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Obama's Union-Busting New Chief of Staff? Jacob Lew Helped Destroy Grad Students' Union at NYU

When Obama's new Chief of Staff was NYU executive vice president, school ceased recognizing the grad students' union.

Three months into a bitter strike, the Graduate Students Organizing Committee sent an e-mail to supporters.  “Like their refusal to bargain, their threats last fall, and the docking of prospective pay for striking,” the union wrote, “John Sexton and the NYU administration, aided by former Clintonites Jacob Lew and Cheryl Mills, are again hiding behind a right-wing, Republican NLRB.” 

Six years, later, Lew and Mills are back in Washington. Mills is Hillary Clinton’s Chief of Staff at the State Department. Lew reprised his Clinton Administration role as director of the Office of Management and Budget—until last week, when Obama promoted him to White House Chief of Staff.

In 2004, Jacob Lew was the first hire by newly-appointed New York University President John Sexton. Lew served as NYU’s chief operating officer and executive vice president for the following two years, during which NYU withdrew recognition from its graduate student employees union and punished some participants in the ensuing strike. UAW Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein, whose local includes GSOC, says Lew was “the point person” in “representing management’s position” against the union. (Full disclosure: the UAW is an  In These Times sponsor)

“Every single ruthless tactic from the playbook of union-busting was followed at NYU,” says NYU Professor Andrew Ross.  Ross co-edited  The University Against Itself, an anthology on the strike.

A White House spokesperson directed an inquiry to OMB Communications Director Kenneth Baer, who e-mailed, “Throughout his career, Jack Lew has been a strong supporter of the right of workers to organize – as has the President. And that belief will not change in his new role as Chief of Staff.” Baer declined further comment.

Spokespeople for the AFL-CIO and for the UAW International Union both declined to comment on Lew’s promotion.

Soon after Lew joined NYU in 2004, a Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board issued its  Brown University decision denying graduate student teachers the right to union recognition. That was a reversal of a Clinton-appointed majority’s  NYU decision, which four years earlier had declared for the first time that graduate student employees were workers covered under the National Labor Relations Act (in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both co-sponsored legislation to restore graduate student employees’ rights).

(Full disclosure: My former employer, UNITE HERE, has an organizing campaign among Yale graduate students, which I actively supported as an undergraduate.)

GSOC had won an election in 2001 and, under Sexton’s predecessor, negotiated the first union contract between a private university and a graduate student workforce.  After  Brown overturnedNYU in 2004, NYU was no longer legally required to negotiate with GSOC - though nothing in the decision prevented it from doing so.  With a year until GSOC’s contract would expire, NYU announced a several-month process of deliberation and community input over whether or not to negotiate a new one.

On April 21, 2005, Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. and New York City Council President Christine Quinn joined GSOC leaders outside the building housing Sexton’s office demanding a meeting. Lew met them and accepted a petition from GSOC’s membership calling for NYU to return to the bargaining table.

Instead, in a June  memo to the NYU community, Lew and Provost David McLaughlin announced a “proposed decision,” pending a 30-day comment period, that “we should no longer use a union as an intermediary with our students.”  On August 2, NYU indicated to GSOC that it was interested instead in a “new paradigm,” under which GSOC could negotiate over a narrowed range of issues, no one could be required to pay union representation costs, and the university (rather than an arbitrator) would have final say on the resolution of any grievances.  GSOC responded on August 4 by reiterating its request for sit-down negotiations.