In 2016, UNITE HERE disbursed $237,504 to Yale’s graduate student union in two major installments, according to a publicly available form that the organization filed with the Department of Labor at the end of March.
The form lists both installments as payments to the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which became an official UNITE HERE affiliate and was renamed Local 33 in March 2016, after it had received the first of the two payments.
But in its own financial disclosure form filed on March 31 of this year, Local 33 does not indicate that it received any funds from UNITE HERE, leaving no public record of how the money was used and renewing concerns about the union’s transparency.
It is unclear whether Local 33 was legally obligated to report UNITE HERE’s payments to GESO — $173,301 in February 2016 and $60,000 in September 2016 — since the union was rebranded between the two payments and in the middle of the year that the disclosure forms cover.
In an email, Local 33 Secretary-Treasurer Camille Cole GRD ’20 said the union’s failure to report the payments “simply reflect[s] the transition from GESO to the officially chartered Local 33-UNITE HERE.” UNITE HERE did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement to the News, Jonathan Russo, who runs the local branch of the Office of Labor Management Standards that has jurisdiction over Local 33, wrote that “if Local 33 received a payment in 2016, that payment should appear as a receipt in the disclosure report.”
But Russo did not directly respond to questions about whether the union was required to report UNITE HERE’s payments to GESO, saying his office “will review this matter further and take any appropriate follow-up steps.”
The disclosure forms circulated among Yale graduate students and administrators over the past two weeks, as Local 33 continued its controversial hunger strike and planned a mass demonstration for Commencement Day. The forms are available on the Department of Labor’s website.
Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17 — the chairman of the Graduate Student Assembly, which voted to oppose Local 33 last October — said Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley brought the documents to his attention at the end of the spring semester. In an interview, Cooley told the News she “shares the concerns that many graduate students have expressed” about Local 33’s autonomy and transparency.
“Two-hundred thirty-seven thousand dollars is an incredible sum of money, and I among others would be very curious in knowing what exactly that is being spent on,” Vincent said.
Other graduate student critics say the questions surrounding Local 33’s disclosure forms point to a broader pattern of secrecy dating back to the union’s decision to pursue a departmental election strategy in September.
“How decision-making happens has been really opaque,” said Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18, who runs the anti-Local 33 organization GASO.
Still, even if the labor department determines that the union was obligated to report UNITE HERE’s payments, Local 33 would be unlikely to face significant penalties, according to labor consultant Dave Rogers.
“If the officers simply had some beginners’ mistakes and are well intentioned and even file an amended form, they’d be fine,” Rogers said. “The DOL has bigger things to go after.”
And although Local 33 may not have reported the payments properly, two union experts said it is common for parent organizations to send large sums of money to local affiliates in advance of union elections. Local 33 could have used those funds to pay organizers’ salaries or produce videos for social media, said Dan Bowling, a law professor at Duke University.
“A union campaign needs money to run on. It’s like oxygen that you need to breathe,” Bowling said.
John Williams, a labor consultant and former union administrator, said UNITE HERE may have been especially generous to Local 33, hoping that a union victory at Yale would convince graduate students seeking to unionize at other universities to affiliate under the same umbrella organization.
Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 did not respond to an email asking how the union spent the $237,504 and whether he and other officers have been paid.
Nearly nine months after the National Labor Relations Board gave graduate students at private universities the right to unionize, Yale and Local 33 remain embroiled in a long-running legal dispute.
Local 33 won elections in eight departments in January, but Yale has launched two appeals challenging the legal basis of those victories. In April, eight graduate students began a hunger strike on Beinecke Plaza to pressure Yale to open contract negotiations with Local 33. But the University says it will not begin the bargaining process while appeals are still pending with the NLRB.
Unlike a union, Yale is not required by law to report its annual spending to the Department of Labor. But according to Williams and Bowling, the University has likely spent significantly more than the union over the course of the legal dispute.
In its dealings with Local 33, Yale is represented by the high-profile New York law firm Proskauer Rose, which has a reputation for union busting. According to a 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal, the billing rate for partners at the firm has ranged from $925 to $1,475 per hour in certain bankruptcy cases.
“Yale’s strategy: Bomb them back to the Stone Age,” Williams said. “Oh, you’re spending 200k? Management will put up 10 times that amount to thwart the union.”
Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told the News that the University “does not disclose information about legal costs.” A spokesman at Proskauer Rose did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.
As the legal dispute continues, Local 33 has shown no indication that it will soften its stance in the battle with Yale. UNITE HERE plans to transport busloads of demonstrators to campus to disrupt the University’s annual graduation ceremony, and graduate students are still fasting outside Woodbridge Hall.
Commencement will take place on May 22.