At labor hearings in Hartford over the past week and a half, the University mounted further arguments against graduate students’ plan to hold separate union elections in 10 departments, with top administrators testifying that individual departments are not distinct units.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley testified last week against the strategy of breaking graduate students into departmental microunits in a series of hearings held by the National Labor Relations Board. The unrecognized graduate student union Local 33 — which will have a chance to speak at the hearing once Yale’s witnesses finish testifying over next few days — filed paperwork with the NLRB earlier this month calling for elections in 10 individual departments, which union leaders say meet the legal definition of bargaining units. But in last week’s sessions, Gendler and Cooley argued that departments represent a logistical breakdown of broad academic interests and lack unique or extensive administrative powers. These hearings come weeks after the NLRB ruled Aug. 23 that graduate students at Columbia University are employees and have the right to unionize.
In an interview with the News, Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 defended the departmental strategy, saying, “Our university is organized into departments, and graduate teachers are too.”
Greenberg said Yale graduate students do the same work as their counterparts at Columbia, and that he expects the union will be allowed to move forward with an election in the near future.
Graduate School Senior Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister, who oversees the University’s teaching fellow program and also testified in the hearing, argued against the unionization efforts of Local 33 on the basis that Yale offers stipends to graduate students even when they are required to teach but cannot find appropriate teaching positions. The stipend is not a salary for work performed but funding provided so that Ph.D. students can complete their degrees, she said.
“Whether students are doing coursework, research or required teaching, it doesn’t matter, they get the same stipend every year,” Schirmeister told the News.
Schirmeister said she testified that the University’s stipend system is not a departmental issue, because almost all Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences receive the same financial aid package from the graduate school.
Schirmeister also highlighted the fact that in the rare circumstance that a graduate student cannot find a teaching role during one of the required terms, that student still receives the stipend.
But in an interview with the News, Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93, a Yale Law School professor and labor law expert, defended the microunit strategy, noting that the approach “plainly satisfies” a multifactor test to determine whether proposed units share a “community of interest,” the standard set out in the NLRB’s August ruling.
Wishnie noted that the NLRB ruling also specifies that the students’ preferences about the nature of the bargaining unit should be given significant weight.
“The Local 33 members certainly share a community of interest in the unit structure they propose, and the employees’ own preferences as to how they will self-organize are an important consideration in the analysis,” Wishnie said.
Still, Cooley told the News that the variations in requirements among different University departments are insufficient to justify breaking graduate students down into separate bargaining units.
“Whether a department has a [teaching] requirement of one, two or three semesters, is not a big enough difference to justify a microunit,” Cooley said.
She also noted that departmental union elections would leave graduate students who teach in departments to which they do not officially belong — for example, history students who teach in the African American Studies Department — in an uncertain position.
The NLRB hearing was intended to establish the legitimacy of the department-by-department election strategy, as well as the relevance of the August decision — which ruled that Columbia graduate students were employees — to graduate students at Yale. In the coming weeks, the NLRB regional director in Boston, John Walsh, will evaluate both sides’ testimony to determine whether the union effort at Yale should be allowed to continue. Cooley told the News that she does not know how much longer the hearing will take.
In a separate argument, Schirmeister also told the NLRB last week that although graduate students at Columbia may be considered employees, their counterparts at Yale are fundamentally different because the conditions of their employment are determined by different curricular demands. In her testimony, she reasoned that unlike Columbia, Yale does not have a core curriculum, giving the University’s graduate student teachers a degree of academic freedom in terms of what they teach, and, therefore, in terms of their professional development, that puts them in a different category from their peers at Columbia.
Wishnie called the effort to distinguish Yale graduate students from those at Columbia “silly,” and said he doubted the argument would sway the NLRB.
“Neither the NLRB’s statutory interpretation nor its application of that interpretation to the facts of the Columbia case turned on this detail,” he told the News.
The NLRB hearing began on Sept. 12.