Courtesy of Scott Olsen
More than 700 graduate students are enrolled in the nine departments that will vote this spring on whether to join unofficial graduate student union Local 33. But only a small fraction of those students will be eligible to vote in the union elections, according to rules laid out by the National Labor Relations Board in its decision last week to approve nine Local 33 election petitions.
The NLRB decision states that graduate students will be eligible to vote if they taught in one of the nine departments during the “payroll period ending immediately prior to the issues of this decision.” Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told the News on Monday that the University’s “understanding is that only students teaching this spring semester will be eligible to vote.”
Yale was initially required to submit a list of eligible student voters by Jan. 27, but the NLRB granted the University a one-week extension to finalize teaching assignments for the spring semester, Conroy said. Yale now has until Friday, Feb. 3, to submit the voter list.
But in the meantime, the University’s teaching assignment and enrollment data from the fall offers an approximate idea of the number of students who will be eligible to vote in the departmental elections, according to Graduate School Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister. A vote to unionize requires a majority of votes from those eligible to participate in an individual department election.
Last semester, 730 graduate students were enrolled across the nine departments in which Local 33 plans to hold union elections: Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, Geology and Geophysics, History, History of Art, Mathematics, Physics, Political Science and Sociology. But only 235 of those students taught last semester, less than one-third of the total.
In addition, a further 71 students enrolled outside the nine departments taught classes in them last fall — a group that includes master’s and professional students, as well as graduate students teaching outside their home departments. According to the NLRB decision, the master’s and professional students will be allowed to vote, but only under challenge, meaning that their eligibility may not be determined until after the elections.
Still, Ph.D. students who teach in departments chosen by Local 33 but who officially belong to departments not on the union’s list, such as African American Studies students who teach in the History Department, will have their votes counted.
The percentage of students who would be eligible for the Local 33 elections based on last semester’s data varies widely across the nine departments. In History of Art, only 18 of the 75 graduate students in the department, or 24 percent, taught last semester. By contrast, nearly 60 percent of math students taught in the fall.
Union critics say the eligibility rules — which are based on language in Local 33’s original election petitions — are unfair, because if ineligible students teach next fall, a union they did not elect could be bargaining on their behalf.
“We are talking about a very small percentage of students determining momentous questions that ultimately will affect all graduate students,” Schirmeister said.
Debate at Yale over the fairness of Local 33’s election strategy dates back to August, when the union filed election petitions in 10 separate 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. Local 33 withdrew an election petition for the Comparative Literature Department at the end of the hearings, reducing the total number of petitions to nine.
As Yale and Local 33 waited for a decision from the NLRB, the graduate student unions at Harvard and Columbia held schoolwide elections that have led to prolonged legal disputes
After months of anticipation, NLRB Regional Director John Walsh ruled in favor of Local 33 last Wednesday, ordering elections in the nine departments. The dates of the elections have not been scheduled, though Dan Bowling, a labor expert at Duke School of Law told the News last week he expects they will be held in the next month.
Still, throughout the fall, Local 33’s departmental election strategy was heavily criticized by union skeptics in the Graduate School. In October, the Graduate Student Assembly voted to oppose the union, breaking years of silence on labor issues. Over the weekend, GSA Chairman Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17 told the News he fears the eligibility rules will unfairly disenfranchise hundreds of students across the nine departments.
“The major concern is still that a minority of students is being given the chance to decide the potential fates for hundreds of others, and the hundreds of others are completely stripped of a voice in the matter,” Vincent said.
Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 did not respond to questions about critics’ concerns over the departmental election strategy. In a statement, Greenberg told the News that the NLRB has resolved the issue.
Stephen Albright GRD ’19, a physics student and an opponent of Local 33, said he will be unable to vote in the departmental elections because he does not have a teaching assignment in the Physics Department this semester.
“Local 33 is more concerned with winning something than representing what is best for Yale’s graduate students,” Albright said.
Until last year, Local 33 was known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.