In the aftermath of a long-awaited legal victory, Local 33 — the Yale graduate student group advocating for unionization — made a strategic decision late last month.
After the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that graduate students at private universities are employees and have the right to unionize, Local 33, formerly known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, opted to file for union elections in 10 individual academic departments rather than calling one schoolwide vote. The group’s reasoning was that those 10 departments are largely sympathetic to the idea of a graduate-student union, which historically has been a polarizing topic among the graduate student body.
But interviews with 15 students across those 10 departments — Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science and Sociology — showed that even among heavily pro-union departments, some students remain concerned about both the idea of a graduate-student union and Local 33’s strategy for securing one.
One student in the English department — an ex-GESO volunteer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of pushback from union advocates — said Local 33 merely “cherry-picked departments where they know they have support.”
“It feels like disenfranchisement, both in the majority of departments who want to vote ‘no’ and also those graduate students who also really support GESO but are in departments that are not part of this bargaining unit,” said the student, who no longer supports a union. “They care more about securing a victory for the sake of saying they got a victory than about enfranchising as many graduate students as possible.”
Harrison Adams GRD ’17, a student in the History of Art Department, said the department-by-department approach underscores one of the central problems with the union idea: Graduate students in different departments have very different experiences, and any centralized organization would inevitably be fractured and chaotic. Adams also does not support a graduate-student union.
“It’s so uneven, the requests are very different across departments,” Adams said. “Being a classics Ph.D. is very different from being an art history Ph.D. It sort of exposes the weaknesses in the whole project of a graduate-student union.”
But Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 defended the strategy on the basis that the union’s organizing efforts have always been structured departmentally, and that elections will take place in other departments further along in the process. Eventually, all departments that voted to unionize would join the larger Local 33 body.
“The folks in these departments, overwhelmingly excited, decided to pioneer unionization here at Yale,” Greenberg said, adding that the strategy is also designed to protect against legal disputes with the University over whether certain sectors of the Graduate School should be allowed to vote.
Supporters of Local 33 from across the 10 departments emphasized that the same core issues — child-care funding, teaching pay, improved mental-health resources — affect students throughout the Graduate School, regardless of their discipline.
Julia Powers GRD ’19, a student in the Comparative Literature Department, told the News she had to wait six weeks to see a therapist at Yale Health, and was eventually assigned a male therapist, even though she had requested a woman.
Lindsay Zafir GRD ’19, in the History Department, said that last year she taught a history course alongside a seventh-year student who had taught the same course three times already, but she received better pay than her more experienced peer because of recent cuts to seventh-year funding.
Both Powers and Zafir said they believe unionization would empower them to better advocate for needs they see on campus.
Supporters of Local 33 say the University has routinely burned graduate students who care about such issues — and that those repeated setbacks have created a rising tide of support for unionization.
But some students interviewed said other cultural and political factors have had a much greater influence on each department’s perception of Local 33.
Shaked Koplewitz GRD ’18, a student in the Math Department who said he is undecided about the union, told the News his department’s pro-union leanings could be attributed to the aggressive advocacy work of just one committed student in the department, a union volunteer named Jifeng Shen GRD ’18.
“He’s very active in talking to us and trying to recruit us and getting us to go events,” Koplewitz said. Shen told the News that the department’s pro-union support is not due to him alone, but rather due to ongoing conversations about the topic.
“I feel that they honestly badger us a lot,” Koplewitz added, referring to Local 33 volunteers in general. “Some people have had to shout at them to get them to go away. They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They can be kind of harassing.”
According to the English student and former GESO volunteer, the impressive numbers of petition signatures that Local 33 has gathered over the years are indicative of those aggressive tactics rather than any broad base of student support.
Adams, the Art History student, offered another theory: Seven of the 10 departments are in the humanities, and graduate students in humanities departments tend to be more liberal than their counterparts in the sciences.
Professors in the 10 selected departments largely declined to offer their perspective on the issue, noting that it is too early to know how the situation will pan out. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office recently sent out guidelines about how faculty should discuss the issue of unionization with graduate students, warning professors that they are legally prohibited from engaging in intimidation or threats.
But English professor Leslie Brisman said there is “no such thing as civil discourse on this subject.”
Brisman, who said he often hears “cries of distress” from graduate students who feel hounded by union organizers, added that he believes the purpose of graduate student unionization is not to support graduate students but rather to help the workers in Locals 34 and 35.
Meanwhile, University administrators, who have long opposed the idea of a graduate-student union, have continued to denounce the group’s efforts, saying Local 33’s departmental strategy runs counter to the notion of a “unified Yale.”
“Although departments reflect important historical ways of organizing ideas, I don’t think departments are distinct units intellectually, when we think and talk about graduate student unionization,” FAS Dean Tamar Gendler ’87 said.
Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley said it is a concern that 10 percent of the student body will be making a decision that affects everybody in the graduate school. It is not obvious how the strategy is in the interest of all graduate students, she added.
As the leaders of Local 33 wait for the NLRB to process their election filing, many questions remain, from the timing of union elections to the role of existing graduate-student groups to the fate of the dozens of other departments in the Graduate School.
Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17, the chairman of the Graduate Student Assembly and a student in the microbiology program, said he was unsure why certain departments are more sympathetic to Local 33, and how the rest of the process will ultimately play out.
“I can tell you that I’ve seen very vast differences between departments,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone truly understands that.”