctoral students earn $21.38 an hour, according to Fordham University. New York City’s minimum wage has been $15 per hour since 2019.
‘They Changed Their Tune’
Fordham spokesperson Bob Howe told THE CITY in an email on Tuesday that as many as 239 classes were canceled as a result of the walkout, and noted that not all graduate students participated in it.
“The Union has yet to present the University with its full economic demands, which is necessary for Fordham to understand their economic package in a comprehensive manner,” Howe said. “What the Union has proposed thus far represents a 100%-125% increase in stipends — compensation ($60,000 to $69,000) for part-time work that would be the equivalent of more than $100 per hour and greatly exceeds what other institutions pay.”
But Zaman said that Howe’s summary was full of “distortions.”
“For example,” she said, “they keep calling us part-time workers but they’re the ones who make us sign an attestation form that says we won’t take outside employment and will only work for Fordham for 19 hours. And our actual work takes much more than 19 hours.”
The Fordham Graduate Student Workers union is also calling for guaranteed housing for international students — which the university says would be prohibitively expensive — and for a dedicated staffer within Fordham’s Office for International Services to support their needs.
Fifth-year doctoral English student Anwita Ghosh, 31, said those who choose to opt in to the university’s housing system must pay four or five months in advance from their $28,000 stipend. Because of this, she said, many international students like herself elect to take their chances in the city’s housing market.
“I took a gamble. I basically signed my lease from India without having seen the place in person,” Ghosh told THE CITY at the Rose Hill Campus rally on Tuesday. “We don’t have a guarantor. We don’t have the credit scores. We get $28K, which is not 40 times the rent. If we can’t afford the guarantor, we should have the 40 times.”
Ghosh is the coordinator for the writing center at Rose Hill Campus. Because of the walkout, there were only three tutors available to aid students there on Tuesday instead of the usual 12, she said.
The graduate students’ walkout came months after Fordham finished contentious negotiations with Fordham Faculty United, a union of more than 600 adjunct and non-tenure track instructors, reaching a deal ahead of the spring semester after the union threatened a strike. However, their contract forbids them from solidarity strikes on behalf of other unions.
The graduate students’ union and Fordham had their latest bargaining session on Monday. According to Zaman, the university’s representatives said they were open to concessions for international students, but that the meeting was “no different” from previous ones.
“Verbally, they changed their tune,” she said, “but I can’t say if they changed anything until they change it in writing.”