As the class of 2017 gathered for Commencement on Old Campus Monday morning, more than a thousand graduate students and union allies marched through downtown New Haven demanding that Yale open negotiations with graduate student union Local 33.
Wearing bright orange graduation caps and shouting into bullhorns, the Local 33 protesters marched in a loop around Yale’s campus, chanting “We are all here to stay, Salovey should lead the way.” Led by the eight fasting members of Local 33, the marchers stopped at the corner of Elm and College streets to applaud as the traditional procession of graduating seniors approached Old Campus. Many of the seniors waved back at the protesters.
University President Peter Salovey — accompanied by Handsome Dan and former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66, who received an honorary law degree — did not acknowledge the union demonstration as he joined the students filing into Old Campus.
After the procession, the Local 33 demonstrators marched on City Hall, where they gathered beneath a large pavilion for live music and speeches from the union’s leaders.
“We’ve been doing all of this to shine a very bright light on what is going on here at Yale, here in New Haven,” Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 told the crowd of orange-clad supporters. “We are in the right. We have shown our commitment. We have shown our discipline, our creativity, our imagination and our will to win, which is what we are going to do.”
The demonstration also marked the end of Local 33’s nearly four-week-long hunger strike, Greenberg announced at the City Hall after-party. Moments later, the protesters began dining on more than 150 boxes of Wall Street pizza.
“It’s been a really inspiring way of protesting. It’s resonated with a lot of people,” said Local 33 Co-Chair Robin Canavan GRD ’19. “And on this very celebratory day — Commencement, you’re beginning something new — it felt meaningful to break the fast.”
Last week, the announcement of the Commencement Day protest drew criticism from students who were concerned that Local 33 would disrupt the graduation ceremony. But those fears ultimately proved unfounded: The protesters had already turned away from Old Campus to march toward City Hall by the time the ceremony began at 11:30 a.m. A man rushed the stage at Commencement and was hauled away by police, but there is no indication that he is associated with Local 33.
Still, the union protest was accompanied by a heavy police presence, including a squad of motorcycles that guided the marchers from the corner of York and Elm streets, around Woolsey Hall and Timothy Dwight College, and back down Elm to the gates of Old Campus. More than 60 officers in the New Haven Police Department were assigned to Commencement and the Local 33 protest, three times the number that usually oversees the graduation ceremony, according to Wayne Bullock, a sergeant with the NHPD.
As the demonstrators marched through the streets, some parents shook their heads in disapproval, while others raised their fists in solidarity. Many stopped to take photos and videos of the spectacle.
“This is not the time and place to make an ass of yourself,” said one parent who traveled to Commencement from Kansas City. “If they don’t like what they’re doing and the pay they’re getting, why are they doing it?”
Muriel McFadden, whose son graduated on Monday from the School of Management, was less severe. Despite her general pro-union stance, McFadden stressed that “everything has a time and a place.” She could not support the protesters if they disrupted Commencement, she said.
Political science professor and former Branford College master Steven Smith, who marched in the procession to Old Campus, said he was glad Local 33 did not disrupt the ceremony. Still, Smith said it was “childish and petulant” to demonstrate on a day like Commencement.
But for Beth Greenfeld — who was dressed in an orange Local 33 sweater and had come to Yale to see her daughter Sarah Decker GRD ’17 graduate — the real villain was Salovey.
“The inappropriate disruption is the president refusing to negotiate with a certified union,” said Greenfeld, whose daughter is married to Charles Decker GRD ’18, one of the original eight hunger strikers.
After winning elections in eight academic departments in February, Local 33 has demanded that Yale begin the collective bargaining process. So far, though, the University has refused to open negotiations, citing legal appeals that are still pending in front of the National Labor Relations Board. Since the end of April, a rotating cast of graduate students has held a hunger strike on Beinecke Plaza to pressure the University to begin negotiations.
The protesters who joined the Local 33 march on Monday came from across the East Coast, according to Bob Proto, the president of Local 35, which represents blue-collar employees at Yale. Members of the graduate student union at Columbia, as well as the Teamsters and building trades unions, were among the thousand or so who marched to Old Campus.