By confronting the increased role of organized union activity in pressing for equal pay for its clerical and technical workers, the administration of the nation's largest private university avoided a potentially disabling strike. Unlike Columbia University, where a five-day walkout last fall forced hundreds of classes off campus and disrupted the university's daily routine, or Yale University, where a 1984 strike by 2,500 clerical and technical workers crippled that institution for 10 weeks, New York University (NYU) reached a contract agreement recently with its 1,500 receptionists, secretaries, video-display-terminal operators, clerks, and lab assistants.
The NYU contract furthers the concept of comparable worth or pay equity, which holds that women should receive equal pay to that of men for jobs that require comparable skills, education, and experience. In the NYU negotiations, a largely female bargaining unit wanted to be compensated equally to already-organized predominantly male unions. Pay equity has been at the center of contract negotiations, as the efforts of unions to organize white-collar workers has grown in recent years to bolster a dwindling blue-collar constituency.
The agreement guarantees a 6.5 percent salary increase in the first year of a two-year accord, increases in the minimum starting pay for the lowest-paid workers and introduces a senority system. But it failed to include language on health and safety issues, and on union security that have been gained at other major universities.
Despite these shortcomings, NYU workers managed to reduce the wage disparity between white-collar employees and maintenance workers, security guards, elevator operators, and other predominantly male blue-collar unions. Under the new contract, for example, senior secretaries have been raised to weekly starting salaries of $288, while building porters, represented by a different union, earn entry-level salaries of $335.
According to Dr. Barbara Bergmann, professor of economics at the University of Maryland, and author of the forthcoming book ``Economic Emergence of Women,'' opponents of comparable worth believe in ``the fairness of the marketplace to regulate wages,'' similar to their opposition to rent control or the minimum wage. ``My response? The marketplace for labor is shot through with discrimination,'' she says. Current conditions ``are not the result of an impartial process at all.''
Union leaders point to NYU's adept management as a principal factor in moderating worker expectations, and add that Director of Labor Relations Richard Semeraro has learned to be aware of the extent of worker concerns. Other universities ``have taken the easy way out,'' Mr. Semeraro stated, referring to health and safety issues.
``We're up against the largest private institution in the country,'' stated Magarita Aguilar, president of local 3882 of the American Federation of Teachers, which has represented NYU's workers since 1979. ``Semeraro has been there for 12 years. He plays very hard ball.''
Maida Rosenstein, co-chair of the local at Columbia University, commented that ``the most serious shortcoming of the settlement'' was NYU's refusal to move on the ``security issue.''
While other major university clerical and technical workers at Cornell, Boston University, Yale, and Columbia have gained advances in union security requiring most workers either to pay dues or become a union member, at NYU membership is completely voluntary.'' NYU union leaders stated that this failure to achieve greater union security has hurt worker support.
Jeff Eichler, an organizer at the local who helped negotiate the contract, compares Semeraro's performance to Columbia's mishandling of its relations with District 65, which currently represents 1,050 clerical and technical workers there.
When Columbia, the other major university in New York City, cut medical benefits for its nonunion employees during a union recognition battle in 1984, the union gained strength, he said.
``Columbia's cutting the medical benefits was one of the greatest organizing tools we had,'' Rosenstein noted. Eichler stated that his feeling about Columbia's labor people is ``that they're not very astute.'' And Agular added that the Yale strike was another example of mismanaged labor relations.
Karen Nussbaum, director of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, is optimistic. ``The issue is not whether they're rectifying discrimination that's been in place for a long time, but whether they're making progress.'' The disparities exist ``because women are taken advantage of, and have been for a long time, and because janitors have been unionized for a long time.''
``This movement has a lot of experience now,'' she concluded. ``It's not all won and lost in one struggle.''