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A Guide to Local 33’s Fight for Unionization

Today, Graduate-Students in nine departments of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will participate in a vote to determine whether they will be recognized as official employees of the university and will be part of an official union, Local 33-UNITE HERE. Elections in the departments of  East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, History, History of Art, Political Science, and Sociology will take place in the Dwight Hall common room, and elections in Mathematics, Physics and Geology and Geophysics will vote in Founders Hall.

Today’s vote may culminate a three-decade long fight for Yale’s graduate students to gain the right to collectively bargain. The first movements to unionize graduate students arose  in the 1960s; most graduate student unions capitalized on the momentum of public school teachers’ and college faculty’s unions. But according to Professor of American Studies, Michael Denning,  Local 33-UNITE HERE, Yale’s unofficial graduate student union, emerged, not out of unions for college professors, but out of service sector unions.

Here is a timeline of their five-decade long fight:

Local 33’s (then called GESO) fight was invigorated two years ago, on October 21, 2014, when approximately 2, 000 people in Beinecke Plaza rallied in support of GESO and the rights of graduate students to organize. GESO’s organizers hand-delivered a petition to President Salovey after their rally. By then, the NLRB had refused to recognize the pleas of graduate workers to unionize. By 2014, approximately sixty public U.S. universities had recognized graduate worker unions, while private universities still vehemently opposed graduate workers’ pushes to unionize.

Only New York University, a private institution, had officially recognized its graduate student union, GSOC. The collaborative effort resulted in an uncontested election process and paved the way for private institutions to establish graduate student unions.

Two years later, on March 9, 2016, GESO, Yale’s unofficial graduate student union, rebranded itself as “UNITE HERE Local 33.” The renaming ceremony took place at the Omni Hotel with the attendance of over 1,500 Yale graduate students, employees, and supporters of the movement. But the ceremony was largely symbolic, as renaming GESO did not give Yale’s graduate student union any official status. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students did not fall under the umbrella of employees; thus, graduate student could not possess the collective bargaining rights given to employees under a union.

On August 23, 2016, the NLRB ruled in a case brought about by Columbia University’s graduate student union that graduate students could be recognized as employees. Columbia’s graduate students joined the United Automobile Workers with the goals of bargaining over their health insurance and stipend payments. The case opened the door for private universities to change their relationship with graduate students. Crucially, the NLRB decision reinvigorated Local 33’s push towards official union status. The decision gave Local 33 the right to unionize, if Yale’s graduate students vote for unionization.

On August 29, 2016, Local 33 petitioned to hold union elections in 10 different departments, rather than in each department of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Science. “Graduate teachers in the departments of East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Math, Physics, Political Science, and Sociology decided to file petitions with the NLRB,” explained Aaron Greenberg, Chair of Local 33. This micro-unit approach has received backlash from the Yale administration and GSA, Yale’s Graduate Student Assembly.

President Nick Vincent said, “The GSA’s role has been to advocate on behalf of all students, and this is why we voted in the fall to pass resolutions to oppose current unionization efforts by Local 33 and their department-by-department strategy,” Vincent said.

He elaborated, “Importantly, the Assembly voted to remain neutral on graduate student unionization in general, so the opposition was targeted against Local 33 and their department-by-department strategy. The Graduate School really is one community, and it doesn’t make sense to split us up into individual units.”

Thomas Conroy, Yale’s Director of Public Affairs and Communications, said in an interview with The Politic, “Local 33’s approach to so-called micro-units is unprecedented in higher education, both at public and private institutions.  As you no doubt know, both Columbia and Harvard recently held school-wide elections. It is noteworthy that unions at Yale’s peer schools have pursued more inclusive approaches.”

Ultimately, Aaron Greenberg, the Chair of Local 33, has explained that this electoral system is not undemocratic and will merely push along a process in line with democratic ideals.

On September 12, 2016, the NLRB deliberated over Local 33’s petitions in Hartford in a series of hearings. The Yale administration argued that individual departments are not autonomous entities, and holding an election process treating them as independent of the entire graduate school would have negative academic implications. Different graduate students could be subject to different hours, stipends, and benefits, leading to divisions between graduate school students.  The department-based approach has never been tried before and would set an important precedent for other graduate student unions across the nation. After the NLRB recognized the rights of graduate students to unionize, the debate in hearings shifted to the electoral process by which they would unionize and whether the department-based approach is advisable.

On January 25, 2017, after months of hearings, the Regional Director for Region 1 of the NLRB signed off on Local 33’s election process The NLRB is conducting union elections in nine departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences today. In order to be eligible to vote, students must have current teaching appointments in the departments to which the vote applies: East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, History, History of Art, Political Science and Sociology, Mathematics, Physics, and Geology. 313 students in total are eligible to vote, a number that includes fewer than half of the PhD students of those nine departments. In total, these 313 students make up approximately one-tenth of Yale’s graduate student population.

On the topic of today’s election, Greenberg told The Politic, “We are thrilled and excited to be able to vote, win, and then sit down with the Yale administration and negotiate a contract that addresses the issues that matter to us—secure and equal pay, access to mental health care, equity for people of color and women, and affordable childcare.”

The Administration expresses concern about the election process and what the implications of today’s vote will be. Conroy said, “Yale shares the concerns of the elected student representatives of the Graduate Student Assembly, that Local 33 is pursuing an election strategy that is insufficiently democratic…the university has a right to file a request for review with the NLRB in Washington, D.C.”

He elaborated, “As you know, graduate student unionization has been a question on the Yale campus for over 20 years, going back to GESO’s strike in 1995, and GESO’s own school-wide, self-organized election that it conducted and lost in 2003.  Unfortunately, the NLRB has changed its views on the question of whether graduate students are primarily students three times in the last sixteen years. Higher education is not well-served by this inconsistency.”