Robbie Short

Eight Yale graduate students gathered under a large tent on Beinecke Plaza yesterday morning for the first day of an indefinite hunger strike designed to pressure Yale to begin contract negotiations with the graduate student union Local 33.

As the tent was assembled on Wednesday morning, another 16 graduate students were detained and charged with creating a public disturbance after they blocked the entrance to University President Peter Salovey’s annual Bulldog Days speech in Woolsey Hall. For the past month, Local 33 has been calling for Yale to begin contract negotiations, but so far, administrators have refused to come to the table as they continue to challenge the union in appeals to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C.

The students participating in the hunger strike are Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, Co-Chair Robin Canavan GRD ’19, Camille Cole GRD ’20, Charles Decker GRD ’18, Lukas Moe GRD ’19, Julia Powers GRD ’19, Emily Sessions GRD ’19 and Jifeng Shen GRD ’18.

“Yale is saying that we have to wait, that bargaining would be too premature. They’re saying that because they want to game the legal system, file motion after motion,” Greenberg said. “We’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll wait, but we’re going to wait without eating.’”

The hunger strike began on Tuesday evening, after Local 33’s deadline for the start of negotiations passed without acknowledgement from the University. According to Greenberg, the eight students — who received an afternoon checkup from local medical professionals — will switch places with other members of Local 33 if their health begins to seriously deteriorate.

Asked to comment on the eight graduate students starving themselves just feet from his office in Woodbridge Hall, Salovey read from a statement the University issued on Tuesday night.

“Although I deeply respect the right to freedom of expression, I would urge graduate students to reconsider this decision, because these actions could be harmful to their health,” Salovey said.

In the same statement, Yale described the hunger strike as “unwarranted by the circumstances.” Six academic departments — English, History, History of Art, Math, Sociology and Geology & Geophysics — voted to join Local 33 in elections held in February, and two other departments, Political Science and East Asian Languages and Literatures, were added last week after Yale and Local 33 agreed to throw out more than 40 challenged ballots that had delayed an outcome in those two elections.

But Yale still has a request for review pending in front of the NLRB that challenges the legal basis of the departmental elections. And the University is also attempting to file a second appeal arguing that graduates students at Yale should not be considered employees under the NLRB decision last August that gave graduate students at Columbia the right to unionize. In the wake of the August decision, graduate students at Harvard, Columbia and Duke have all participated in union elections.

At the Beinecke Plaza encampment — a boat shed made of wood and plastic that was repurposed to form a large tent — the eight students sat with blankets, listening to music and sipping from water bottles. Wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, Greenberg argued that Yale was positioning itself as an ally of President Donald Trump’s administration, which is expected to fill the NLRB with conservative appointees who will likely seek to reverse the Columbia decision.

“President Salovey, members of the Yale Corporation, the top members of the Yale administration are actively choosing to take advantage of this political moment and actively choosing to side with Donald Trump over members of the Yale community,” he said. “I find that unacceptable.”

But on Tuesday night, Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17 — the chairman of the Graduate Student Assembly, which has officially opposed Local 33’s organizing efforts since October — told the News that many students have expressed concern over the union’s use of a tactic that usually “comes to mind for prisoners who are being mistreated.”

And two labor law experts,  Duke Law professor Dan Bowling and former NLRB Chairman William Gould, said they could not think of another example of a union holding a hunger strike in order to force contract negotiations.

“It’s absurd. It’s certainly not the best way to proceed under the [National Labor Relations Act],” Bowling said. “They have legal options, such as filing unfair labor practice charges, or engaging in a traditional strike. They are not political prisoners. They’re trying to get negotiations. Labor relations is hardball. I don’t really know what they’re going to accomplish with this stunt.”

Bowling added that administrators also have “a lot of options” left before they will be legally compelled to negotiate with Local 33. Even if the NLRB dismisses Yale’s requests for review, the University could appeal the case to federal court, which might prolong the dispute for years.

Gould, who works as a professor at Stanford Law School, praised Local 33 for exposing the “dirty little secret” of labor law: the potential for union disputes to be dragged out for years on end.

“The law is good in terms of establishing a bill of rights for workers and a collective bargaining process in which labor and management can respect one another and engage in dialogue,” Gould said. “But it is very bad in terms of formulating an effective process and meaningful remedies for delay and loopholes.”

At Yale, the debate over graduate student unionization has divided students, faculty and administrators for decades. Those who support Local 33 argue that unionization would provide essential protections for graduate students, from child care support to grievance procedures in sexual assault cases. But on the other side, the union’s detractors say that Local 33 has a history of overly aggressive recruitment tactics and that its departmental election strategy was undemocratic. Yale opposes unionization on the grounds that it would detract from the student-teacher relationship, among other concerns.

Over the last two days, in an op-ed by Greenberg that ran in the New Haven Independent and a promotional video posted on Facebook, Local 33 has compared the hunger strike to the long history of nonviolent protest in the United States, from the civil rights movement to past labor disputes. At Woolsey, the students blocking the entryway quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and accused Salovey of “hiding behind Yale’s institutional power and prestige to deny us our basic right.”

But those comparisons have been greeted with skepticism from graduate students. James Dunn GRD ’19, a union supporter in the Religious Studies Department, called the civil rights movement analogy “distasteful” even as he criticized the University for refusing to come to the table.

“We’re talking about an extremely privileged set of people who are fairly well-remunerated by the University,” Dunn said. “On the other hand, this has resulted from some pretty despicable behavior on the part of the University. And they’ve pushed the union into a corner where there are very few tactical options left for them.”

The Graduate Employees and Students Organization was rebranded as Local 33 in the spring of 2016.

  • L Redleaf

    I am a parent who traveled across the country for Bulldog Days.

    I, along with other parents were frustrated. Yale graduate students are not an oppressed group. For them to block parents and their children, who are celebrating admission to Yale, was an act of selfishness.

    These students should be reprimanded.

  • Hieronymus Machine

    “16 graduate students were detained and charged … after they blocked the entrance to [Yale Prez] Salovey’s annual Bulldog Days speech in Woolsey Hall.”

    See? I’m tellin’ ya, Yalies: yer TAs resent y’all (and y’alls’ “privilege”) IMO, their low self-regard helps feed this union (aka mediocracy) drive. Rilly.

    “‘It’s absurd,’ [said] Duke Law professor Dan Bowling.”

    “At the Beinecke P[izza] encampment the eight [hunger-strikers] sat with blank[ies] listening to music and sipping from water bottles.”

    Compare with nearby article, “Startup Yale sees high level of female entrepreneurship,” as well as with undergrad startups cultivated via YEI. It’s YDN juxtaposing champs ‘n chumps, diamonds and dross, makers and takers, etc.

    P.S. [trigger warning] I’mma go get me a bagel ‘n coffee; anyone hungry?

  • JClimacus

    As an alum of the College and the Grad School, who served as a TA for others and an acting Instructor in courses of my own devising, I recognize the force of arguments on different sides of the grad student union question. The university’s refusal to recognize and negotiate with Local 33 may be both unwise and wrong. (I need to know more before I’ll feel warranted in judging the matter.) But a hunger strike — with its call to others, “See what I am willing to risk, how I am willing to suffer rather than yield to injustice” — seems a wildly exaggerated tactic in view of the claims and goods at stake in the dispute. The circumstances and cause of Yale graduate students are not on a par with those of Becky Edelsohn, Cesar Chavez, Alice Paul, Mohandas Gandhi, or others whose readiness to go on a hunger strike are rightly celebrated. Come on.

  • Capital Magpie

    As a current graduate student, this is what I find especially frustrating about the situation. The “selling point” of a union is that it can pursue *effective legal action* against Yale. At least, I’ve tried my best to educate myself about the unionization effort, and that is the main answer I’ve gotten at their info sessions. What can a union do that GSA cannot? Well, the downside might be that the Union costs ~$600-$900 a year, but the upside is that this affords lawyers who can actually negotiate with the school!

    This is why this hunger strike is so frustrating to see. I was told the whole point of the union was that it could engage with Yale on legal grounds! If its role is one of general advocacy, why do we need to bring in an outside organization, and pay yearly dues? The GSA, or simply students themselves, can already effectively do that.

    I do *understand* on some level the reasoning behind these tactics. This article recognizes that unfortunately, Yale has a variety of legal tactics left at its disposal, and this process will likely take a lot of time. I do understand the frustration, but isn’t that the point of the legal system? Labor negotiations aren’t simple, nor are they short. I honestly took that for granted. If the point of the union is to engage with Yale on legal grounds, this is a worrying start.

    One of my biggest concerns about the union is that it feels like it represents outside pressures more than it represents us graduate students ourselves. As a throwaway example, note that the petition for Salovey to negotiate with the union got 12,000 signatures. That’s an impressive show of support, but the entire graduate student body is ~3,000 students, and only a few hundred are currently part of this union. I know they’re not trying to pretend those signatures are from union members, but it just feels emblematic of how much of this fight seems to be about forces much larger than the actual graduate students themselves. I have no desire to be sucked into a struggle between UNITE HERE and Yale that has been going on for longer than my tenure at the school, one that I don’t fully understand.

    This ties in because the union didn’t actually *ask* its constituents for input on this move. My concern has always been that the union is too heavily influenced by interests beyond its graduate student constituents, and this seems like a very troubling example. These drastic actions are being taken without any input from the people that the union represents. If the union could clearly articulate the specific reasons why challenging Yale on legal grounds won’t work, I would much prefer that. They could explain “The problem is that Yale can challenge X result, can pursue Y legal action, and these legal challenges will take up to Z months. We think it will be more effective if we resort to more extreme advocacy, what do our members think.” That’s what I would hope a union could do explain the complex legal situation to us in a clear way, and work with our input. Instead, the promotional video makes an effective emotional plea, with little substance. There’s no explanation of exactly what challenges Yale is using, the time line of what that looks like, or any of that. And there certainly was no looking for input from their constituents.

    I readily admit my ignorance on this topic. And while I’m sure folks are tired of being obligated to educate people on some topic they don’t understand, in my defense, I really really have tried to learn the details of this unionization effort. I’ve been to the info sessions, talked to pro union folk, and scoured their websites for any details that I can. I know many people who are pro union, and they are passionate and well meaning people. I truly mean it when I say that I respect their efforts, and that their heart is in the right place. But I also have to say that there are large swathes of graduate students who range from uneasy with the unionization tactics to staunchly anti-union. These voices are often less widely heard, due to apathy, or the fact that they feel a fair amount of social pressure from pro-union folk (i.e. I hear plenty of anti-union talk in my department, where that is the norm and accepted, and very little in some social groups, where a majority are pro union). The union can and should cite their clear victories in several departments, but those departments weren’t chosen at random. They openly say how they wanted to start with the departments with the greatest interest in unionizing, as they should. But I don’t want people to think that it’s as simple as “Grad students vs Yale”, and that many departments feel otherwise (I can safely say that my department is pretty against unionization… it just really varies based on culture, work structure, etc).

    tldr: Not pleased with this move. I’d be happy to learn more, and I’ll go and talk to the folks camping out directly to hear more of their side of the story, but I’m not pleased with the union’s tactics so far.

    • Hieronymus Machine

      Honest, thoughtful piece. I often find myself wishing — when ppl claim “violence” (from words or “thoughts”) or play up “intersectionality” or victim status or claim that Salovey is in bed with Trump (?!) — that we could just sit down and have… a conversation. My experience has been that when I microagress with (what I consider) rational questions such as “what are you really saying?” defenses are up instantly and the accusations let fly (or, in the worse case, the speaker is *actually* clueless).

      “I know many people who are pro union..passionate and well-meaning… their heart is in the right place. But also are large swaths who range from uneasy with the unionization tactics to staunchly anti-union.” I agree with you. I think it’s a bit like “Animal Farm.” IMO, the “well-meaning” are being exploited by their more-equals and, more obviously, UNITE HERE (Benjamin$). I find it instructive to see where past GESO leaders have ended up (it ain’t the academy), which may inform some of their motives.

      “Happy to learn more, and I’ll talk to the folks camping out to hear more of their story.” Good luck. In my experience, asking questions of GESO just invites (incites?) tag-team “coffees” and apt. visits to re-educate the not-done ant (“Everything not forbidden is compulsory.”)

      Again, though, I liked you note, and you likely speak for many.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Go for Salovey’s office better ambiance and private toilet.

  • Hieronymus Machine

    Inferentially (or at least tangentially) related:
    AEI (dot) org economist Mark Perry (Carpe Diem blog) links today to a Laffer study that found

    “When the [50 U.S.] states are ranked, an interesting pattern emerges: the top 14 states with the [*]best[*] economic outlooks this year are all right-to-work states, and the bottom 17 states with the [*]worst[*] economic outlook are all forced-union states.”

  • deBlitz1000

    Hey just pay them 50 bucks an hour and take away all the freebies

  • Jawaralal_Schwartz

    Why does Loc 33 get so much ink? Grad students exist to be exploited, and then they are expected to exploit others. They get a great package at Yale, compared to other schools. They need to stop bellyaching before they are taken as fountains of charges of micro aggressions and have Snowflake signs glued onto their backs.