This story has been updated to reflect the version in print on Aug. 31.
Several hundred Yale graduate students in 10 departments filed petitions Monday with the National Labor Relations Board requesting an election that would certify Local 33 UNITE HERE as a union, following the NLRB’s Aug. 23 ruling that graduate students at private universities have the right to unionize.
Last week’s NLRB decision overturned a 2004 ruling by the board that stated that graduate students at Brown University were students, not employees. The latest ruling, which was 3–1 in favor of unionization, opens a path toward unionization for Local 33, a decades-old Yale graduate student group formerly known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization that has long pushed for unionization.
Since the ruling, Local 33 organizers have shifted their strategy, requesting union elections by department. Graduate students in 10 different departments are testing this tactic, becoming the first groups of graduate students at Yale to file for a unionization election.
“We are really excited to file in 10 departments that have a very strong desire to unionize,” Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said. “We are also hoping that in filing departments separately, there will be no questions about legal games and we really hope that the University will respect the democracy of the departments.”
When a group of employees files for an election with the NLRB, the board decides whether that group of employees is eligible for an election and then sets the terms of that election. The departments that filed for elections are Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science and Sociology. All graduate students in each of these of departments would be eligible to vote for their department’s union membership.
Graduate students in these 10 departments filed for membership in a single union — Local 33 UNITE HERE — but would have to do so through 10 separate elections in their various departments. The approach takes advantage of a 2015 NLRB ruling that allows unions to assemble in “microunits” through separate elections.
Despite Local 33’s swift action and unorthodox tactics, much remains uncertain and the organization’s leaders said they do not yet have answers to essential questions such as the criteria for participation in the election and whether the elections would extend to all professional schools as well. Greenberg said those details will be determined by the NLRB.
University spokesman Tom Conroy said that the University’s opposition to graduate student unionization has not changed since the ruling. He would not comment on what Yale’s response to an election would be.
“Everyone’s view should be heard on the important question of graduate student unionization,” Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley said. “However, the strategy of dividing up graduate students into multiple ‘microunits’ is not an inclusive approach. These GESO/Local 33 petitions from ten departments add up to fewer than 300 graduate students — a mere 10-11 percent of those enrolled at the Graduate School. Attempting to exclude so many in the graduate community raises questions about whether the union has the best interests of all graduate students in mind.”
University President Peter Salovey said in an Aug. 23 email to the Yale community that he disagrees with the NLRB’s decision, noting that it was the third time in 16 years that the board had changed its position.
This week’s efforts are not the first time Yale graduate students have attempted to form a union. In 2003, an unofficial, unbinding vote by the graduate student body — one not approved by either Yale or the NLRB but monitored by a nonpartisan political organization, the League of Women Voters — lost majority support by 43 votes. Furthermore, Local 33’s recent organizing has been tainted by accusations from graduate students who accused the group of using strong-arm tactics including harassment and coercion. In January, female graduate students, LGBTQ graduate students and graduate students of color wrote an open letter to the organization’s leadership to express concerns about the group’s aggressive union-organizing practices.
The rules surrounding the union elections will be set by the NLRB. Local 33 has long pushed for a “neutral election,” one without interference from University administrators. The NLRB will also determine whether Yale faculty may participate in debate with students, and whether this constitutes intimidation.
Hari Ramesh GRD ’19, a student in political science, said a union would allow him to fight for more undergraduate courses about race and gender, subjects he feels passionate about. Ramesh said the “formal authority of a union” would give political science graduate students a “strong voice” when talking to Yale about resource allocation for specific fields.
Emily Sessions GRD ’19, a student in history of art, called the teaching fellow assignment process in her department “opaque and uneven,” explaining that she was assigned to teach two sections of an introductory course when she expected to teach only one. Sessions said a union could potentially address such issues.
The NLRB was founded in 1935.