In the heat of the crowded Omni Hotel ballroom last night, before a crowd of over 800 supporters, Yale’s unrecognized graduate student organization — formerly known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization — was rechristened Local 33.
With the rebranding, the organization, which has clashed with Yale over its union status since 1990, has now further affiliated itself with the University’s two recognized blue collar unions, Local 34 and Local 35. The three groups have worked closely in the past and are all funded by the national labor union UNITE HERE, but only members of Local 34 and 35 have negotiated and signed contracts with Yale. The renaming of GESO as Local 33 is Yale graduate students’ most direct attempt to obtain union status since the organization failed its last attempted vote in 2003.
The name change comes as the direct result of a recent unanimous vote by UNITE HERE’s governing body to incorporate the Yale graduate student group into the rest of its membership as a chartered union. Locals 34 and 35 have been chartered members of UNITE HERE for over three decades. At Wednesday’s convention, GESO also revealed that it had collected union authorization card signatures — often a first step toward a secret ballot vote on unionization — from a majority of Yale’s nearly 3,000 Graduate School of Arts and Science students. The cards were counted and verified by Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, who was also present at the event.
However, neither GESO’s chartering as Local 33 nor its majority of authorization card signatures have any legal legitimacy, according to the National Labor Relations Board’s most recent ruling on graduate student status. Despite being recognized by the UNITE HERE national union, Local 33 is not recognized as a union by either national labor law or the Yale administration. The NLRB would likely not recognize Local 33, despite its collection of signatures, because graduate students are not officially recognized as employees and as such their signatures have no power to mandate a vote. And although Yale could recognize a union independently of the NLRB, administrators interviewed said they flatly reject any attempt at unionization that does not involve a secret ballot vote. Local 33 has refused to hold such a vote unless the University agrees to “no intimidation” terms, under which faculty and administrators would be barred from exerting their power or influence over graduate students prior to the vote.
“Claims that a ‘card count’ demonstrates ‘majority membership’, or making that a basis for immediate recognition, can’t and shouldn’t substitute for a closed secret ballot election,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said, adding that collecting and counting membership cards is a tactic that graduate student union organizers have practiced for many years, both at Yale and at peer schools.
Renaming GESO Local 33 does not change Yale’s view on graduate student unionization or the status of Yale’s graduate students, University Spokesman Tom Conroy said. Yale recently reaffirmed its stance on the issue by signing on to an amicus brief filed with the NLRB which states that recognizing graduate students as employees would undermine academic freedom.
Union leaders and local officials did not mince words on Wednesday night.
“Yale, if you want to go back to warfare, we’ll go back to warfare,” said UNITE HERE President Donald Taylor, referring to the strikes that led to the formation of Local 34 and 35 several decades ago. “This is never going to stop until we have our day, until we get our contract.” He added that he sent a letter to University President Peter Salovey two weeks ago to state the organization’s support of graduate student unionization.
Locals 34 and 35, undergraduate group Students United Now, Local 217 — another Connecticut union — and many elected officials attended the convention in a show of solidarity. The leaders of these organizations spoke about the need to support each other. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and New Haven Probate Judge Jack Keyes made appearances, with DeLauro noting that there is “no reason a great university and a strong union cannot stand side by side.”
Local 35 President Bob Proto said Yale has underestimated Local 35’s commitment to GESO.
Proto did not respond to questions about whether Local 35 would go on strike to pressure Yale to recognize Local 33, though Locals 34 and 35 are slated to begin their four-year contract negotiations with Yale next week. But he warned at Wednesday’s convention that Local 35 is capable of bringing the campus “back to the dark ages” by going on strike. Previous strikes by Local 35 have led to the shutdown of dining halls and other facilities.
“I hope the University doesn’t underestimate our commitment to graduate teachers and researchers,” Proto told the News.
Despite the well-attended demonstration, the administration has remained steadfast in its position that graduate students do not have the power to unionize, based on current legal precedents.
“While students always are free to associate with any organization, or to participate in a rally for causes they believe in, [the founding convention] has no legal bearing on the status of graduate student unionization,” Gendler said.
LOCAL 33: BY THE ISSUES
The issues at stake for the graduate students of Local 33 include mental health care, sexism in the sciences and graduate student teaching stipends. Local 33 has previously argued for a union by highlighting these problems, which they say would be better addressed by a union, as students would then have increased leverage and legal bargaining power.
Graduate teaching stipends in particular have recently risen to the forefront of the organization’s platform. In a March 9 opinion piece in the New Haven Register, history graduate student and Local 33 supporter Abbey Agresta GRD ’16 wrote that she will earn less money teaching as a seventh-year graduate student than would a sixth- or fifth- year doing the same work, due to Yale’s recently revised stipend structure. Agresta also criticized a $540 semesterly registration fee for all upper year graduate students who wish to teach.
“Teachers like me are being starved out of the institution where I have taught over the last several years,” Agresta wrote.
In December 2014 the University extended teaching stipends to sixth-year graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, but it has not done so for students in their seventh year. Ph.D. students at Yale currently receive a full tuition fellowship of $38,700 on top of a minimum stipend of $29,000, until their seventh year.
With a union, graduate students would be able to negotiate their pay. In response to recent petitions and queries for greater stipend support for graduate students, Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley sent an email to graduate students on Tuesday reminding students of their current financial support. Her message also emphasized that the University addresses the needs of graduate students through the Graduate Student Assembly, a representative body for students in GSAS.
“We will continue to consult with you and the GSA as we work hard to provide the most competitive financial aid package possible for our students,” Cooley wrote.
Cooley said the $540 Continuous Registration fee covers the access to facilities and services like the gym that graduate student teachers receive. Cooley also noted that the fee is heavily subsidized by the University, and the real cost per student is $2,000 more.
“I know the [fee] represents a hardship for humanities and social sciences students in year seven and beyond, but to put Yale’s [fee] in context, none of our peer institutions pays the equivalent fee for students beyond year six,” Cooley wrote.
Local 33 Co-Chair Robin Canavan GRD ’18 said graduate students want to be paid equally for equal work, and she said she opposes the discrepancy between stipendiary pay for sixth- and seventh-year graduate student teachers. A union, she said, would allow graduate students to negotiate how much they are paid during any year of teaching and research at Yale.
But the University has pushed back against this line of logic, reverting to the fundamental argument that graduate students are students and not employees. Gendler reiterated the University’s position and added that students in the graduate program are at the University in a program with a fixed length, whereas employees of the University are long-term members of the community.
Although the future of graduate students’ employee status uncertain, and Yale remains opposed to graduate student unionization, GESO leaders said they are not waiting on the NLRB or the University.
“We are not waiting for the University to recognize us as the union that we are,” Greenberg said. “We’re ready.”
Yale’s first union, the Federation of University Employees Local No. 35, was founded in 1941.