Crucial year ahead for graduate student unions

After more than a decade of conflict and drama, the debate over a potential union for teaching assistants at Yale comes to yet another flash point this year.

Yale must soon negotiate a contract with Local 34 and Local 35, the two established Yale unions that have allied themselves with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, and GESO likely will be an issue in these negotiations. GESO began trying to organize a formal TA union for graduate students more than 10 years ago, and recently has called for a card-count neutrality agreement.

A card-count neutrality agreement would have the University, which opposes TA unionization, and its employees — including professors — agree not to say anything either opposing or supporting unionization. The agreement also would recognize a union if more than 50 percent of a potential bargaining unit signed membership cards.

Local 34 and Local 35 officials have said they will make obtaining a neutrality agreement for GESO a priority when they begin negotiating for a new contract. The current contracts expire in January.

“Right now what we want is a card-count neutrality agreement,” GESO Chair J.T. Way GRD ’05 said.

The Yale administration has opposed such an agreement, saying that all members of the community should have a voice in the debate.

“I think it’s really important that we take the issues in a serious, reflective way,” Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield said.

As GESO continues an aggressive membership drive and Yale continues to wait, both sides also wait for news from the National Labor Relations Board. Last December, GESO filed two NLRB unfair labor practice charges against Yale. One related to a controversial e-mail sent out by noted History professor Paul Kennedy, and another related to an incident at the McDougal Graduate Student Center when GESO was asked to remove flyers. Hockfield said last January that the center does not allow posting.

There have been no further developments with the charges in the past nine months, though. Jonathan Kreisberg, regional attorney for the local branch of the NLRB, said the charges are still under investigation and he gave no timetable for any further actions.

GESO and Yale are also watching unfolding events at three other major universities.

Last March, New York University became the first private university to agree to negotiate with a TA union, and NYU and the TA union have had more than 10 meetings since April, NYU spokesman John Beckman said.

“Both sides appear to be committed to working together,” Beckman said, although he declined to say when negotiations might produce a first contract.

Some public universities have had TA unions for years, but the TAs at these institutions are state employees and their status is governed by each state’s labor laws. At private universities the NLRB regulates this issue, and a landmark 2000 NLRB decision paved the way for the union at NYU.

The decision broke a 25-year precedent by saying that TAs at NYU are employees.

Columbia and Brown universities have challenged the petitions filed by groups of graduate students who officially called for an NLRB-sponsored union election — the path to unionization that NYU’s TA union used.

Hearings in front of the regional labor board ended for Brown and both sides must file their briefs by Sept. 25, Brown spokesman Mark Nickel said. Both sides then will wait for a decision.

Columbia is still involved in hearings, which likely will continue through September, said United Auto Workers organizer Eden Schulz. The UAW is leading the organizing drives at Brown and Columbia and is the parent union at NYU, but is not affiliated with GESO.

The universities likely would have to prove that the situation at Brown or Columbia is substantially different from the situation at NYU, or the regional boards would have to overturn the recent precedent set by the NYU ruling.

Both Brown and Columbia will have to wait for rulings following the hearings, and the regional rulings could be appealed to the national board — which likely would lengthen the process substantially.

This year, then, may be one of substantial new precedent or one of waiting as NYU negotiates and Brown and Columbia wait for final rulings before elections even can occur.

While contract negotiations at Yale for Local 34 and Local 35 loom, both GESO and Yale wait to see whether the NYU precedent will be upheld.

“It’s a strange year,” Hockfield said. “Because from one perspective you say this is going to be a particularly important year, but on the other hand there’s so much that’s still undecided and up in the air.”

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