A Yale College Graduate’s Defense of Local 33
Backlash against Local 33 often comes down to the same arguments: graduate students are too privileged, they’re too aggressive, and their tactics are anti-democratic and disrespectful. Above all, criticisms of the union are frequently grounded in the alleged “inappropriateness” of their tactics. But if critics are to be taken seriously, they ought to decide what, exactly, it is about the notion of organized labor at the graduate student level they oppose. Otherwise, the indecisiveness of these voices will dissipate with time, leaving last August’s NLRB ruling to speak with power: Graduate students at private universities have the right to unionize as workers, and it is time for Yale to recognize that right.
Before Local 33 began fasting, few undergraduates on campus knew that graduate students were pushing for unionization, much less the reasons they were doing it. But as soon as the 33 Wall Street shelter was erected on Beinecke Plaza, many of my peers were quick to develop opinions about it and to discuss the fasters with vitriol and mockery. The Yale College Republicans hosted a barbecue next to the fasters’ shed, a Yale College Democrat boards member mocked Local 33 on Twitter for their “offensive” tactics and viral online posts spread misinformation that the fasters were eating throughout the day. Was it fear, or cowardice, or a cheap sense of power that emboldened people to react in such a manner? Where are the “fake news” alarm bells now?
It is important to clear up a few myths about Local 33: First, the NLRB rules surrounding union elections limit the eligible voters based on their teaching status and their recent teaching obligations. So the view that Local 33 is somehow “undemocratic” because a small fraction of the graduate student population voted is misinformed: Not all graduate students teach at any given moment. And on top of that, if Local 33 had opted for a school-wide election, rather than voting by department, would that not have been anti-democratic for departments that might be subject to a “yes” vote, but do not wish to unionize? Third, there is confusion about the stakes. Yale’s hope for a repeal of the NLRB’s decision would reverse the ability of all existing graduate student unions to negotiate a contract. That means that the Yale administration poses a threat not only to Local 33: A successful appeal by the university would threaten to invalidate all current graduate student unions and the potential for future ones to form.
As for the issue of the union’s tactics, it is one thing to critique an organization’s internal dynamic with the goal of of improving it, and another to slander an entire group of individuals because people who did not wish to join the union felt uncomfortable with other students’ impassioned commitment to the issues that affect their everyday lives. There has also been criticism about the fast in particular. It is true that many people associate with fasting the struggles of post-colonial nations and political prisoners. But to argue that fasting can only be used as a tactic in those particular circumstances takes advantage of moral authority of the present; it implies that since nothing can ever be as bad as colonialism or indefinite detention, nothing can warrant a fast.
One thing is absolutely clear from the public’s comments and reactions to Local 33’s movement: Academic labor has become tremendously undervalued. People simply do not take graduate students seriously as workers. The fantasy that graduate students spend all their time leisurely reading and learning is simply false: They have to teach, hold office hours, grade papers (or, depending on the subject, problem sets and exams), research, prepare for oral exams, write dissertations, and for some, do all of this while raising a family. Graduate students cannot perform well in their workplace if they do not have financial stability and proper compensation for their work. Choosing an academic career path is not a rosy prospect: It entails six or more years in graduate school, scraping by on a living stipend without much savings. The fact that tuition is waived for PhD students should not be considered part of their income. As I learned at Yale’s own Career Services center, when a company claims the salary they offer is higher because of health insurance or worker’s compensation, you should always negotiate the salary independently from those benefits. Somehow, that is advice is lost when we talk about graduate students negotiating with our university.
Graduate students are not customers of a university education like undergraduates are. The university relies heavily on the work of graduate students as researchers, teachers, and tutors. It is in the university’s interest to invite the best scholars to study at Yale, who contribute to the intellectual advancement of their fields as well as teach undergraduates. Graduate students are a skilled workforce that the university cannot do without.
Local 33’s demands are far from unreasonable. It is a simple concept of wage labor that one should get paid according to how much one works. Teaching loads should be fair and take into account the graduate student’s dissertation and exam preparation. Mental health care, affordable child care, and sexual harassment and discrimination grievance procedures are no-brainers in any professional industry. I fail to see how providing adequate health care and holding professors accountable for maintaining a respectful workplace, one that treats women and people of color with dignity, would threaten the “special relationship” between graduate students and advisors. Isn’t one of the goals of mentorship to make students feel confident about their standing in the workplace? If anything, a union contract that clearly defines the terms of graduate student work should create an environment that supports and encourages these relationships in a healthy, professional manner.
The commencement weekend speeches I’ve heard from President Salovey ’86 PhD, Dean Holloway ’95 PhD, and Theo Esptein ’95 emphasized the importance of community in our lives. I can think of no better example of community than the way members of Local 33 have persevered against the odds with 25 years of non-stop organizing. The motto that adorns their orange buttons and comes to life at their rallies and in their spaces, “for one another,” represents the best of Yale, because at the end of the day, community is all that we have.