Finnegan Schick

More than 80 members of Local 33 have signed an online petition since last December declaring their dissatisfaction with and distrust for the graduate student union’s leadership and claiming to form a new group named the Union We Want.

The signatories of the petition claim that Local 33’s leadership lacks transparency and dismisses members’ concerns. The leadership’s failure to acknowledge lingering dissatisfaction has led members to believe that Local 33 cannot fulfill the graduate student union’s goals, the petition states.

Rather than asking leadership to reform itself, signatories of the letter hope to build an alternative union, claiming that repeated calls for change have had little impact. Still, in a statement to the News, the union’s ad-hoc communications committee emphasized the importance of unionization efforts and said that Yale’s refusal to take a seat at the negotiating table is not just a product of mistakes by Local 33’s leadership.

“We don’t think [the positives of Local 33 and UNITE HERE] justify Local 33’s strategy of cultivating active leaders and passive members — in fact Local 33’s own stated commitments to collective action and powerful unions require us to reject that strategy and dare to imagine something better,” the statement said. “We have raised concerns about these and other problems time and time again, individually and together, through the rather limited channels available to us. Time and again we have been isolated, ignored, or dismissed.”

Local 33 co-president Robin Canavan GRD ’19 did not respond to requests for comment. In February, graduate students in eight of Yale’s academic departments voted to unionize. The University has refused to negotiate with Local 33 as it appeals the legal basis of the union elections to the National Labor Relations Board.

The Union We Want, composed of both ex-organizers and rank-and-file members of Local 33, began meeting at the end of last semester to discuss how to form a unified union instead of one that “isolates [members] from each other and choreographs them from above,” according to the group’s statement to the News. The group aims to replace what it describes as Local 33’s hierarchical model with that of a true grass-roots organization.

In its statement, the union’s ad-hoc communications committee said that many members of the Union We Want felt they were made “passive bodies by a strategy directed from above” during Local 33’s recent campaign — which culminated in a controversial, weekslong hunger strike outside Woodbridge Hall last spring. But, according to the statement, dissatisfied members refrained from public critique during the campaign to avoid detracting from the cause of unionization.

Local 33’s pyramid model assigns representatives from departmental organizing committees to be points of contact for members. A coordinating committee oversees the organizers, and is itself supervised by a steering committee. Paid union staff sit atop the Local 33 hierarchy.

The Union We Want letter states that Local 33 organizes through top-down, one-on-one meetings that prevent open communication among members. A lack of interdepartmental communication, the letter continues, prevents a unified sense of solidarity among graduate students and gets in the way of collective action. Several core union organizers meet daily, but the Union We Want argues that these meetings bind the organizers to each other and isolate them from the broader membership. And only the paid staff, unknown to a majority of Local 33 members, direct union strategy, according to the letter.

Max Krahé GRD ’19, who served on Local 33’s coordinating committee for a brief period, said he stepped down after just a week. As an organizer for three terms, Krahé said he found his role — to recruit friends and peers to sign petitions and show up at rallies — stressful and emotionally taxing. He added that Local 33’s practices often “[blurred] the lines between professional and personal” and recalled a time where he “crossed a line” by ringing the doorbell of a friend’s apartment on a Sunday as he canvassed for signatures on a Local 33 petition. Looking back, Krahé said, he realized such practices were problematic and signed onto the Union We Want after he saw that reforms were not leading to any meaningful change.

Andrew Cohen GRD ’17, who had been involved with Local 33 since 2012, said he had many conversations with union leadership during the lead up to the vote for unionization last February. Although he supported his colleagues in the sociology department in their decision to unionize, Cohen described many of the union’s organizing tactics, such as waiting outside classrooms to speak with graduate students, as overly aggressive.

For Cohen, Local 33’s 2017 hunger strike, which he called “ridiculous” and “shameful,” was the last straw. The plans for the strike were determined by the executive leadership and were not widely discussed with union members, he said.

“The internal structure of Local 33 does not produce a justified division of labor, but rather an unjustified division of power: leaders act as the head, and we as the hands,” the Union We Want petition states. “Isn’t there a certain irony in demanding that Yale give us a ‘voice at the table’ when our own union does not?”

The Union We Want campaign outlines eight key consequences of Local 33’s tactics, including the departure of dozens of frustrated organizers who quit last semester, leaving several departments without a formal organizing strategy. The letter also argues that Local 33’s practices alienate women, LGBTQ students and students of color.

Yale’s graduate student union has long suffered from internal discord. In 2003, members of the union — then called the Graduate Employees and Students Organization — participated in a weeklong walkout with Yale’s two largest unions, Locals 34 and 35, leading to criticism from other affiliated graduate students who claimed that striking with the recognized unions distracted from GESO’s own causes. Two years later, after a majority of GESO membership voted to begin a five-day strike, some graduate students questioned the legitimacy of the vote and the value of the strike.

And two years ago, women, LGBTQ graduate students and graduate students of color wrote a public letter criticizing the union’s organizing tactics. Many of the points outlined in that letter, such as a lack of transparency and the “state of emergency” rhetoric, were almost identical to the criticism in the “Union We Want” petition. The 2016 letter suggested that GESO gain financial and structural autonomy from UNITE HERE, the umbrella organization that comprises Local 34 and 35. GESO responded by reinstating its Equal Rights and Access Committee and vowing to host a forum to discuss organizing tactics, along with several other commitments. Then, in the spring of 2016, GESO rebranded itself as Local 33, symbolizing its continued alignment with the two other Yale unions.

In October 2016, GASO, a group opposed to the graduate student union that had been inactive since the 1990s, launched a website to document complaints about the political affiliations and recruitment tactics of Local 33. A week before that, the Graduate Student Assembly voted to denounce Local 33’s organizing tactics and departmental election strategy.

Hailey Fuchs | hailey.fuchs@yale.edu