Yale laid out its case against graduate student unionization before the regional National Labor Relations Board in Hartford on Monday, on the first day of a hearing scheduled to continue through the rest of the week.
On Aug. 29, one week after the NLRB’s landmark ruling that graduate students are university employees, hundreds of Yale graduate students across 10 departments filed to hold elections that would allow them to form the University’s first-ever graduate student union. Unlike in previous years, when students in favor of unionization have unsuccessfully called for one schoolwide election, advocates now seek 10 individual departmental elections on the grounds that each department constitutes a separate bargaining unit.
At Monday’s hearing, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler challenged that approach, arguing that individual departments lack the autonomy necessary to unionize.
“Departments are convenient, arbitrary ways of dividing intellectual space,” Gendler said.
The NLRB’s ruling, if favorable to Yale’s graduate students, could open the door to a new department-by-department tactic at other universities across the country.
Previously, the debate over graduate student unions at Yale has centered on the question of whether graduate students are considered employees. But on Monday, the argument of Yale’s administration — which has historically and fervently opposed unionization — revolved around the contention that the 10 graduate school departments whose students filed for unionization are not entities distinct from the whole University, but rather are financially and administratively inseparable from Yale as a whole.
Gendler, the first and only witness before the court Monday, argued that departments as individual units have limited administrative and budgetary oversight. Furthermore, she argued, departments are “permeable,” “interconnected” and thus not distinct units.
In demonstrating the limited autonomy and administrative authority of individual departments, Gendler noted that the FAS Dean’s Office controls an annual budget of approximately $750 million, whereas a department typically maintains a budget of $10,000 to $100,000 per year. Departments also do not have the power to set faculty salaries.
More generally, Gendler noted that departments can make recommendations about curriculum and faculty hiring and promotion, but their recommendations must ultimately receive approval from various centralized committees and often the Provost’s Office.
“Graduate students have fields of study that are often distinct from departments, and many pursue degrees across departments … Much of the University’s most exciting work happens across departments,” Gendler said. She said the University’s major building projects — including a new science building and the humanities center at 320 York St. — seek to bring students together by organizing around academic interests rather than by departments.
Yuval Miller, a lawyer from the firm Davis Cowell & Bowe, which is representing the graduate students seeking unionization through Local 33, cross-examined Gendler. Miller challenged the idea of departments as ill-defined entities dependent on the University. For instance, in an attempt to show that these departments are well-established and long-standing units, Miller asked Gendler whether Yale has any plans to eliminate the 10 departments where graduate students are filing for an election.
Miller also cited a 2007 University report on the tenure system, which shows how junior faculty mentorship differs across departments, as further evidence of each department’s discrete nature.
Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, who attended the hearing, reiterated the legitimacy of the department-by-department approach in an interview with the News Monday evening. He said the strategy is “a precedent that’s been pursued in a number of different workplaces, and in each case it’s been upheld in circuit court.” Local 33 members have previously explained that the 10 departments selected are those in which unionization has strong support.
“We do our work department by department,” Greenberg said. “The hearing is going to continue and we hope to get the vote. We’re hopeful that the process will move swiftly.”