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.”

  • disqus_f3Gqo4uR2r

    GESO has a long history of shooting itself in the foot, and this seems like the latest attempt. For better or worse, departments at Yale are anything but autonomous; they can’t do anything without permission from the central administration. And there are many “combined” PhD programs: half in one program, half in another. What if only one of them is unionized? No: this is unworkable. It has to be the whole grad school or nothing.

    • Emily Drascus

      Agreed completely. I’m in favor of unionization, but (like many other grad students) have always loathed GESO. They need to step aside and let democracy do its thing.

      • disqus_8OXql7RkNS

        what does ‘let democracy do its thing’ mean in this context?

  • Ralphiec88

    Making 10 different bargaining units would take “be careful what you wish for” to a whole new level. It would have incremental benefits in the battle to unionize, but the only big win would be for those who make money as union consultants.
    Having seen the reality of established unions in action, I believe Yale and particularly students would lose big as their studies fall victim to byzantine union rules and a toxic relationship between grad students and the university.
    I also question whether it would even benefit the graduate students careers. Union culture has inherent pressures to not go above and beyond what’s contractual or what other members are doing. One of the worst aspects of my years in a union environment was seeing people with great potential strive for mediocrity and choose incompetence. You can say “that won’t happen here” or want to support any battle with the Yale administration, but the negative forces of the union relationship in practice are virtually impossible to overcome.

    • jkoe

      Ah yes, a graduate student union will spell the end of everything. Talk to anyone at Berkeley, they will tell you, research there has essentially stopped for the past 15 years, since the union has turned grad student and faculty into two opposing gangs who murder each other over control of the drug market. Refer to http://www.thecgeu.org/2016/09/unionization-testimonies/ for a collection of such horror stories.

      There is something astonishing about Ivy League tenured professors (supposedly the guardians of all that is good and rational) engaging in armchair philosophizing about how a union will no doubt disrupt their magical relationship with graduate students. This is an empirically testable assertion about reality. It has been shown to be false, as they could learn by asking any of their colleagues who work with unionized graduate students, or reading any study that examines the question.

      • Ralphiec88

        A little over the top, don’t you think? I’m speaking from several years in industry side by side with union employees, so you can stop ranting about armchairs. You might consider the possibility that this issue is unlikely to be as positive and simple as you imagine from your studies.

  • YaleHumanitiesGrad

    I initially opposed GESO’s arbitrary, cherry-picked “department-by-department” bargaining units on the grounds of gerrymandering: they selected 10 departments where they believe their support is in the 75% plus range. This would effectively guarantee them a victory. It’s a form of voter disenfranchisement not unlike the tactics used by republican legislators to suppress voter turnout in minority communities. You can guarantee yourself a win when you ensure that those likely not to vote for you are not given the opportunity to vote.

    While this remains the primary reason for my opposition, I have also realized something else: in my specific case, half the teaching I have done has been in a department outside of my home department. Two of my three advisors have primary or secondary appointments in departments (and schools!) outside of the one in which I am a member. GESO’s departmental bargaining units fail to take into account the real ways in which many (sometimes, most) graduate students straddle the boundaries of multiple programs. Like I said, this is a cheap ploy designed to secure a victory. It has nothing to do with the reality of how departments actually operate.