There was a time when I believed Local 33 could improve graduate student life at Yale. In fact, I showed my support by signing a membership card. Since then I have attended Q&A sessions and met with Local 33 organizers numerous times. But after considering the issue, I have one more question for Local 33: Can I have my card back?
I care about the issues for which Local 33 is advocating; I have served as a representative to both the Graduate Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Title IX Advisory Board for over a year to improve the lives of graduate students. But having spent much of my time addressing these issues, I am convinced that Local 33 does not fully understand the demands it will be making, or how to accomplish their aims.
Furthermore, by seeking to unionize only students who teach, department by department, it is denying a majority of graduate students a voice in making a decision that will undoubtedly affect every one of us.
Local 33 has made some generous claims about their goals as a union: it will restore TF10 teaching fellow stipends to $5000 per semester, improve dental and eye insurance offerings, improve child care support and options and establish grievance procedures to resolve inequalities among graduate students. But when organizers are asked how they would accomplish these goals, they have always been short on details. They argue they will educate themselves after unionization, but a union only just figuring out the details cannot effectively represent its constituency.
Organizers have never given a satisfactory answer to the question of where the money would come from to accomplish these benefits. They have suggested that Yale could ask donors to foot the bill, or that Yale could simply dip into the endowment. These are not sustainable solutions, and both have the potential of depriving the rest of the Yale community of University support it needs.
Local 33 also appears to actively ignore current efforts by the University to address the very same issues it has raised. Organizers have paid no mind to the details of work by the Graduate Student Assembly and Graduate & Professional Student Senate to provide supplementary health insurance and childcare assistance, and they completely ignore the existing grievance procedures administered by the University to address issues of inequality on campus. By failing to understand the details of its demands, Local 33 jeopardizes the success of their negotiations and thus the quality of our benefits.
Even if Local 33 resolved these issues, it is unacceptable to become an official union by holding elections only for students who have taught in just nine departments and only during this past semester. If these nine departments choose to unionize, Local 33 will only represent graduate students who are teaching any given semester in those departments. Union membership, and thus the students receiving the associated benefits, will vary at least twice annually. Take me as an example: I taught in the Physics department last semester, but in the Applied Physics department this semester, so I would not receive benefits this semester.
Partial unionization would introduce massive inequality to the graduate school. Students more dependent on negotiated benefits for childcare or insurance would be forced to teach, taking time from other duties they have. Students would be pushed to teach in unionized departments, creating a shortage of teachers in non-unionized departments.
Local 33 will claim that these inequalities will pressure the University to extend negotiated benefits to the entire graduate school, thus benefiting all students. However, this would mean that the entire graduate student population would be subject to the outcomes of Local 33 negotiations, even though only teaching students in nine departments would have voted on unionization and be represented at the negotiating table. Local 33 claims that departmental elections are more democratic, but the reality is quite the opposite: Graduate students not teaching in these nine departments will have no voice in decisions that directly affect them.
My concerns here are in no way applicable to unionization in general. Unions can be effective at improving the lives of graduate students. But for a union to be effective, it must not only have a vision, but understand the details of that vision and how to achieve it. And it must not only speak for a few graduate students, but for all of them.
Local 33 has shown no interest in becoming an effective union, only in winning representation. When you vote in the upcoming election, vote “no” on Local 33. Demand that Local 33 develop its vision, represent the entire graduate school, and petition for a unionization election across the entire graduate school. That is what I demand, and I will be voting “no.”
Stephen Albright is a fourth-year graduate student in the Physics Department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .