Last week, graduate students at New York University (NYU)--poised to make legal history--became the first graduates enrolled at a private academic institution to vote to determine whether or not to create a graduate union.

The hotly contested election took place 25 to 27 April, drawing approximately 1400 eligible ballots from graduate assistants defined in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling as university employees. The outcome of the election however, is unknown, because the ballots have been impounded until the NLRB decides how to act upon a Request for Review submitted to them by NYU on 18 April. As Next Wave reported on 21 April, the university objects to the original decision by NLRB regional director Daniel Silverman, whose ruling laid the groundwork for last week's elections. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union, however, contends that university administrators are stalling the ballot count by conducting a "nasty campaign" to delay litigation.

After they failed to convince the NLRB to stay the election, senior university officials launched an all-out "memo blitz" in the days leading up to, and during the elections, imploring graduates to cast their votes even if they were unsure of their employee status. (In what has become a major bone of contention between the university and the UAW, the NLRB and UAW identified only a relatively small percentage of NYU's 17,000 graduates as employees who could vote.)

"Just go ahead and cast your vote as instructed by the election officials," encouraged Robert Berne, vice president for academic development in a memo sent to graduate assistants. This approach unsettled UAW officials during the election because they did not anticipate the "huge group" of ineligible students who showed up to vote, reveals Lisa Jessup, a UAW organizer. Consequently, a significant number of graduates--over 200 according to Jessup--who were not considered employees voted anyway, and many others were "challenged" by the NLRB officials manning the booths to ensure the eligibility of voters or by UAW organizers. NYU did not call into question the qualifications of would-be voters during the election itself. However, Jessup points out that it was NYU's own list that was used to identify eligible students, a list that in Jessup's opinion did not fully represent those who could and could not participate.

The elections were conducted in a "very calm and civil fashion, despite the depth of philosophical differences," describes John Beckman, spokesman for NYU. Jessup however, is "outraged" by comments made in an open e-mail message to students at NYU's Courant Institute from the director of graduate studies in the math department, Fedor Bogolomov: "I do not know how the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] would view employment under a union contract," wrote Bogolomov, the faculty member who has come under UAW fire. "Difficulties often arise at the application for a Green Card ... I personally would recommend caution," he advises in his e-mail sent the day before the elections took place.

Bogolomov tells Next Wave he simply wanted people to think about these issues and that his was a legitimate statement--not a scaremongering tactic that UAW are making it out to be. "You cannot flatly deny these questions don't exist," Bogolomov stresses. If you're a union member and you apply for permanent residency, you will have to answer the question, 'Have you ever worked in the U.S.?' " explains Bogolomov. "What will you say? Were you a student or an employee?" The math professor admits to having "very strong views" about unionization. "It is nice to pretend" that graduates will have a voice, "but I don't quite believe it," he declares. Jessup counters that "foreign students will be treated just like any other graduate."

Silverman, whose decision ignited these events, tells Next Wave that the five politically appointed NLRB board members have yet to judge whether they will approve or reject NYU's request for review. Contention of NLRB decisions is not rare: One NLRB official explains that almost 60% of 717 decisions issued by NLRB regional directors in fiscal year 1998 had "requests for review" filed against them. An evaluation of Silverman's ruling will proceed once the board comes to a decision regarding NYU's appeal. The board can take weeks or months before coming to a conclusion, and no one is predicting how long its deliberations will last. Meanwhile, the UAW has filed its own "opposition papers" with the NLRB and has asked that the ballots be counted. If and when that time comes, however, distinguishing the eligible from the ineligible ballots may complicate matters still more, further fueling what is rapidly becoming a contentious and nationally watched debate.

If the UAW does eventually succeed in its bid to represent NYU graduate employees with union contracts, it will have overturned a 25-year U.S. labor policy. And NYU will become the first privately funded academic institution in the country to house a graduate union.