Union recognition elections will be held in nine Yale departments next week, the culmination of 25 years of organizing by graduate teachers. The latest moment in this history began last August when the National Labor Relations Board found that Columbia graduate teachers were statutory employees; as a result, union elections are also in process at Harvard, Columbia, Duke and Brown.
Graduate teacher unionism has a five-decade history. It began in the 1960s and 1970s as a form of teacher unionism, linked to the organization of public school teachers and of college faculty by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
Yale’s graduate teacher union — first called TA Solidarity, later GESO and finally UNITE HERE Local 33 — was a product of a second moment: the service sector unionism of the 1980s and 1990s, during which the Service Employees International Union overtook auto workers as the largest U.S. union. The 1984 strike by Yale’s clerical and technical workers — Local 34 — was, like the LA campaign for Justice for Janitors and the historic Las Vegas strike by hotel maids, an emblem of a nationwide self-organization of low-paid “service” workers, mainly women, disproportionally African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants.
As a result, Yale’s graduate teacher union — vigorously supported by Yale’s longstanding custodial and food service union and the new clerical and technical union — did not develop the professional elitism of many faculty unions; rather it joined a community-labor alliance, campaigning for a living wage and social justice in New Haven. Though the 2000 NYU ruling raised hopes of formal recognition, the 2004 Bush-era Brown reversal stiffened Yale’s intransigence. In an era of informal and precarious labor, GESO survived as an informal, precarious union: one without statutory protections, but just as real. It won substantial improvements for graduate teachers even as Yale administrators refused to utter its name.
The 2008 financial crisis triggered a third wave of unionism, resisting the inequities of the subprime university: the explosion of student indebtedness, the casualization of teaching, the erosion of tenure, the crisis of noncommercial humanities and sciences. Unions of the most precarious academic workers — graduate teachers and adjuncts — were recognized from the University of California to UConn.
After the August decision, Local 33 filed petitions for bargaining units in nine departments. In doing so, they drew on one of the most important decisions of the Obama-era NLRB, a ruling — subsequently upheld by four circuit courts — in a case involving a nursing home in Mobile, Alabama, named Specialty Healthcare. Upholding the rights of nursing assistants, the decision affirmed that the nation’s labor law was intended to facilitate freedom of association: “The first and central right set forth” in the law, the board notes, “is employees’ ‘right to self-organization.’” “The initiative in selecting the appropriate unit lies with the employees,” and if they demonstrate a “community of interest,” they have the right to bargain collectively, even if the employer maintains that other employees could plausibly be added to the unit. This is a profound reassertion of the original meaning of U.S. labor law. Earlier rulings had denied workers their democratic rights when employers expanded bargaining units to include employees in different departments with different conditions. Now, a group of “readily identifiable” workers who “share a community of interest” — working in the same spaces, with similar conditions and similar supervisors — can exercise the fundamental democratic right to bargain collectively.
This past fall, the Yale administration challenged the petitions. Despite the misleading testimony of Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler that “departments are arbitrary ways of dividing a multidimensional intellectual space,” the NLRB recognized what anyone working at Yale knows: Departments are the fundamental way of dividing occupational space at Yale, not only in faculty appointments, but in the appointment and supervision of graduate teachers.
Now, having lost their challenge, Yale deans step forth as protectors of “democracy.” The “microunit approach,” Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley lectures us, “is insufficiently democratic.” This might carry some weight if Yale University were a democratic institution, but democratic governance is not among Yale’s many virtues. We are not citizens of the city of Yale. Cooley was not elected by members of the Graduate School, nor did the faculty elect Gendler. Unions are, by law, held to far more stringent democratic practices and procedures than are universities like Yale. The issue is not “democracy” at Yale, but the democratic rights of employees to bargain collectively, a right that may be exercised by some employees — like those Yale employees represented by Locals 34 and 35 — even if other employees don’t exercise them.
What is a “microunit” anyway? One won’t find arguments for or against microunits in the NLRB decision. The microunit was invented by right-wing groups, furious that the courts upheld the Specialty decision. Lobbying for legislation to overturn it, they deemed these units microunits even though the Mobile nursing assistant unit was twice the median size of units recognized over the preceding decade. Scripted no doubt by their union-busting law firm, Yale administrators have thoughtlessly made themselves mouthpieces of the right.
What does this vote mean for Yale staff, faculty and undergraduates? Yale’s unionized staff has long been a model of solidarity; they have supported graduate teachers, insisting on the rights of all workers in higher education, academic or nonacademic. It’s time for Yale’s faculty to step up and defend collective bargaining for teachers. Though Yale has no faculty union, we should remind the University that union rights are fundamental to academic freedom; indeed professors are one of the most unionized occupations in the U.S.
What does it mean to undergraduates? The administration wants you to think like customers: Teaching assistants should do their job cheaply and invisibly, with no independent voice.
But Local 33 is your future. As young professionals, you may end up in the higher education industry; the health industry; the legal industry; the media, culture and technology industries. You will find that, as market forces are unleashed on the professions for which you trained, unions are the institution that represent, protect and enhance your work — not just your salary and benefits, but the pace and intensity of your work, your relations to clients, patients and students, the impact of new technologies and the rights to your intellectual work. The graduate teachers voting in the upcoming election are voting on your future.
Michael Denning is a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration specializing in labor studies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .