The long-awaited union election for graduate teachers at Yale is of profound importance for our University as a community and institution of intersecting labors. It is an opportunity for us to confront what work means in the contemporary political economy and how work is connected to democratic citizenship.

What gets recognized as work is both a historical and political process; the boundaries of who is legally and culturally considered a worker are redrawn persistently, especially if workers do labor that is traditionally feminized or racialized. To address the linked deficits of political and economy democracy, we have to change the authoritarian experience of work. Why is it that in the world of work so many don’t have basic constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of association and due process? Why do we accept authoritarian dictates, coercion and threats? What are the ways these are ideologically masked? Will Yale, as an employer, seek to take advantage of the Trump administration’s and Republican Congress’ open assault on labor standards and protections? Will it be a party to this process of eviscerating workers’ economic rights and economic security? Or will we hold the University accountable to the standards that created greater social egalitarianism?

Universities are key to this understanding of work. For all the fetishizing of manufacturing jobs during this presidential campaign, we never really talked about the jobs that define the conditions and struggles of daily lives of most people: retail sales, restaurants, food preparation, hotels, hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, schools, professional and business services, homes, leisure and entertainment and logistics. The jobs that have replaced manufacturing in older industrial cities are university and university hospital medical-complex jobs. Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital are the largest employers in New Haven. Two major hospital chains dominate in Connecticut: Hartford Hospital and Yale New Haven Hospital.

Over the years, there has been a concerted effort to fracture the type of labor done in universities — legally and ideologically. While universities may not welcome unionization among the ranks, the work done by maintenance, food service, custodial, office and security staff is seen as “labor,” despite the reality that many universities seek to contract out some of these functions and thereby deny their own role as employers. But when it comes to the jobs of teachers, researchers, archivists, computer engineers and graders, suddenly these occupations are no longer “work.” They stand separate from what other universities’ employees do by classifying them as “managerial” or “supervisory” or as “learning.”

For example, a 1980 National Labor Relations Board decision, NLRB v. Yeshiva University, allowed universities to argue that because faculty members and professionals make decisions and engage in complex thinking and creativity, they are not workers. By the same logic, graduate students who research, grade and teach, are learners. University administrators who embrace and promote this view arrogantly and patronizingly imply that unionism is only for those who do onerous, nonthinking or degraded labor. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein reminds us, “in truth all jobs … require judgement, self-reliance and initiative. All work can and should be dignified” and all can have access to collective defense of their interests.

A university such as Yale, with its robust liberal arts tradition, aspires to teach and represent good citizenship, critical thinking and social leadership. It is also a major employer, that too often seems to act in ways that defy these values. In this case, the administration’s insistence that it knows what is best for its employees expects total loyalty to employers, almost as a duty of fealty; independent action is represented as betrayal.

For this reason, the very essence of the National Labor Relations Act, is worker self-determination and freedom of association. Whatever University deans and provost (as management) or I (as faculty) may think about unionism personally or graduate teachers’ “motivations,” it is not pertinent. It’s about their choice of collective representation; that is up to the workers alone.

Local 33’s historic opportunity has implications far deeper than collective self-interest, that point to fundamental challenges we face for protecting and perhaps redefining what it means to live in a democratic society. We speak often about “academic freedom.” Yet what seems taboo is to speak about freedom of association in the economic realm, including the university as a powerful economic enterprise, as a corporation.

Through the union project, the graduate teachers and students have become astute observers of the corporatizing university. Indeed, I would have to say they are the most vocal critics of the neoliberal university, its casualization of employment, its shifting of greater financial burdens onto students and the type of class power it exerts on the region and nation.

Through unionism, Yale’s graduate teachers and students do what is so rarely done in American life: They reach across class and racial lines. Perhaps this too is what so offends the sensibilities of Yale’s top administrators. One of the great obstacles to unionism in the United States has been middle-class liberals who don’t sympathize with the collective ethos of the labor movement. Unions have a broader democratizing effect. Local 33 members seek to change this attitude by bringing more university-educated professionals into the fold.

Unions have a broader democratizing effect. Local 33 members also take to the streets: registering and canvassing voters, supporting community organizers, testifying to public hearings on community issues from housing to union jobs, to Yale expansion, to immigration issues. Through the union, they act as political citizens in solidarity with the broad range of working-class and middle-class people in New Haven. This is remarkable and instead of suppressing it, we should be celebrating it. We should see it as presenting a model for democratic culture.

Jennifer Klein is a professor in the History Department. Contact her at jennifer.klein@yale.edu .