Graduate students who work as teaching fellows at private universities are not considered employees, according to a 2004 National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, ruling. GESO cannot unionize with a majority vote by its members like Yale Security — the University must voluntarily recognize GESO as a union. GESO chair Sarah Egan GRD ’11 said getting the University to recognize a graduate student union is one of GESO’s primary objectives this year.
“We consider ourselves to be a union,” Egan said. “We would like to be able to negotiate with the administration the terms of our contracts.”
Egan said federal law is not the only complicating factor that GESO faces and Yale Security does not. Since GESO has many more members than Yale Security, the process of building consensus among members takes longer, and GESO will need a majority vote if they hope to make progress in convincing the University.
But a majority vote is no guarantee: The Yale Security vote is not yet final, as the NLRB is investigating the validity of four ballots which could potentially tie the vote. In 1995, a majority of graduate teaching fellows voted to endorse GESO as their bargaining agent, but the University did not recognize them. Even if the NLRB were to reverse its 2004 ruling, Egan said, GESO would still find it difficult to form a union.
“Having protection for your rights does not mean the University will do the right thing and negotiate a contract,” she said. “We wouldn’t win automatically.”
GESO members said the outcome of Yale Security’s union effort will not have a great impact on GESO’s work because Yale Security officers are considered employees, while graduate students are not.
Gabriel Winant GRD ’16, a member of GESO’s history department organizing committee and a graduate student concentrating in American labor history and political economy, said the potential success of Yale Security’s attempt to unionize would mean little to the GESO’s efforts. The University “doesn’t give a sh– about precedent,” he said.
Laura Miles GRD ’11 said the University should view graduate students as employees because they provide essential services.
“We perform two vital functions for the University: research and teaching,” she said. “In both of those respects, we are employees.”
All five graduate students interviewed said they think working as a teaching fellow counts both as academic training and as an actual job, forming part of the graduate students’ education and the University’s services.
But University President Richard Levin, who said the administration agrees with the 2004 NLRB decision, holds that teaching fellows are students rather than employees.
“It’s very distinctly different from the kind of employment of clerical or technical workers or of security workers,” Levin said. “They would not be employees here if they had not first been admitted as students.”
The rationale behind Levin’s thinking, Winant said, is financial. It is cheaper for the University to run departments without graduate students’ input, Winant said.
But both Egan and Miles also said the primary reason the administration will not recognize GESO as a union is not because of cost — they said they believe administration does not wish to relinquish control.
“I think that they’re reluctant to share some elements of power with the people that do the work on campus,” Egan said. “Yale has a lot of money, so it’s not mostly about the money.”
Still, GESO can count on other allies to endorse their unionization, Winant said, including unions Local 34, which represents Yale’s clerical and technical employees, and Local 35, which represents service and maintenance employees.
Bob Proto, president of Local 35, said his union has been a strong supporter of the graduate teachers’ desires to unionize since GESO formed in 1991, adding that they have a right to negotiate their own working conditions. The lack of a collective voice for graduate teachers is “a problem,” Proto said, considering that teaching is “the core of what Yale’s all about.”
The last vote to recognize GESO as a graduate teaching union was in 2003. Students voted against GESO, with 694 against GESO becoming a union and 651 in favor. 80 votes were challenged.