Finnegan Schick

While the Graduate Employees and Students Organization continues its decades-old call for a graduate student union, some Yale professors have expressed concern that a union would damage relationships between faculty and students and reduce the quality of a Yale education.

As the movement to unionize graduate students gains traction across the nation, administrators and faculty at Yale and its peer institutions are discussing in greater detail the implications that a graduate student union would have inside and outside the classroom. Two weeks ago, GESO gathered hundreds of its members and allies on Beinecke Plaza, calling on Yale to hold a neutral election, free from intimidation or scare tactics, on the issue of graduate student unionization.

But no speakers at the rally addressed how a union at Yale might impact the relationship between graduate students and faculty members, who expressed split opinions on GESO’s mission in interviews with the News. At Harvard, where graduate students have made similar demands for unionization, administrators distributed a two-page “guide for discussion” to faculty on Oct. 14 to guide their dialogue with graduate students on the topic of unionization. While Yale administrators said they are not planning a similar mass communication, they have reached out to both faculty and students to talk about GESO’s unionization effort. They stressed that the University encourages a free and open discussion about the issue.

“Everyone is entitled to his or her own view on this important issue,” Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley said. “And we hope for a robust campus dialogue free from pressure to silence an opposing viewpoint.”


GESO’s mission for graduate student unionization presents many problems for the University’s faculty members, whose own graduate school experiences may have shaped their stances on the issue. Faculty members have different opinions about whether the calls for graduate student unionization are justified, but all confront the tricky question of how to broach the subject with graduate students. Since Yale does not have a codified guideline, faculty members interviewed have approached the topic of unionization with their graduate students about the issues in different ways — if they have had such conversations at all.

Professors interviewed expressed a mixture of support and worry over GESO’s efforts to form a graduate student union.

Faculty who support unionization stressed the work that graduate students do outside of their own studies, such as the support they provide undergraduates as teaching fellows. But faculty who expressed qualms about a graduate student union worried it would create a bureaucratic barrier between students and faculty that would harm current mentoring relationships.

African American Studies professor Matthew Jacobson said that because graduate students, as teaching fellows, already have complete responsibility for their classrooms, the professor-graduate student relationship would change very little as a result of unionization.

Jacobson said he has been a staunch supporter of graduate student unionization during his 20 years at Yale, even though this viewpoint can be unpopular among the faculty. The University depends heavily upon graduate students’ labor, he added.

“Why not recognize them as the workers that they actually are?” Jacobson said, adding that although he has not always supported GESO’s tactics — which have included an attempted grade strike and instances of peer pressure to secure support — he has always been sympathetic to its mission.

Theater Studies professor Murray Biggs also highlighted the work that graduate students do in leading classroom discussions with undergraduates.

Additionally, while some faculty have worried that unionization would turn graduate students’ teaching roles into formal employment instead of a crucial part of their educations, American Studies and English Senior Lecturer James Berger said he does not think graduate students’ commitment to their teaching would change with a union. Instead, Berger said he sees the desire for unionization as the result of greater professionalism among graduate students, both in their research and in their teaching.

“The prospects for academic employment after graduation are much slimmer, even for people coming out of the elite programs,” he said.

But other faculty members’ views were more closely aligned with those of the administration, which has encouraged graduate students to voice their concerns through existing channels rather than through a union.

Statistics professor Jay Emerson GRD ’02 said the issues that graduate students face do not warrant unionization, and that change should instead come through effective bodies like the Graduate Student Assembly, a governing body of graduate students that is recognized by Yale, and through faculty members advocating for their graduate students.

Emerson also said he does not think any of his students are active GESO members. He added that he worries some GESO members might have been pressured into joining the organization. As a graduate student at Yale in 1994, Emerson opposed GESO’s unionization effort and helped found the now-defunct group Grads Against Unionization. This anti-union contingent of graduate students regularly voiced opposition to GESO’s actions throughout the mid-1990s. Members felt that GESO was aggressively pressuring them into joining the union cause, Emerson said. He noted that GESO made repeated, unwelcome visits to students’ homes and used peer pressure to get new members.

Emerson said in his first year as a graduate student, GESO announced to all first-year students that union dues were payable immediately upon arrival at Yale.

“A simple ‘no thank you’ didn’t work, so we organized our opposition,” Emerson said. “We didn’t think a graduate student union had a place at Yale. We were academics-in-training capable of representing our interests through established channels. We certainly didn’t see ourselves as vulnerable employees in need of union representation.”

Some of Emerson’s concerns seem to persist today. Psychology professor Frank Keil said whenever graduate students approach him to talk about unionization, it has been to express complaints about GESO’s tactics. Students are frustrated that GESO organizers often disrupt their laboratory work to gather support, and that GESO has asked students to pay dues out of their stipends, Keil said.

Today, as a Yale professor, over a decade after he finished his own graduate studies here, Emerson said he sees himself as having three main roles: a faculty member, a researcher and a mentor. If his graduate students have concerns, Emerson said, he advocates for them to the administration. Most graduate students just want to be left alone to their studies and research, Emerson said. A graduate student union could strain professional faculty-student relationships, he added.

Keil agreed, noting that bureaucratic regulations could emerge that would change the relaxed climate of mentoring into a more restrictive “boss-worker” one.

Still, GESO chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 disputed Keil’s and Emerson’s assertion that a graduate student union would alter students’ relationships to professors.

“Given the 70,000 graduate employee members of unions, it seems a sweeping claim that all those relationships with faculty and students are changed in some essential way,” he told the News Thursday night.


Like Yale, Harvard does not recognize graduate students as a union. But in contrast to the University, Harvard’s administration is confronting the topic of unionization head-on.

At Harvard, a group of graduate students is working with the national union United Auto Workers to advocate for unionizing Harvard’s teaching fellows and research assistants. Although Harvard administrators have spoken out against a graduate student union there, they have also acknowledged a growing national movement in such a union’s favor. In his Oct. 14 email to the faculty, Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Xiao-Li Meng cited the efforts of the website #WeAreWorkers to redefine the work that graduate student teachers do.

By contrast, Yale administrators have not disseminated public statements on the topic of graduate student unionization, although they have consistently expressed opposition to GESO’s mission to the News. University spokesman Tom Conroy said Yale does not believe a union is in the best interest of graduate students. Still, Yale has said it encourages a campus “dialogue” around the issue.

Without voluntary recognition from a private university like Yale or Harvard, graduate students’ unionization efforts depend on the status of two cases pending before the National Labor Relations Board. A 2004 NLRB decision in response to a complaint from Brown University graduate students ruled that they did not have the right to unionize because the relationship between students and universities is primarily academic in nature. But the two cases currently pending could overturn the Brown ruling. According to Meng’s letter, with the NLRB composed of much more labor-friendly members than it was before President Barack Obama took office and made new appointments, it is possible that by the end of the year, graduate students at private universities will be legally allowed to unionize.

The faculty talking-point guide that Meng distributed “assumes that the National Labor Relations Board would find that graduate students who perform work for the University are employees.”

Though the NLRB decisions regarding the status of graduate-student teachers have been mixed, Berger said he thinks the general point of labor law states that people who do work and wish to form a union have the legal right to do so.

“Grad students do real work,” Berger said. “The work is both real in itself and necessary for the college. They don’t teach ‘practice’ courses. The courses are for credit.”

Regardless of faculty’s personal opinions on the issue of unionization, both Harvard’s and Yale’s administrations have encouraged an open discussion around the issue. Both have emphasized that faculty should not threaten adverse consequences for students supporting unions.

“Any graduate student is absolutely free to be a member of GESO,” FAS Dean Tamar Gendler said. “And that has no bearing on how they are treated by their faculty mentors.”

The National Labor Relations Board was founded 80 years ago.