Grad Students Divided
Alexandru Georgescu GRD ’18 was new to Yale when they first approached him. “I wasn’t yet cynical,” he said, “I thought they were just a few people wanting better health care.” He also wanted better health care, so he signed the piece of paper and walked to his next class.
But four years later, Local 33-UNITE HERE, formerly the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), still sends representatives – petitions in hand – to Georgescu’s home and office.
Local 33, a graduate student organization on Yale’s campus, is seeking recognition as a union. The graduate students in Local 33 believe that a collective voice would increase their bargaining power, leading to contracts that better reflect graduate students’ needs.
Representatives of Local 33 claim that graduate students work for Yale by teaching undergraduate students, conducting lab work, and pursuing extensive research projects. Formal recognition as a union would treat graduate students like workers and empower Local 33 to negotiate the terms of their labor.
Local 33, which claims to represent more than a thousand master’s and Ph.D students, often asks the graduate student body to support its unionization efforts. “Once, I was standing outside of my advisor’s door, about to go inside for a meeting, when two of them approached me,” Georgescu said, “They wouldn’t let me go in, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had it with the union then.”
Local 33’s representatives later emailed the Applied Physics department’s administrative assistant asking for the location of Georgescu’s office and went there several times. When the visits proved unsuccessful, Local 33 sent two representatives to his home, where he was enjoying a Sunday afternoon with his family.
When he asked them to leave, the organizers said, “If you don’t support us, you must not support students’ issues.” Six years after his first interaction with GESO (now known as Local 33), Georgescu was familiar with their persistence and did not concede. “My issue is wanting to be left alone on Sunday,” he told them.
They stayed, still refusing to leave. He shut the door in their faces.
“I’m not that kind of guy,” Georgescu said, “I hate having to be rude, but with GESO, you just don’t have any options. They won’t leave, and you’re powerless. They’re pushy and manipulative, but it’s hard to speak out against the union if the organizer is your friend or colleague.”
Many of the Local 33 organizers are graduate students who depend on their friends and colleagues for support, a tactic that Georgescu believes can lead to broken friendships. And while the Local 33 leaders, Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 and Robin Canavan GRD ’18, are Yale graduate students, many members belong to different unions like Locals 34 and 35 of UNITE HERE, which support Yale’s faculty and staff members, respectively.
In Spring 2016, UNITE HERE, a national labor union with 270,000 members across North America, added a third New Haven branch to its structure: Local 33-UNITE HERE. If the union is recognized, Local 33 will support Yale’s graduate students. While GESO’s recent chartering as Local 33-UNITE HERE affiliates the organization with an established union, Local 33 has not been formally recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or by Yale.
Local 33 is currently in the midst of a formal recognition process. After Columbia University students brought their case, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that graduate students at private universities could unionize. The decision allowed Local 33 to seek institutional recognition of their union and overturned a 2004 NLRB ruling that graduate students at Brown University could not be considered employees.
The decision has energized Local 33’s union efforts. A week after the ruling, Local 33 sent petitions to the NLRB from ten departments asking for separate elections to unionize. Graduate students Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science, and Sociology all filed for elections. The university could have voluntarily recognized Local 33 – like the union at New York University – but Yale’s administration remains fiercely opposed to the NLRB ruling and to unionization.
Yale’s administration requested a hearing before the NLRB to challenge Local 33’s bid for unionization and their proposed election strategy. The hearing began on September 12, and the result will uphold or reject Yale’s graduate students’ proposal for an election.
NLRB hearings, unlike conventional court proceedings, do not include a judge; instead, an attorney—in this case, Jennifer Dease—presides over the trial. Dease will record details from the proceedings and report them to John Walsh, the regional NLRB director in Boston. Walsh will then decide whether to approve Local 33’s efforts or to halt the process.
“So many of our allies are incredibly excited that we have made it this far,” Greenberg, the co-chair of Local 33, said, “but we would love to get past the hearing and on to having conversations with the administration, drawing up contracts, and gaining better rights for our workers.” Greenberg noted that because the hearing is ongoing, Local 33 cannot specify the contents for legal reasons.
In an in-person interview with The Politic, Lynn Cooley, the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, elaborated on the purpose of the hearing. “We just want to make it known that having ten departments vote, instead of the graduate school as a whole, seems like a misstep to us,” she said.
Dean Cooley later clarified in writing, adding: “It is an inappropriate and unfair tactic that raises serious questions about whether the union has the best interest of graduate students in mind. Every graduate student should have a right to vote on their future, and Local 33’s strategy of electoral manipulation seems designed to avoid that.”
Cooley and other administrators hope the hearing will shed light on what they see as the problematic nature of Local 33’s proposed vote. Cooley thinks giving union status to some departments but not others would put graduate students at an academic disadvantage.
“Our courses are purposefully interdisciplinary,” Cooley said, “And graduate students are encouraged to have members of different departments on their theses committees to support interdisciplinary scholarship. Unionizing one department and not another creates artificial boundaries between our departments and devalues interdisciplinary thinking.”
Cooley offered an example: “If a graduate student working toward the Ph.D. in one department or program is teaching in a class in a different department, which department determines their pay? Everything becomes so complicated.”
But Georgescu argues a graduate student-wide vote would almost certainly harm STEM departments if the vote resulted in unionization. Students in Physics and other research-intensive departments, he argued, would be negatively affected. “Even if the union could do what it claims and increase graduate students’ salaries,” Georgescu said, “I don’t know if that would be a good thing for me as a physics student.”
If a graduate student-wide vote were held and passed in favor of Local 33, STEM students would have the same standards and pay as Humanities students, a change that could be detrimental. Physics students, explained Georgescu, receive funding and stipends from external agencies. If the union demands higher salaries for its graduate workers, physics students would have to receive larger grants from organizations, which could possibly prevent science organizations and foundations from funding Yale graduate students.
Yale also takes some of this grant money to pay for overhead charges that allow Yale to keep its labs running. If Yale increases its legal budget to fight union demands, it would incorporate the cost into its overhead budget, increasing the amount of grant money that graduate students will have to request. If Yale students become more expensive, fewer organizations would willingly fund graduate students in science and math departments.
But there is another layer to the differences between quantitative departments and humanities departments. “It’s hard to confront members of the union because a lot of the time, they’re your classmates, they’re your friends,” Georgescu said, “In the humanities, people become isolated if they don’t stand for the union because people in the unions hang out together, and because if you’re not for the union, you’re against it. And they take that personally.”
In science departments, interactions with Local 33 members are different but Georgescu considers them just as unnerving. “My friend was working in a lab with dangerous chemicals, and the union organizers walked right in,” he said, “They started to talk to him as he was doing his work. He had to say, ‘you’re putting me in danger, please leave.’ Anyone else would have known not to come in, and anyone who didn’t would have left. They didn’t. He said it four or five times before they finally left.” These persistent, intimidating tactics prevent Georgescu and other graduate students like him from backing Local 33.
“Friends in the psychology department literally prepared back-up experiments in the chance that GESO showed up,” Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18, a student of pharmacology, said. “Because if there’s an interruption, they have to report it, and it messes with their experiment. And they still wouldn’t leave.”
Faculty and graduate students have also voiced concerns about the nature of the vote.
“The vote they’ve proposed is straight-up gerrymandering,” Mo said, “They know they’ll lose in every department but those ten, so they’re cherry picking which ones they hope will win. And it’s terrible because those 300 students that get to vote will determine my future too because I know if those departments unionize, the effects will ripple out. No doubt.”
Frank Keil, professor of psychology and linguistics, said, “the attempt to balkanize the graduate students into carefully selected, department sized units appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to thwart the will of the graduate student body as a whole, and it bears no resemblance to allegedly comparable subdivisions in the corporate world.”
The unionization battle is also personal for some Local 33 members. Canovan, the other co-chair of Local 33, said: “I’m here and fighting for this union because I know how few women go into higher levels of science. More and more drop off with every stage because of sexism inherent in the work force. I’ve been told ‘use your boobs to get a job.’ It shouldn’t be that way.”
Mehmet Dogan GRD ‘17, a student in the physics department, noted that a union would allow him to receive better healthcare. “When my wife needed a root canal, Yale dental didn’t cover it,” he said, “we couldn’t pay out of pocket, so she took pain-killers until we could go to Turkey, where a root canal is cheaper. We shouldn’t have to do that.”
For graduate students and faculty who oppose Local 33, their misgivings are equally personal. One graduate student spoke of a colleague who was on Local 33’s organizing team before quitting because their recruitment tactics became too much to bear. At organizational meetings, she claimed, Local 33 members would routinely discuss the “weak points” of graduate students targeted for recruitment — including highly personal information such as medical and mental health histories. The lack of democracy within the union also disturbed her. Though she still supports graduate student unionization, she maintains that Local 33 should not be that union, pointing to its aggressive recruitment tactics as evidence of a misplaced emphasis on growing membership. These tactics don’t end with recruitment: after leaving the union, she received ten follow-up phone calls in one day.
While some argue that Local 33’s aggressive tactics will end once it is recognized as a union, Georgescu thinks an end to the persistence is unlikely. “What would make them change then?” he asked, “If their ridiculous harassment works and they unionize, they’ll think their strategy worked. They won’t want to stop.”
But to some Yalies, Local 33 has already been effective. After GESO hosted a rally in the fall of 2014 to garner support for student union recognition, Yale granted funding to sixth-year students. According to Mo, the timeline caused some graduate students to wrongly attribute the changes to GESO, instead of the Graduate and Professional Schools’ Senate (GPSS).
However, Mo, the former president of GPSS, noted that Local 33 was never at the bargaining table during negotiations for sixth year students’ funding. The entire process, according to Mo, took almost a year, and GESO’s rally came just two months before the changes were enacted.
Greenberg emphasized Local 33’s current lack of focus on specific issues of policy. “Our immediate goal is to have an election and win that election and then negotiate some contracts,” he said.
Mo argued that Local 33’s presence has even caused Yale’s administration to backtrack on certain policy changes. Specifically, the GSA (Graduate Student Assembly) and GPSS were almost finished with a process that would have granted child care services to parents in the graduate and professional schools who were in need. However, once the NLRB decision was released and Local 33 began its campaign for a vote, Yale’s administration shied away from childcare reform, a decision Mo says was made out of fear that “people would think we were bargaining.”
“Basically, GESO prevents changes from happening. They’re hurting their own cause,” Mo said. “And worse, they’re taking credit for the changes we made happen. We did research to find out how many parents were in the graduate school, how much money they needed, what their backgrounds were. And, after months, we had a victory that GESO swooped in and took credit for.”
Even beyond the institutional level Local 33’s campaigns continue to change relationships between individual graduate students—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. “The community Local 33 stands for and brings together is strong and united,” said Greenberg. “I am constantly marveled by the support we have and the people that rally together behind us.”
But some graduate students disagree. Elizabeth Mo said, “GESO is tearing up the graduate school first, by building these micro-units and establishing artificial divisions. And friendships are suffering because conversations no longer feel constructive. You can’t convince a GESO supporter to see your point of view or even to respect you. People just can’t get along anymore.”