The student assembly of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences delivered a forceful rebuke Wednesday night to Yale’s graduate student labor movement, breaking years of silence on the unionization issue.
At its biweekly meeting in the Hall of Graduate Studies, a deeply divided Graduate Student Assembly voted for two resolutions opposing the overall organizing efforts of Local 33 and the election strategy the unofficial union is currently pursuing in court. In a third vote last night, the GSA, which had previously taken no position on any issues involving unions, voted by a wide margin to declare neutrality on graduate student unionization in general.
Still, in a night of tense discussion, the GSA meeting demonstrated that graduate students are profoundly divided on the union question, a controversial topic that has generated fierce debate at Yale since the 1990s.
In August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities are employees and thus have the right to unionize. Last month, Local 33, previously known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, filed with the NLRB for union elections in 10 individual graduate school departments. Yale is currently challenging this microunit strategy — a novel approach to unionization that no other graduate student at a public or private university has ever attempted — in federal court in Hartford.
But while the GSA’s rebuff of Local 33 was grounded in long-standing complaints about the union’s recruitment tactics, representatives at the meeting stressed that the GSA vote is not completely representative.
“This [vote] by no means represents every person in this room, or every department in this room,” said GSA chairman Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17, addressing the entire assembly.
In recent history, the GSA has never adopted an official position on the question of graduate student unionization, former GSA chairwoman Elizabeth Salm GRD ’18 told the News after the meeting. Last year, before the NLRB’s August decision, the GSA leadership decided that the union issue was insufficiently pressing to justify putting it to a vote, she said.
But as graduate student unions across the nation gain steam, the GSA took a stand last night against the efforts of Local 33, even as it declared neutrality on the more general issue of graduate student unionization.
After an initial period of debate, the GSA voted 45 to 10 to remain neutral on that broad question. But a later vote on whether to remain neutral on the specific efforts of Local 33 ended in a tie. After further debate, the GSA voted 37 to 26 to oppose those efforts, and then voted again, 44 to 17, to oppose the department-by-department election strategy.
“We appreciate the GSA perspective,” Local 33 chairman Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said in a statement Wednesday night. “Our focus remains on the graduate teachers who have finally won their right to a federally supervised NLRB election as employees of Yale.”
In the past, Greenberg has claimed that two-thirds of Yale graduate students support the union movement, citing the number of petition signatures and union authorization cards collected by organizers.
At the GSA meeting, many students condemned Local 33’s organizing tactics as overly aggressive, while others insisted that union leaders still have graduate students’ best interests at heart.
GSA representative Fabian Schrey GRD ’19, an economics student, spoke out against what he called the “outrageous” tactics of Local 33, recounting an episode in which union organizers canvassed economics students for petition signatures as they waited to deliver their thesis defenses. According to Schrey, the organizers asked the students to hastily sign a Local 33 petition without reading its contents.
“We have it pretty good. We have a lovely supporting faculty. Our department is our family,” Schrey added. “The only [sense of Local 33] that we as people get is the way you behaved toward us and our department. It’s very hard to make the argument that we would support that.”
Still, he added, “We realize that the GSA ought to represent other departments, which leads us to our general stance that we’re going to be neutral toward unionization.”
Student representative Stephanie Ranks GRD ’20 defended Local 33 at the meeting, emphasizing that the students who run the union, like the rest of the student population, want to improve graduate student life.
However, as the meeting progressed, complaints about Local 33’s organizing tactics piled up, with one student noting that “everyone in this room probably has some GESO boogie-man story.”
After the meeting, all three GSA representatives interviewed expressed frustration about the verdicts and complained that the meeting felt rushed.
“We had a tie vote on neutrality, which is the most beautiful expression of neutrality,” said student representative Connor Williams GRD ’21. “People want neutrality, because that’s the proper position for a body like this to take. Neutrality is the only responsible stance.”
Williams added that the debate, which stretched long past its scheduled ending time, felt hurried, with students given only a few seconds to make their arguments to the assembly.
David DeLeon GRD ’21, a student representative from the English department, expressed similar frustrations, saying that given the wide spectrum of opinions within the GSA, the organization should have remained neutral on all three issues.
There are 80 departmental representatives in the GSA.
Correction, Oct. 6: A previous version of this article stated that the GSA voted 34 to 17 to oppose the department-by-department election strategy. In fact, the GSA voted 44 to 17.