As a Yale College alumna, professor, administrator and member of the New Haven community, I was delighted to see UNITE HERE Local 34 and Local 35 — Yale’s unions for its clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers — reach new five-year contracts with the University. On Jan. 18, every member of these two unions, which together represent some 5,000 Yale employees, was invited to vote on these contracts in the Shubert Theater, marking a decade and a half of transformational labor peace on campus. The contracts are a milestone achievement and a testament to the value of unions for Yale’s full-time employees.
In stark contrast to the inclusive and broadly grounded Locals 34 and 35, Yale’s graduate student unionization organization — formerly “GESO” and now rebranded as Local 33 — has had a contentious history on campus for more than two decades, and has been deeply divisive among graduate students themselves. In September 2016, elected representatives of the Graduate Student Assembly broke years of silence on unionization, voting to oppose both Local 33 and its department-by-department approach to voting. Elections in nine of the 56 departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will be held on Thursday, but even those who celebrate the labor movement as a whole have reasons to be concerned about this particular election.
From my perspective as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the heart of the matter lies in the question of whether graduate student teaching fellows — who learn the art of teaching by leading discussion sections for Yale College courses — should be classified as employees. The National Labor Relations Board has changed its position on this question three times in the past 16 years. Unlike Yale’s unionized workforce, graduate students are only here for the few years it takes to complete their Ph.D.s and prepare for permanent jobs in the academy or elsewhere. Doctoral students in the GSAS attend Yale tuition-free, are given annual stipends of more than $30,000 — whether or not they are engaged in teaching that year — and receive comprehensive health care benefits for themselves and their families in order to study with outstanding faculty members and take advantage of the University’s exceptional academic resources and services. Yale graduate students spend a smaller proportion of their time apprenticing as teachers than at many peer institutions: Nearly 70 percent of Yale doctoral students did no teaching at all this past fall. Over the course of six years, at most one-fifth of a Ph.D. student’s time is devoted to required teaching as part of their training, and for many it is much less.
But even those who support graduate student unionization in principle have grounds to be concerned about this week’s elections. Robust, inclusive and open dialogue — free from intimidation or pressure to silence any viewpoint — should be a cornerstone of conversation on our campus. University President Peter Salovey called for such an open discussion last August, but Local 33 has thwarted that expectation, pursuing a strategy of filing for nine independent “micro-unit” elections in departments where the union’s support is allegedly at its strongest. For those nine departments, the union sought to further limit voter eligibility and turnout, attempting to constrain the number of days, hours and locations where they could vote. The result is a disenfranchisement of more than 50 percent of Ph.D. students in these nine departments, and about 90 percent of all students across the entire Graduate School.
Can you imagine the reaction of Local 34 and Local 35 members, if their leadership informed them that only 10 percent of their workforce were allowed to vote last month for their recently renewed contracts? Fourteen years ago, when GESO last organized — and lost — its own election in 2003, nearly 1,400 graduate student teaching fellows voted. At Harvard and Columbia, union organizers have pursued schoolwide units that include all graduate students. Several thousand students voted in January elections on each of those campuses. In fact, there are no examples of micro-unit graduate student unions in all of higher education.
Today there are 313 students eligible to vote at Yale, but 20 percent of them are not even Ph.D. students in the GSAS: They are master’s and professional school students who happen to be serving as teaching fellows in these departments this particular spring. A positive vote by this nonrepresentative group could affect the entire community. The resulting structure, with graduate student unions in some departments but not others, would challenge the flexibility and interdisciplinary collaboration that is a hallmark of the Graduate School.
Unions can be an important force for good; they help provide much-needed worker protections around the world, including at Yale. And while I believe it is a mistake to introduce that type of formal collective bargaining for graduate students, whose teaching responsibilities constitute a small part of their doctoral education, even those who support graduate student unionization should be concerned about the gerrymandered process that Local 33 has fashioned. The micro-unit approach is a flawed strategy; it disenfranchises rather than unites.
Tamar Gendler is the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .