Hundreds rally for Yale to recognize graduate student union
After receiving support from the majority of Yale graduate students, the unrecognized graduate student union Local 33 took to the streets to demand improved working conditions and benefits.
Megan Vaz, Contributing Photographer
On Wednesday evening, hundreds gathered at a rally in front of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, or SSS, in support of unionization efforts by Local 33 — Yale’s graduate student union that has gone unrecognized by the University for decades.
The rally, which began with a slate of speakers in front of the “Yale: Respect New Haven” street painting, attracted attendees including Yale undergraduates and graduate students, unionized University employees, local union activists and elected officials. Organizers, introduced by Local 33 activist Abigail Fields GRD ’24, stood on the cargo bed of a pickup truck emblazoned with Local 33 stickers as they shared their struggles as student workers, grievances against the University and hopes for future official union recognition.
Aside from several Local 33 organizers and leaders, speakers included New Haven Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, Ward 3 Alder Ron Hurt, and representatives from Students Unite Now, Yale’s service and maintenance worker’s union Local 35, and other non-Yale union leaders. Local 33 recently received majority support from graduate students. After delivering over 1,600 signatures from graduate students in approval of unionization to University President Peter Salovey’s office, organizers directed the chanting crowd on a march to Salovey’s home on Hillhouse Ave., where activists delivered more speeches.
“We will get Yale to follow the law and acknowledge that graduate workers are workers. We will win a union!” declared Local 33 Co-President Paul Seltzer GRD ’23 as the crowd roared outside of SSS. “We will build power for the working people across the city, and we will win together!”
Seltzer referred to a 2021 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) affirming graduate student employees’ right to unionize at private universities. The decision reversed a proposal barring unionization at private universities that was passed two years earlier. The policy shift provides renewed hope for Local 33, which faced hardships like opposition from the University and other graduate students several years ago over alleged aggressive organizing tactics. Coupled with the NLRB ruling, the majority support for Local 33 signifies a potential shift toward University recognition, according to activists.
“Yale supports open and robust discussion on the topic of graduate student unionization, with respect for everyone’s viewpoint,” University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote to the News. She included information about benefits for graduate student workers, including a newly-announced two-year plan to raise annual competitive living stipends to a range from $38,300 to $40,000, tuition fellowships to cover costs, “full coverage at Yale Health (Basic/Hospitalization/Specialty),” annual family subsidies for graduate students with children — “$7500 for the first child under 18, $2500 for each additional child,” and access to the Dean’s emergency fund for “unexpected one-time expenses.” Currently, the minimum annual stipend awarded to graduate workers is $33,600 per year. A chart explaining Yale’s Ph.D. Student Health & Family Support coverage can be accessed here.
Addressing the crowd, the other Local 33 Co-President, Ridge Liu GRD ’24, said the University took advantage of the previous Trump-appointed NLRB to affirm their opposition to unionization. Speakers like Seltzer, Fields, Arita Acharya GRD ’24 and Camila Marcone GRD ’27 noted that “comrades” have recently achieved the recognition of graduate worker unions at MIT and Fordham. These schools join other private universities, like Columbia, NYU, Brown, Georgetown and Harvard, in creating contracts with graduate worker unions amid the pandemic’s uptick in union activism.
Large boxes papered with fill-in-the-blank flyers, where graduate students wrote their demands, littered the sidewalks. Written reasons for unionization included “overtime pay,” “TF conditions,” “free dental insurance, protected stipends, vision benefits,” “safety protection,” and “decent protection for international student workers.” Organizers later stacked these boxes into a small wall in front of Salovey’s house.
Marcone, who recently completed her Masters’ degree at Fordham, shared that higher pay from the University will allow her to soon start a family with her partner.
“I hope to become a parent during my time at Yale,” Marcone told the News. “The average cost of daycare is $12,000 per year in Connecticut, so I hope to get a higher salary, make more money, and be able to provide for any kids I might have.”
Others talked about the difficulties living and conducting research on their current salaries and funding grants, which they say are often susceptible to dropping without union protections. While Seltzer said his hours teaching “went up drastically without an increase in pay” during the pandemic, Liu told the News that his previous Principal Investigator fired him because they did not want to spend their limited funding on training. This left Liu without pay going into his third year as a graduate student.
Graduate worker speakers also seized on the importance of unionization for better healthcare and dental care coverage. Buğra Sahin GRD ’26 shared that he recently spent $3,000 on dental work, despite purchasing Yale’s premium dental plan. Seltzer heralded “boos” from the crowd as he explained that Yale’s dental insurance plan for graduate workers did not cover his emergency root canal procedure, forcing him to pay $1,000 out-of-pocket. According to Seltzer, the “union wages” and healthcare his wife receives as a member of Local 34, the union representing Yale’s technical and clerical workers, makes housing and medical visits more affordable for them.
Some graduate students in the sciences discussed a lack of benefits and labor protections while working under hazardous research conditions. Cecelia Harold GRD ’24, who studies and works in genetics research, contrasted her Yale experience with a positive one as a unionized lab manager at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. She described that masking regulations — which resulted in fogged-up goggles — during the pandemic made work with radioactive isotopes especially dangerous. Harold told the crowd that if she ever became injured from work at Yale and took medical leave, she would lose both her pay and medical benefits without the “safety net” of a union contract.
“I know the difference that a union job can make, and not being one medical disaster away from complete financial ruin,” said Harold. “I had the benefits and protections of a contract and collective bargaining power… The main difference between there and here at Yale is I don’t have a contract and I don’t have protections for my work in my lab here at Yale.”
Activists zeroed in on cultures of subordination and abuse that graduate workers may experience at the hands of faculty advisors and University employers without union protection. Acharya spoke about other graduate workers who had been “thrown out of labs” after confiding in other faculty members about issues with their advisors.
Seltzer told the News that his wife’s experience in Local 34 has exposed him to stories where unionized workers held abusive managers accountable and successfully lobbied for more understanding working conditions. Adam Trebach, who serves as an organizer for MIT’s newly recognized graduate students’ union, shared that these factors also drove him and other graduate students to begin organizing.
“We all faced serious obstacles to doing our best work. Some of us were being driven to depression by abusive advisors,” he said, as the crowd responded with loud ‘boos.’ “Some of us simply could not afford to live in Cambridge on a grad worker stipend. And some of us, when harassed or discriminated against for the fourteenth time, could not stomach the MIT administration’s promise of a committee for ‘a working group for a strategic vision for hypothetical progress at some point in the distant future.’”
Local 33 is not the only group of workers currently seeking to unionize in the city. Fields introduced Jackie Sims, a worker at the Graduate New Haven, who joined coworkers to file for a union — Local 217 — that morning. Sims shared that a few weeks ago, she worked three back-to-back shifts for a total of 21 hours just to be rewarded with “some candy, a gift card, and fruit punch” by her managers.
Board of Alders President Walker-Myers, who has long served as chief steward for Local 35, joined Ward 3 Alder Ron Hurt to characterize Local 33’s fight for unionization in terms of Yale’s broader commitment to contributing more to the city of New Haven. Holding her baby, who repeated her words back to the audience, she called on the University to recognize Local 33 and provide graduate workers with more support. She described Yale’s recent moves to give back to the city as “a small step” compared to her 23 years of experience in activism and labor organizing, especially as Yale refused to recognize maintenance workers like herself during the 1980s.
“You want to say you’re a world renowned institution about research and learning and teaching,” Walker-Myers said. “Well guess what? The graduate student teachers teach. It’s work — they do work — and it’s time that you recognize it. So we will be back if you don’t concede politically, and we want you to do it now.”
“Say ‘now,’” she added to her baby, who exclaimed, “now!” to the laughter of the crowd.
Hurt also talked about political activism Local 33 has participated in outside of unionization efforts. This includes successfully lobbying Yale to increase its voluntary contributions to the city and canvassing in support of progressive political campaigns.
Micah English GRD ’26, who spoke at the rally, told the News that unionizing will also push Yale to advance racial justice in New Haven. She pointed out that multiple political science studies demonstrate that unions can disrupt discriminatory attitudes and that white union members showed decreasing racist attitudes post-unionization. According to English, historical trends have shown that unions promote “sharing commonality” among those of different backgrounds.
All Local 33 organizers who spoke to the News expressed that they wanted “a seat at the table” in negotiations on the University’s labor conditions and policies for graduate workers. Madison Rackear GRD ’25, who helped deliver signatures to Salovey’s office, told the News that today’s event was a “celebration” of the majority, and that she hoped today’s event would show the University that graduate student workers are workers.
Others emphasized that graduate student labor is what allows the University to function. Acharya told the News that her research lab makes scientific discoveries that are important to maintaining Yale’s reputation, while Fields spoke about many graduate students’ roles as instructors for undergraduate classes. Rackear said that as a teacher and graduate student worker, she balances working at the medical school with a 9-to-5 lab position.
Rally attendees, who donned orange Local 33 shirts, shared various reasons for attending. Several graduate students did not speak to the News on the record in fear of retaliation from University employers, but shared that they provided Local 33 with “Union Yes” signatures in hopes of better pay and benefits. While some undergraduates shared that they came out of curiosity to learn more about Yale’s labor movements, others came to express solidarity.
“I heard about this from other students who are in the Yale Democrats with me and also people in my ‘Race, Politics, and the Law’ class,” said Isabella Walther-Meade ’25. “I have had really good experiences with all my TFs this year, and I’ve been following labor movements at other universities, and so I thought it was a really important place to be.”
Following the rally, organizers expressed optimism and hope after seeing high turnout and energy from the crowd. While English noted that seeing the “visual reference” of people in support of unionization was inspiring, she also emphasized that the new NRLB affirmation could bring change. Beaming, Liu told the News he felt “very pumped up,” and expected the high turnout after receiving the majority approval from graduate students.
Founded in 1990, Local 33 was originally branded as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.
Sai Rayala contributed reporting.
Correction, April 28: The information on existing benefits the University provides to graduate student workers was updated to clarify that workers will receive stipends ranging from $38,300 to $40,000 due to a recently announced raise for the 2022-2023 academic year. The current minimum stipend graduate workers receive is $33,600 per year. In addition, this article previously misspelled several names. The News regrets these errors.