Robbie Short

Eight Yale graduate students gathered under a large tent on Beinecke Plaza yesterday morning for the first day of an indefinite hunger strike designed to pressure Yale to begin contract negotiations with the graduate student union Local 33.

As the tent was assembled on Wednesday morning, another 16 graduate students were detained and charged with creating a public disturbance after they blocked the entrance to University President Peter Salovey’s annual Bulldog Days speech in Woolsey Hall. For the past month, Local 33 has been calling for Yale to begin contract negotiations, but so far, administrators have refused to come to the table as they continue to challenge the union in appeals to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C.

The students participating in the hunger strike are Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, Co-Chair Robin Canavan GRD ’19, Camille Cole GRD ’20, Charles Decker GRD ’18, Lukas Moe GRD ’19, Julia Powers GRD ’19, Emily Sessions GRD ’19 and Jifeng Shen GRD ’18.

“Yale is saying that we have to wait, that bargaining would be too premature. They’re saying that because they want to game the legal system, file motion after motion,” Greenberg said. “We’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll wait, but we’re going to wait without eating.’”

The hunger strike began on Tuesday evening, after Local 33’s deadline for the start of negotiations passed without acknowledgement from the University. According to Greenberg, the eight students — who received an afternoon checkup from local medical professionals — will switch places with other members of Local 33 if their health begins to seriously deteriorate.

Asked to comment on the eight graduate students starving themselves just feet from his office in Woodbridge Hall, Salovey read from a statement the University issued on Tuesday night.

“Although I deeply respect the right to freedom of expression, I would urge graduate students to reconsider this decision, because these actions could be harmful to their health,” Salovey said.

In the same statement, Yale described the hunger strike as “unwarranted by the circumstances.” Six academic departments — English, History, History of Art, Math, Sociology and Geology & Geophysics — voted to join Local 33 in elections held in February, and two other departments, Political Science and East Asian Languages and Literatures, were added last week after Yale and Local 33 agreed to throw out more than 40 challenged ballots that had delayed an outcome in those two elections.

But Yale still has a request for review pending in front of the NLRB that challenges the legal basis of the departmental elections. And the University is also attempting to file a second appeal arguing that graduates students at Yale should not be considered employees under the NLRB decision last August that gave graduate students at Columbia the right to unionize. In the wake of the August decision, graduate students at Harvard, Columbia and Duke have all participated in union elections.

At the Beinecke Plaza encampment — a boat shed made of wood and plastic that was repurposed to form a large tent — the eight students sat with blankets, listening to music and sipping from water bottles. Wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, Greenberg argued that Yale was positioning itself as an ally of President Donald Trump’s administration, which is expected to fill the NLRB with conservative appointees who will likely seek to reverse the Columbia decision.

“President Salovey, members of the Yale Corporation, the top members of the Yale administration are actively choosing to take advantage of this political moment and actively choosing to side with Donald Trump over members of the Yale community,” he said. “I find that unacceptable.”

But on Tuesday night, Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17 — the chairman of the Graduate Student Assembly, which has officially opposed Local 33’s organizing efforts since October — told the News that many students have expressed concern over the union’s use of a tactic that usually “comes to mind for prisoners who are being mistreated.”

And two labor law experts,  Duke Law professor Dan Bowling and former NLRB Chairman William Gould, said they could not think of another example of a union holding a hunger strike in order to force contract negotiations.

“It’s absurd. It’s certainly not the best way to proceed under the [National Labor Relations Act],” Bowling said. “They have legal options, such as filing unfair labor practice charges, or engaging in a traditional strike. They are not political prisoners. They’re trying to get negotiations. Labor relations is hardball. I don’t really know what they’re going to accomplish with this stunt.”

Bowling added that administrators also have “a lot of options” left before they will be legally compelled to negotiate with Local 33. Even if the NLRB dismisses Yale’s requests for review, the University could appeal the case to federal court, which might prolong the dispute for years.

Gould, who works as a professor at Stanford Law School, praised Local 33 for exposing the “dirty little secret” of labor law: the potential for union disputes to be dragged out for years on end.

“The law is good in terms of establishing a bill of rights for workers and a collective bargaining process in which labor and management can respect one another and engage in dialogue,” Gould said. “But it is very bad in terms of formulating an effective process and meaningful remedies for delay and loopholes.”

At Yale, the debate over graduate student unionization has divided students, faculty and administrators for decades. Those who support Local 33 argue that unionization would provide essential protections for graduate students, from child care support to grievance procedures in sexual assault cases. But on the other side, the union’s detractors say that Local 33 has a history of overly aggressive recruitment tactics and that its departmental election strategy was undemocratic. Yale opposes unionization on the grounds that it would detract from the student-teacher relationship, among other concerns.

Over the last two days, in an op-ed by Greenberg that ran in the New Haven Independent and a promotional video posted on Facebook, Local 33 has compared the hunger strike to the long history of nonviolent protest in the United States, from the civil rights movement to past labor disputes. At Woolsey, the students blocking the entryway quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and accused Salovey of “hiding behind Yale’s institutional power and prestige to deny us our basic right.”

But those comparisons have been greeted with skepticism from graduate students. James Dunn GRD ’19, a union supporter in the Religious Studies Department, called the civil rights movement analogy “distasteful” even as he criticized the University for refusing to come to the table.

“We’re talking about an extremely privileged set of people who are fairly well-remunerated by the University,” Dunn said. “On the other hand, this has resulted from some pretty despicable behavior on the part of the University. And they’ve pushed the union into a corner where there are very few tactical options left for them.”

The Graduate Employees and Students Organization was rebranded as Local 33 in the spring of 2016.