Yale Daily News

As the National Labor Relations Board moves to strip unionization rights from teaching assistants at private universities, Local 33 — which already suffered defeat in recent years after a string of  highly publicized protests for recognition — is slowly gearing up for another fight.

On Sept. 23, the NLRB proposed a regulation that would reverse the Obama-era support for graduate students and exclude them from being considered employees under federal law. In an interview with the News, Local 33 co-President Lena Eckert-Erdheim GRD ’21 said her group will counter the NLRB’s proposed ruling by expressing its discontent. The proposal is currently open for public comment until late November, when it will be revisited by the board.

“We are mobilizing to fight back against this attack by the Trump administration … by submitting comments on the proposed rule during the 60-day public comment period that’s now open,” Eckert-Erdheim told the News. “We are letting the NLRB know that the work we do is work.”

The NLRB stated in the proposal that it hopes to “bring stability” to its stance on graduate students unionization, which has flip-flopped several times in previous decades. This most recent proposed rule, if implemented, would reverse a 2016 decision that classified postgraduates at private universities as employees and as matriculated students. Previous rulings in 2004 and 2000 also switched the federal government’s stance on graduate student unions.

If the ruling is finalized after the comment period, graduate and professional students at Yale — who teach courses, help in laboratories and grade papers on top of their studies — will be barred from unionizing. As of Sunday evening, 31 out of 468 comments filed to the board refer to the circumstances of graduate student unionizing University.

In an interview with the News, Ted Hamilton GRD ’22 — who teaches philosophy and literature to undergraduates — said he filed a comment to the NLRB and added that he is dismayed by the board’s proposal.

“Graduate school is long and financially taxing,” he wrote in his public comment. “I depend upon hard-won benefits such as health-care and family allowances, which would not be possible without the ability of workers to collectively represent their own interests.”

Hamilton also wrote in an email to the News that “the margins for living on a graduate stipend can be slim.”

According to University spokesperson Karen Peart, graduate and professional students spend  “less than one-sixth of their time” fulfilling their teaching requirements during a six-year program. She added that students who teach receive $31,000 or more in annual stipends, do not pay tuition and receive free health care.

“Yale is deeply committed to graduate student education, and to providing its teaching fellows with the mentorship and training necessary to complete their degrees and go on to rewarding careers,” Peart wrote in an email to the News.

Dylan Davidson GRD ’25, who studies English, said during his time at Yale, he will likely be required to teach a literature and composition seminar to undergraduates, despite having an academic interest in the history of animation. In his public comment, he wrote that his teaching subject is made “purely on the University’s business needs” and argued that his status as a graduate student should not preclude him from being considered an employee, Davidson said.

In an interview with the News, Davidson said that the stipend and healthcare benefits that he receives as a student are significant and meaningful. Still, he does not “think that they negate the fact that we have an interest in — or it’s in our best interest to — organize and advocate,” Davidson added.

Davidson said he has spent his first few months at Yale attending Local 33 meetings and talking to fellow graduate students who also support collective bargaining efforts.

According to Davidson, graduate students across the nation are aiming for roughly 30,000 comments in response to the proposed regulation. Of those, Yale students’ goal is to contribute 1,000, he said.

Submitting comments is not the only action graduates students have taken as they demand unionization rights.

In 2017, eight members of Local 33 embarked on a hunger strike in front of University President Peter Salovey’s house to persuade the University to begin collective bargaining. After nearly four weeks of fasting, graduate students took to the streets and marched through New Haven in protest while the class of 2017 gathered on Old Campus for commencement.

The NLRB was founded in July 1935 by U.S. President Franklin D Roosevelt.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu

  • Nancy Morris

    Educating a graduate student in the history of animation is “academic,” but educating an undergraduate in English composition and literature is “purely … the University’s business needs?” How very interesting. Who knew? When and how did graduate education become academic but undergraduate education become business?

    Aren’t graduate students in the Yale English department required to take many specified courses that have little to do with animation, such as Shakespeare, and even pass examinations on such required subjects? One certainly hopes so. Is it purely “in the University’s business needs” that a graduate student in English – even one who desires to focus on the history of animation as an “academic interest” – is required to take non-animation related courses and pass such exams?

    The Yale English department requires its graduate students to demonstrate training and competency in specified areas, most of them not much related to animation: English language poetry, English language novels, English language plays … and the ability to instruct undergraduates in a typical college English department. Actually teaching Yale undergraduates is part of the Yale English department regimen as much as is demonstrating facility with the rest of the required material. It’s an academic department with general requirements, not an intellectual smorgasbord wholly personal to the individual student. That a particular graduate student doesn’t care or expect to use much of the facilities he or she is expected to master, but instead focus on something like animation, does not imply that such requirements are not academic and serve only the “business needs” of the University.

    Perhaps some of Yale’s graduate students would benefit from remedial courses in the nature of a university and graduate education.

    Some if them might also benefit from remedial instruction in the workings of federal administrative agencies and the human mind generally. Contrary to what these union “leaders” seem to believe, one does not generally persuade people in an administrative agency (or anywhere) to accept one’s comments by insulting them and insinuating (or outright declaring) that they and their mission are stupid products of a debased political process and border on pure evil (I paraphrase, but only to an extent). These graduate students “are mobilizing to fight back against this attack by the Trump administration … by submitting comments” and “graduate students across the nation are aiming for roughly 30,000 comments in response to the proposed regulation.” Ah, sure. That will probably have an effect. But probably not the one desired.