While Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization continues to press for recognition from a University whose administrators say the existence of such a union will be detrimental to graduate student education, members look to other graduate employee groups across the country who have already achieved union status.
The first graduate employee union was formed in 1969, when the Teaching Assistants Association won a contract at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There are now 23 unions on more than 60 campuses across the nation, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions. And groups at many other schools, including Yale and Columbia, are attempting to join the ranks.
“There are 40,000 graduate teachers with union contracts in this country,” Rachel Sulkes, a GESO spokesperson, said, citing New York University, the University of California and the University of Michigan as examples. “They’re somewhat ubiquitous now.”
Jon Curtiss, an organizer with the Michigan Federation of Teachers and School Related Personnel who is also involved in the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, said graduate students have had successful unions for 30 years without any detrimental effect to the universities.
“The management at Yale is trying to pretend that this is some strange new occurrence and that isn’t the case,” Curtiss said. “These unions can demonstrate to GESO and everyone that this is something that has existed for a long time, and it works.”
But Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the existence of graduate student unions at other schools is a result of different interpretations of what constitutes an employee. Yale administrators, Conroy said, do not think characterizing a graduate student as an employee is a stance that improves higher education, and do not believe the formation of a union would be in the best interest of the students or in the best interest of higher education.
“It’s fundamentally a matter of Yale wanting the relationship between students and faculty to remain as open as it is now, and as flexible as it is now, and not to transform that relationship into an adversarial one between employee and manager,” Conroy said.
Conroy also noted that most unions are at public universities, which have different labor laws than private ones.
Still, in spite of the Yale administration’s response, many graduate students said they hope to emulate their predecessors at other institutions who have gained union recognition.
One of the most prominent graduate employee groups is UAW Local 2865, the union representing over 11,000 academic student employees on the University of California’s eight campuses. The group’s struggle for unionization spanned decades — the group staged several strikes, including two large ones in 1996 and 1998, spanning all of the University of California campuses — but after 16 years, UAW won recognition from the University of California.
Scott Bailey, the union’s financial secretary, said the core of the group’s organizing strategy was member-to-member outreach.
“The vast majority of the organizing involved members organizing in their own departments, and reaching out to other departments to get as many people signed up as possible,” Bailey said.
The group also achieved a legal victory when the State Public Employees Relations Board recognized teaching assistants, graders and tutors as employees.
“Our power was all about the membership,” Bailey said. “Making it a majority action was critical in getting recognized.”
Bailey said that since UAW Local 2865’s conception, the group has negotiated several contracts. One contract ensures that all graduate students who work at least 10 hours a week get their entire tuition paid. Other contract victories have involved stronger consequences for sexual harassment, rights for international graduate students and protections against excessive workloads.
“Such protection is really important in times of tight budgets when the University of California is shrinking budgets on the backs of our teaching assistants,” Bailey said, citing instances when the university would increase section sizes and give readers more exams to grade without proper compensation.
University of California spokesman Noel Van Nyhuis said that the university’s position on unions is to leave it up to the employees. He said that if teaching assistants choose to be recognized by a union, the school is not going to stop them.
“The university’s official position is that it’s up to employees to decide whether they would like union representation, and if so we will deal with them,” Van Nyhuis said. “It’s part of the ballgame at the University of California.”
Van Nyhuis said that although in general, the university’s relationship with UAW Local is good, the union can sometimes make negotiations more complicated.
“Contract negotiations don’t always go well,” he said. “Sometimes the two sides can be very far apart on what their demands are and what their expectations are.”
Graduate employees at Rutgers, obtained union representation in a different manner in 1972, when the administration agreed to recognize them under the same contract as the faculty, who had gained union recognition two years earlier.
The union, known as the Rutgers Council of American Association of University Professors, is strongly supported by the Rutgers administration, especially the graduate school’s administration, according to Patrick Nowlan, a staff representative of AAUP.
Nowlan said that the union creates an important sense of stability for graduate students arriving on campus, adding that he thinks the administration at Yale is reluctant to grant union status because they want to dictate the rules.
“I think it’s about control,” Nowlan said. “A lot of administrations want to be able to tell graduate students what’s best for them instead of allowing them to have their own voice. It’s easier for the administration to say, ‘this is what you’re going to get, take it or leave it.'”
Nowlan also said having a graduate student union that looks out for the “best interests” of the students attracts the best graduate student applicants.
But Conroy said that a union is not necessarily an asset to graduate students, noting that students can better individually tailor and have more personal control over their education when they are not bound by a union contract. He added that Yale has no problem attracting the best graduate students without a union.
“And if you think about it if that were the case [that a union is so important], why would the graduate students who are in favor of a union now at Yale, why would they have come to Yale, if that were such an important factor, why not go to a school that had a union?” he said. “There are a number of public institutions that had graduate programs with unions in place. Why not go to them if that’s such a benefit and a plus? And instead they chose Yale, where they know there is not a union, and the administration does not support the concept.”
Curtiss said he is optimistic about GESO’s upcoming strike and that the coalition of already existing unions will be supporting members of GESO this week.