Full-time, non-tenure track faculty rallied near Washington Square park for union recognition. (all photos Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Full-time, non-tenure-track faculty at New York University (NYU) rallied near Manhattan’s Washington Square Park today, March 1, to demand union recognition. Around 150 attendees, including professors who teach film and visual art, called for inflation raises and due process for terminations.

These non-tenured professors constitute around half of NYU’s full-time faculty and work on contracts ranging from one to eight years. On February 22, workers delivered a petition signed by over 500 of the around 1,000 full-time contract professors demanding that the school recognize their right to unionize. They gave NYU a March 1 deadline. The administration has two options: It can voluntarily recognize the union or force the workers to vote in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election before contract negotiations can begin.

At the rally, literature and cinema professor Elisabeth Fay delivered a speech in which she pointed out that better setups for professors translate to better experiences in the classroom. “My working conditions are my students’ learning conditions,” Fay said.

The path to unionization has been long: Contracted professors began organizing in 2017 and affiliated themselves with ACT-UAW Local 7902 shortly after. (Local 7902 currently represents more than 4,000 workers at NYU and the New School who serve as adjunct and part-time professors, student employees, and health workers.)

When the pandemic hit in 2020, a majority of the contract professors had already signed union cards, but the organizing process slowed when the workers could no longer meet in person. Union cards are private, and last week’s petition marked the first time a majority of the workers had publicly announced their intention to organize.

Contract faculty at the March 1 rally

In response to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment, NYU spokesperson John Beckman said the school wrote to the workers yesterday to tell them it would respond to their petition in seven to 10 days.

“We acknowledge their desire to form a collective bargaining unit, and respect their right to rally peacefully in support of their aims,” said Beckman. “We will be back in touch with them with a substantive response to their letter soon.”

NYU employs around 1,000 tenured faculty members, 1,000 contract professors, and around 3,000 part-time teachers. Jacob Remes, a contracted professor who teaches labor history, estimates that the university also employs a couple hundred visiting professors.

“It’s a confusing system — deliberately so,” Remes told Hyperallergic. “Because it helps the administration hide their end-run around tenure.” Tenure affords job security in the face of political and personal disagreements, he suggested.

“Because we have neither a union contract nor tenure, we’re susceptible to arbitrary discipline and firing, which means we don’t have full academic freedom to teach and research our subjects,” Remes said.

Tenured professorships have been declining across the country for years.

David Brooks, an artist and professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study who teaches art-related courses, told Hyperallergic that he currently has to re-apply for his job every few years and is not always guaranteed a raise.

“Pay increase is crucial for those of us strapped with student loan debt, while trying to keep pace with the rising costs of living in New York City,” Brooks said. “Sustainable positions mean that we can do better jobs for students and for the university.”

Brooks also pointed out that universities across the country are opting to hire more contracted professors than tenured ones. Creating these contingent roles can save schools money. New York City comptroller Brad Lander, who spoke at the rally, called the positions “the Uber of universities.”

While NYU contracted professors have a lot to gain, Moore said she’s already seen a shift since the workers began labor organizing. “It’s built bridges across departments,” Moores said. “We’ve been atomized for years and the administration has often pitted us against each other.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.