Local 33 is trying to paint the recent unionization of six departments as a victory of graduate students against the administration, but a closer look reveals a very different picture. The legal conflict may have been between Local 33 and the administration, but the main conflict has always been between Local 33 and the rest of the graduate students, people Local 33 has done its best to silence. After years of harassment at our offices, homes, and on the street in an attempt to sell us empty promises, Local 33 fought against us with an election strategy intended to exclude and silence us. It held “department town halls” at which anybody who disapproved was asked to leave or not invited at all. Local 33 showed, once again, that it is an organization with no intention of changing, and is even willing to modify its legal strategy to avoid doing so. From the union’s first petition to hold an election that would only include 10% of the graduate school population, Local 33 lost any moral ground it may have had left. When elected representatives from across the school voted to stay neutral on unionization but against Local 33 and micro-units, Local 33 lost. And on Thursday’s election, it lost even further, failing to win even the departments it had handpicked for victory.
Local 33’s “union” now consists of approximately 200 students in a graduate school of 3000. These 200 students are divided into six “micro bargaining units.” But even with only 10% of the student population permitted to vote, Local 33 still managed to lose Physics, a department that comprises over 22% of the students Local 33 was trying to unionize. Two other departments are still undecided. And it doesn’t end there. Local 33’s convoluted and expensive legal strategy (which, as I mentioned in another op-ed, likely cost a total of half a million dollars, according to the organizers themselves) to only allow students a vote if they are teaching in these select departments was at least in part intended to make it easier for the union to win Physics. There is no doubt that the English department would have unionized even without this strategy, but the sheer size of the Physics department as well as its proximity to other big departments (biology, engineering) made it a strategic long-term investment for Local 33, even at the cost of unionizing fewer students in other departments. This strategy did not pay off.
Local 33 tried to justify its clear voter suppression in this election by claiming that “people who want a union get a union,” even as they ignored how a union would affect the rest of graduate student life, and how it would affect those who cannot vote this semester but might be part of the union when they teach the next semester. As usual, they’ve put the “idea of a union”—which this divisive election no doubt corrupted—above the very real lives a union is meant to improve.
One of the most oft-repeated statements from union members has been that if you’re against Local 33 you’re against unions. This is a very curious statement: does it mean that we would like unions to be banned? No, I don’t want unions to be banned. I simply think that a union’s role is to improve the lives of those it serves, not the other way around. Since a union charges dues (which will likely amount to $900 per year in the departments that unionized) and has the option to ask you to strike, it is incumbent upon the union to prove that it is worth the money.
But it has become clear to me that the people asking this question are not thinking in these terms. They think a union is always a force for good and we should want to join that union to make it stronger. By contrast, I consider a union to be a method of organizing labor to improve labor’s working conditions.
A union is made of its members and its leadership. While Local 33 has had its own well-documented issues at Yale over the past 20+ years, the controversies over UNITE HERE’s use of similar tactics have been documented even in socialist magazines such as Jacobin. UNITE HERE has pushed legislation for an increased minimum wage in Los Angeles while making an exemption for unionized workers to encourage employers to let their employees unionize. All these examples make it clear that—just like those who ask whether we are for or against unions—the main goal of Local 33’s leadership is to increase its ranks and political power rather than to improve graduate student life. The head of Local 33 is a graduate student in political science and a local politician elected to the city’s board of Alders, while many others took semesters or even years off to be full-time union employees. I am sure this union will be helpful for their future political careers and I am sure these students see themselves as forces for good. But as a graduate student, I believe that any union that asks for dues and the right to negotiate for me has to prove it’s worth the money. It is not incumbent on students to justify ourselves if we are not convinced by union representatives. And if no union can prove that it can improve our livelihoods enough to justify the costs, it’s perfectly okay to not have a union. That doesn’t make us “bad liberals” or “reactionaries.”
These are difficult times for many of us, and for the world in general. I believe the best way forward is not to join the first group of people who claim to be fighting for us, but to fight for more rational, collected thought first. At Yale, I would like graduate students who want to improve graduate student life to be more involved in the inclusive organizations we do have (GSA, GPSS) for which we do not incur a cost. I would like those students who do want to unionize to think carefully about the best options available, as there are many federations to choose from, as well as the option of getting the GSA union negotiation power. And finally, I would like graduate students to come up with new, innovative ways to improve campus and form new organizations.
Alexandru Georgescu is the co-founder of GASO, a community of graduate students opposed to Local 33.