Amy Cheng

Facing an unfavorable legal landscape, Local 33 — the unrecognized graduate student union that made headlines last year for its efforts to force Yale to the bargaining table — has spent much of the past year switching gears from labor organizing to advocating for the University to divest from fossil fuel and Puerto Rican debt holdings.

According to the union’s co-president Robin Canavan GRD ’19, Local 33 decided to involve itself in divestment protests because of concerns about how Yale is contributing to climate change and the exploitation of Puerto Rico’s economy and citizens.

“Our union has always made it a priority to be one of the many consciences of the University and to hold them to their missions and the high standard Yale set for itself to be a leader,” Canavan said.

Canavan added that the union as a whole did not vote on taking a position against Yale’s investment in fossil fuels or Puerto Rican debt holdings. Still, Canavan and other union leaders have come together to advocate against these investments.

Last month, leaders of Local 33 attended a rally calling for Yale to divest from the Baupost Group, a hedge fund that holds about $1 billion out of Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt. Lena Eckert-Erdheim GRD ’20, who was elected the union’s co-president in the fall, gave a speech at a protest in front of University President Peter Salovey’s house on Hillhouse Avenue in January.

“Yale has never chosen to disclose or change its investment practices without a fight,” Eckert-Erdheim said at the rally. “Today Local 33 … is calling on Yale to cancel any Puerto Rican debt held as Yale’s assets and challenge the university’s managers to do the same. We’ll keep showing up and making noise until they listen.”

According to Eckert-Erdheim, Local 33 had contributed to getting Yale’s investment vehicle Farallon Capital Management to divest from a private prison company. Last spring, the union launched a website named “33 Wall Street” where it publishes research on Yale’s investment practices.

The graduate student union teamed up with student group Fossil Free Yale in November to garner support for a petition calling for Yale to cancel its investment in oil, coal and other resources with high carbon concentration, which amounts to more than $678 million, according to the groups’ calculation. Yale generally does not comment on its investments.

The two groups collected more than 1,000 signatures on the petition and delivered it to Salovey in December. Canavan said the union has not heard back from the administration about the petition.

Founded in 2016 with a mission to improve working conditions and benefits for graduate employees, Local 33 has not yet been recognized by the University despite staging hunger strikes during last year’s Commencement. Canavan said there has not been any update on the union’s negotiations with the University since the strike.

Some feel that Local 33 should focus on its dispute with the University and not on advocating on other issues. Dan Bowling, a labor professor at Duke School of Law, said that although many labor unions in the United States have been active in social justice issues, their participation remains controversial because union leaders’ opinions may not represent those of their unions’ members.

“Local 33 should focus on sitting down and getting a contract with Yale, not worrying about whether or not Yale owns Exxon stock.” Bowling said.

Stephen Albright GRD ’19, a vocal opponent of Local 33, said such involvement shows a lack of transparency in the group’s decision making.

Given the group’s history, he said, he is not confident that the union leadership consulted with its members on the decision to take an active role in the endowment debate.

“If I were represented by a union, I would personally want to be confident that it was doing all it could for its union members first, before getting involved in other organizing,” Albright said. “This is why transparency within a union is important — all members should have a say in the decisions being made, so the best interests of the union members are met.”

But Albright added that some of the causes that Local 33 has been advocating for are worthy.

Political Science professor Steven Smith said it is “very problematic” that Local 33 has interjecting itself into the endowment issue.

“It is even further evidence – if in fact further evidence is needed — that their stance is purely oppositional or confrontational to University policy,” Smith said.

The Graduate Employees and Students Organization rebranded as Local 33 in 2016.

Jingyi Cui |