Yale’s unofficial graduate student union Local 33 has withdrawn its petition for a labor election in the Comparative Literature Department, reducing the union’s list of proposed bargaining units from 10 to nine departments and raising new concerns about its departmental election strategy.
On Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board informed Yale that Local 33 had withdrawn its election petition for the Comparative Literature Department, according to University spokesman Tom Conroy. In August, after the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities have the right to unionize, Local 33 filed election petitions for 10 departments. Yale contested that election strategy — a novel approach to unionization that no other graduate student union has ever attempted — in labor court in Hartford, where hearings ended Oct. 7. In the coming weeks, NLRB Regional Director John Walsh will review the transcripts of those hearings to determine whether the remaining nine departmental elections can proceed.
“Given that so many graduate students have expressed concern that Local 33-UNITE HERE is pursuing an election strategy that is insufficiently democratic, the decision to further limit the group of potential voters on this critical issue raises questions about whether the union has the interest of all graduate students in mind,” Conroy wrote in an email to the News.
In an emailed statement, Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said, “Federal law gives graduate teachers who petition the NLRB the right to vote for a union, and we’re excited to move forward with nine departments that have made that choice.” Greenberg and union lawyer Yuval Miller LAW ’05 did not respond to questions about the reason for the petition withdrawal.
Last month, Greenberg said that the union’s coordinating committee, a group of around 30 to 40 union members, voted to file election petitions in departments the committee believed had strong union support.
The nine departments in which Local 33 is still seeking to hold elections are East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science and Sociology.
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley said she does not know why Local 33 withdrew the comparative literature petition. Cooley added that the department-by-department strategy is “inconsistent with a fair and open election process in which all voices are heard.”
In interviews with the News, graduate students speculated that the interdisciplinary departmental setup of comparative literature — composed of 41 graduate students, some of whom receive joint degrees in other departments — might undermine Local 33’s department-by-department strategy.
Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18, a former president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate who now runs the anti-Local 33 group GASO, said the high level of collaboration between comparative literature and other fields could undercut the union’s legal claim that departments qualify as independent bargaining units.
“Maybe [Comparative] Lit is one of those departments that really weakens Local 33’s case for the microunit strategy,” Mo said. “If that is the reasoning behind it, that [strategy] is pretty hypocritical for Local 33. They’re only interested in unionizing students who are convenient to their cause or their agenda.” The official website of the Comparative Literature Department — which offers combined degree programs with the Classics, Renaissance Studies, and Film and Media Studies departments — advertises the interdisciplinary nature of the field, highlighting “interactions with adjacent fields” as one of the primary merits of the department. Since Local 33 filed for elections, Yale lawyers and administrators have repeatedly cited the intellectual overlap of the University’s academic departments as a key reason the departments should not be considered distinct units.
Still, graduate students interviewed said that so far there is little evidence to indicate that Local 33 has lost the support of comparative literature students. Current GPSS President Will Culligan GRD ’20 said that some students have speculated that the withdrawal is a sign of diminishing support among comparative literature graduate students, though he does not know whether those theories are correct.
Despite her vocal opposition to Local 33, Mo said she believes the Comparative Literature Department remains a stronghold of union support, adding that she feels sorry for students in the department who had hoped for a chance to vote in a union election.
Julia Powers GRD ’19, a Local 33 supporter in the Comparative Literature Department, declined to comment on her department’s withdrawal. But in an interview last month, Powers told the News that a majority of her department supported Local 33.
“When [the August NLRB decision] happened, it just exploded all over Facebook,” she said in September. “Everybody was talking about it and was excited about it.”
According to Yale law professor and labor expert Michael Wishnie ’87 LAW ’93, it is not uncommon for “union and employer positions” on the appropriate unit to shift over the course of an election campaign, even after the conclusion of hearings.
Still, in the weeks following the NLRB decision, Local 33 has faced harsh criticism from graduate students who consider the department-by-department election strategy undemocratic and who dislike what they describe as the union’s overly aggressive recruitment tactics.
Earlier this month, the Graduate Student Assembly voted to denounce both the organizing tactics of Local 33 and the departmental election strategy, even as the assembly stayed neutral on the broader question of whether graduate students should unionize. Last week, GASO — which first formed in the late 1990s in response to the aggressive recruitment practices of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, a precursor to Local 33 — unveiled a new website documenting alleged incidents of harassment and intimidation by union organizers.
“The departments that Local 33 is trying to unionize are presumably the only departments Local 33 believes it can win. The strategy is a blatant display of gerrymandering, trying to suppress the perspective of the vast majority of graduate students,” the GASO website states. “Should these departments vote to unionize, it will have a ripple effect across the entire graduate school even though many students were never given the opportunity to have a voice.”
GESO was rebranded as Local 33 in March 2016.
Rachel Treisman contributed reporting.