Last month, the unofficial graduate student union, Local 33, formerly known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, took its first steps toward formal recognition, filing for labor elections in 10 individual departments. But one group of students remains conspicuously absent from the union’s immediate plans: undergraduates.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled this August that student assistants, who can be either undergraduates or graduate students, at private universities are considered workers and therefore have the right to unionize.
At schools like Harvard, where numerous courses have undergraduate teaching positions, union organizers are actively recruiting undergraduates, approaching them in the dining halls and sending email invitations, according to reports in the school’s newspaper. In contrast, relatively few undergraduates hold teaching positions at Yale, although in April, the Yale faculty approved the expansion of an undergraduate learning assistant program to all courses in the computer science department.
Previously, the only undergraduates with teaching responsibilities at Yale were the student assistants in CPSC 100, commonly known as CS50. That group now comprises 52 undergraduates, who are officially labeled as undergraduate learning assistants, although they are usually referred to as teaching assistants and course assistants.
Still, there are more undergraduates on the CS50 staff than there are graduate students in four of the 10 departments that filed for elections. However, despite their potential union eligibility, all four CS50 TAs and CAs interviewed said they were unaware of the possibility of undergraduates working with Local 33. None of these four said Local 33 had contacted them about joining the union.
“I haven’t heard about Local 33 or GESO,” CS50 Head TA Andi Peng ’18 said. “I wasn’t even aware that this was [a] topic that also encompassed undergraduates.”
Shortly after the August decision, Local 33 filed for separate union elections in 10 departments in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Yale is currently contesting this micro-unit strategy, a novel approach that no previous graduate-student union in a public or private university has ever attempted, in an NLRB hearing expected to continue in Hartford until at least the end of the week.
Local 33 Chairman Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 did not respond to questions about the recruitment of undergraduate TAs and CAs. In a text message, Greenberg emphasized that all undergraduates have a significant stake in the ongoing union dispute.
“Graduate teachers are often the first point of contact for undergrads,” he wrote. “Improving our working conditions will benefit not only graduate teachers but also the learning conditions for undergrads.”
University Spokesman Tom Conroy told the News that the actions of the Harvard Graduate Student Union, including talk of abolishing undergraduate shopping period, “raise serious concerns about the impact of graduate student unionization on undergraduate education at Yale.”
According to Peng, the CS50 TAs and CAs are fundamentally different from graduate student teaching fellows because they do not belong to specific departments and typically work fewer hours a week than their peers in the Graduate School.
“Our teaching staff understands that first and foremost we’re undergraduate students and TAs second,” she said. “It definitely means that our teaching jobs mean something different to us potentially than what graduate students may have them mean.”
Still, the NLRB decision, which ruled specifically on a proposed bargaining unit at Columbia that included both graduate students and undergraduates, states that undergraduate teaching assistants share a “community of interest” with their graduate student counterparts, even though undergraduates typically hold their positions for a shorter period of time.
“While … undergraduate assistants may, arguably, have some different priorities from those of Ph.D. assistants, there are also overarching common interests,” the decision states, referencing concerns about job postings, pay periods and the difficulty of balancing coursework with job responsibilities.
Over the years, some undergraduates have marched alongside graduate students in support of Local 33, and the sight of orange-clad union members handing out fliers on Cross Campus is familiar to many Yale students. But if Local 33 does begin actively recruiting undergraduate workers, it may face significant challenges: despite past outreach efforts, 22 of 25 undergraduates interviewed by the News said they knew little to nothing about Local 33 or the NLRB’s August decision.
“What is Local 33?” Aastha KC ’20 said. “I’ve never heard about it.”
Yamile Lozano ’17 said she was confused about the difference between Local 33 and Local 35, the university’s blue-collar union, although she recognized the name GESO.
And Sukh Dhillon ’19 said that although he has heard about the NLRB decision, he has not followed the story closely.
“I feel, though, that this doesn’t really involve undergraduates,” Dhillon said. “It’s kind of just a graduate student thing.”
Still, David Kurkovskiy ’17, who has attended GESO rallies, emphasized that undergraduates could benefit from working with Local 33 because the union advocates for causes such as financial aid reform that are also relevant to undergraduates.
There are 5,453 students in Yale College, and more than 2,800 students in the Graduate School.