As Brown University and Columbia University formally recognized their graduate student unions, Yale yet again reaffirmed its opposition to recognizing the University’s own graduate student union Local 33 in a statement from University spokesman Tom Conroy.
On Nov. 19, both Brown and Columbia announced plans to formally recognize their graduate student unions, six months after Harvard did the same. The victories for graduate students at the respective schools culminated decadeslong campaigns for formal recognition. But at Yale, graduate students are still pushing the reluctant administration to take a seat at the negotiating table.
“Graduate students at Yale are primarily students learning to be scholars and teachers, with teaching assistant opportunities built into the graduate student curriculum,” Conroy said. “Enhancements to graduate student support —such as expanded family support — continue to be made every year, usually based on well-researched proposals from the Graduate Student Assembly.”
In a statement to the News, Conroy argued that Columbia’s graduate student elections were democratic, unlike those held by Local 33 in February 2017. Whereas Columbia’s election — in which 4,200 students were eligible — was supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, Local 33 did not hold campuswide elections. Instead, Local 33 held a department-by-department election, in which eight departments voted in favor of unionization. The controversial approach had been approved by a regional branch of the National Labor Relations Board but remained untested at other private universities. Yale has appealed the legal basis of the union elections, claiming that because only 228 of 2,600 graduate students cast eligible votes, the election was illegitimate.
But Local 33’s push for recognition faced a major setback last February when the union withdrew all its petitions to the NLRB. After months of rallies and a widely publicized hunger strike, the union fell silent as its future remained unclear.
In an email to the News, Lena Eckert-Erdheim GRD ’20, co-president of Local 33, said that developments at Columbia, Brown and other universities “make it clear that Yale is increasingly out of step.” Eckert-Erdheim added that as the academic labor movement continues to grow, Local 33 hopes that Yale will follow its peers in opposing the Trump administration’s anti-union agenda by recognizing Local 33.
When asked about the union’s next steps in a separate email to the News, Eckert-Erdheim did not respond to a request for comment.
“We’ve invited the administration before, and we invite them again, to discuss a fair process for union recognition and a contract,” Eckert-Erdheim said.
Despite progress for graduate student unions across the Ivy League, Yale — like many other institutions of higher education — has opposed graduate student unionization for decades. According to Conroy, all graduate students receive the same stipend regardless of whether they teach, and that their teaching requirement is “only one small part of their educational program.”
In an interview with the News, University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer GRD ’95, who formerly served as a senior labor policy advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, speculated that Columbia and Brown’s decisions to negotiate with graduate student unions will pressure Yale to recognize Local 33.
“Local 33 is one of the first unions to form in a private university, and Yale felt like it was under pressure from other Ivy league schools not to unionize,” Lafer said. “But there no longer is that pressure. And more importantly, [Columbia and Brown] show that negotiating with graduate student unions is completely normal and not a big deal. If Yale does not respond in a similar fashion, they look isolated, as if they are in a bunker mentality against nothing.”
But according to former NLRB chairman William Gould, the recent developments at Yale’s peer institutions are unlikely to sway the University’s refusal to recognize Local 33. In an interview with the News, Gould explained that the universities chose to negotiate for two reasons — the union’s longstanding campaigns for recognition and the realization that negotiating with the unions would not threaten the university.
Noting that Yale has had a “reputation for more hostility and antipathy towards unions” compared to other universities, Gould said the University is still unlikely to negotiate.
Students at Columbia voted to unionize shortly after the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities could bargain collectively in 2016. But Columbia refused to come to the negotiating table, arguing that graduate students should solely be recognized by their school as students rather than employees.
On Monday afternoon — two weeks before members of the union planned to strike — Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger and Provost John Coatsworth reversed their stance and proposed a framework for negotiations. Under the proposed bargaining guidelines, the union is prohibited from striking until April 2020. If the local United Auto Workers union — a national organization which represents Columbia’s graduate student union — ratifies the proposed terms for negotiations, bargaining will begin no later than Feb. 26, 2019.
Unlike Yale or Columbia, Brown’s administration signaled its intentions to negotiate with graduate students before union elections even began. Following the 2016 Columbia ruling, Brown administrators announced they would begin discussions with Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees, the university’s graduate student union. In June, Brown agreed to an election in which eligible graduate students could vote for or against unionization. On Nov. 19, Brown announced that students had voted in favor of unionization.
In the wake of the election, Brown officially recognized the graduate student union and announced that negotiations for wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment will begin soon.
Local 33 was established in the spring of 2016 after the University’s graduate student union — then called the Graduate Employees and Students Organization — rebranded itself.
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