Yale’s unofficial graduate student union Local 33 will be allowed to hold separate labor elections in nine academic departments, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday.
The decision by NLRB Regional Director John Walsh means that for the first time in the nearly 30-year history of Yale’s graduate student unionization movement, graduate students on campus will have the chance to participate in a legally binding vote on whether to bargain collectively with Yale. The dates of the elections have not been announced.
In August, after the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities have the right to unionize, Local 33 filed election petitions in 10 separate departments: Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science and Sociology. 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. Local 33 withdrew its Comparative Literature petition after the end of the hearings.
On Wednesday, Walsh issued his decision in the case, writing that Yale “failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that there is such an overwhelming community of interest among all of the teaching fellows at the University that there is no rational basis for approving units based on academic departments.”
Yale has vigorously opposed graduate student unionization since the early ’90s, arguing that it would compromise the University’s educational mission. But now, after months of uncertainty, the University will be required to provide a list of eligible student voters in nine departments to the NLRB by Jan. 27. According to the decision, students in the nine departments who “were employed during the payroll period ending immediately prior” to the release of the ruling will be allowed to vote.
In an interview with the News, Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said the NLRB’s decision on Wednesday afternoon marked a historic moment for the graduate student unionization movement at Yale.
“We’ve been waiting for months, and this feels like such a long time coming,” Greenberg said. “I’ve been organizing for this union for many years, and it’s really exciting that we’re going to get a chance to vote.”
In a Wednesday evening email to graduate students and faculty, Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley called the departmental election strategy “insufficiently democratic, and contrary to the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration that is such a hallmark of the Graduate School.”
Although Cooley did not specify whether the University intends to challenge the NLRB’s decision, Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor told the News that Yale is “reviewing the decision, and looking at our options.”
Yale has two weeks to file a “request for review” with the national labor board, which would essentially amount to an appeal of Walsh’s decision. Most likely, the NLRB would allow the departmental union elections to go forward before evaluating Yale’s request, said Dan Bowling, a labor expert at Duke University. But if Yale did challenge the decision, the NLRB could potentially hold off on counting the election ballots until the University’s appeal is decided, Bowling said.
Still, even if the NLRB were to reject a potential Yale appeal, the University could turn the unionization debate into a prolonged legal battle simply by refusing to bargain with Local 33. According to Bowling, Local 33 would likely respond by filing an unfair labor practice charge, which could take months or years to make its way through the legal system.
And with President Donald Trump expected to fill the national labor board with conservative appointees, labor experts say Yale may look to postpone contract negotiations into the distant future.
“Yale has taken a fairly aggressive stance in asserting its legal rights, and if it continues to do so, this thing may drag on for a while,” Bowling said. “Most likely, the composition of the board will be more favorable to Yale’s position over time.”
But at least for now, Local 33 has won the legal argument against Yale. The case hinged on the NLRB’s interpretation of a 2011 decision — Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Mobile — that paved the way for small subsets of employees, known as “microunits,” to hold union elections. In the labor court, Yale and Local 33 debated whether the Specialty Healthcare precedent was applicable to academic departments.
In the decision, Walsh held that Yale failed to demonstrate an “overwhelming community of interest” — the legal threshold demanded by Specialty Healthcare — between students in the nine departments and the rest of the Graduate School.
Still, Wednesday’s decision left open the question of when Local 33 will hold the nine departmental elections. Bowling told the News that the NLRB will give the two parties a chance to agree on a date, and that “the election will be scheduled fairly soon, probably within a month or so.”
Since it filed the original 10 election petitions in August, Local 33 has faced significant opposition from graduate students skeptical of the departmental election strategy. Last semester, the Graduate Student Assembly voted to oppose the organizing efforts of Local 33, breaking years of silence on the unionization issue. And the anti-Local 33 group GASO — a play on the acronym for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, Local 33’s previous incarnation — unveiled a new website detailing objections to the departmental approach, as well as allegations that the union engaged in overly aggressive recruitment practices, a long-standing complaint.
One of the primary arguments of Local 33’s opponents is that the departmental elections will unfairly exclude a large portion of the Graduate School from a series of votes that could have a dramatic effect on academic life at Yale.
“I still do have concerns that this isn’t going to be giving a voice to all student in the Graduate School,” said GSA Chairman Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17. “I kind of look at the grad school as one group, one community.”
And the outcome of the Yale-Local 33 case could have national significance, potentially opening the door to departmental bargaining units in other universities across the country.
“The fact patterns that the regional director found are likely to apply to other universities,” said William Gould, a former chairman of the NLRB. “And if the courts and a future board find [the August decision] to be good law, it could well be that this would carry over to other universities.”
In the past few months, the graduate student unions at Harvard and Columbia have both held schoolwide labor elections, but legal disputes at both universities have left those two elections unresolved.
GESO was founded in 1991.
This story was updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Jan. 26.