Courtesy of Ian Dunn

Local 33, Yale’s unrecognized union for graduate student workers, has officially triggered the federal process of unionization with the National Labor Relations Board.  The long-awaited move marks the group’s largest step towards unionization since it was founded three decades ago.

More than 3,000 of the roughly 4,000 graduate student workers signed onto Local 33’s official petition, which is the largest number of graduate students who have ever supported unionization on campus — and far more than the 30 percent needed to authorize a unionization vote and the 50 percent to approve a union.

“An overwhelming majority of graduate students want to unionize now, and we have signed cards demonstrating this,” Local 33 coordinating committee member Arita Acharya GRD ’24 told the News. “It’s now on the University to listen to us and grant us the right to organize or not use tactics to delay our ability to vote for a union.” 

The University has two weeks to respond to the petition and begin negotiations on parameters for an election.

The movement towards unionization

Organizers traveled to the National Labor Relations Board’s Hartford Office to submit union authorization cards signed by roughly three-quarters of those it hopes to represent. The cards have been the focus of Local 33’s semester-long collection campaign.

Acharya also called on the University to declare itself neutral in the unionization process, echoing demands of more than a thousand protestors who marched through campus two weeks ago. 

“Yale has still not publicly committed to neutrality during the process,” Acharya said. “We hope that Yale does not delay during this process and gets back to us so that we can vote.” 

According to National NLRB Press Secretary Kayla Blado, the NLRB will now review the petition to ensure compliance with unionization rules, namely that Local 33 has surpassed the 30 percent mark of interested workers. NLRB will then work with Yale and Local 33 on setting the terms of the process. 

“We’ve just received the petition and are reviewing it,” said University spokesperson Karen Peart. “Yale supports a free and robust debate over graduate student unionization among those who may be affected by it, including the graduate students who would make up its ranks as well as faculty and other students.”

When asked by the News if the University will remain neutral, Peart said “we have nothing further to add until we review the petition.”

Interested parties can follow the process on the NLRB’s website in the coming days. 

“The Hartford office will work with the parties on an election agreement that will have the details of the election,” Blado told the News. “If the parties do not agree on parameters for the election, there will be a hearing. After the hearing, the [NLRB] Regional Director will issue a decision with the details of the election.”

Monday’s action comes on the heels of graduate student workers winning unionization votes at Harvard University , Brown University, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University. Unionization drives across the country have increased in recent years, including efforts at Amazon and Starbucks.  

Local 33’s call for neutrality follows concerns among Local 33 organizers that the University will take an anti-union position. This concern derives, in part, from the University’s past dealings with anti-union law firm Proskauer Rose LLP, which pushed against unionization efforts at Columbia and Duke.

Another source of concern has been a Sept. 22 email sent out by Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley sent an FAQ to graduate students with information related to unionization which Local 33 also deemed concerning and contained “misinterpretations.”

The FAQ told workers that unionization could force students into paying dues and insinuated that unionization could cause  the Graduate School of Arts and Science Student Government to lose power. The email also encouraged students to call campus security or police if they felt threatened by union organizers. 

“When we were forming our union Yale said we didn’t need one,’” Barbara Vereen, chief steward of Local 34 — the Union of Clerical and Technical Workers at Yale — told the News. “But what we were fighting for was respect and equal pay for equal work. Now, our jobs are some of the best jobs in the region, something we are very proud of. We are thrilled to see the graduate workers file their union cards and cannot wait to celebrate with them when they win!”

Local 33 is also calling for haste in the process of formally unionizing. 

“One of the tactics used to prevent unionization is delaying the process,” Acharya told the News. “The University can slow-walk the entire process which makes it more difficult for all of us to exercise our right to cast our ballots for unionization.” 

Why are graduate students calling for a union?

Local 33 has been organizing for a union for more than 30 years, with supporters arguing that a union will provide stronger healthcare benefits, better wages, improved working conditions, a meaningful grievance redressal system and better access to mental health services. 

Local 33 Co-President Paul Seltzer GRD ’23 told the News that the current healthcare plan provides very little dental care and unreliable access to mental health care. Seltzer added that union-led collective bargaining would improve healthcare. 

Graduate workers have also cited low pay as a large reason behind the push. According to Seltzer, graduate workers were expected to work longer hours with very few increases in pay during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, with the current rise in inflation and cost-of-living crisis, many graduate workers are facing further challenges covering their bills. 

“When my sister was 17 and working at a [frozen yogurt] cashier, she was making more money than me as a graduate teaching fellow,” Arielle Hazi SPH ’23 told the News. “It’s just really frustrating because if we want to work in academia, we have to be doing this work. And the fact that Yale doesn’t really respect our work enough to pay us what we’re worth. The collective bargaining of a union can help raise our wages.” 

Many graduate workers also hope for an independent grievance system since the current system means that many times graduate students can only raise concerns with their direct superiors, who many times are the subject of the complaint.

Monday’s NLRB petition follows a withdrawn 2018 petition

In August 2016, the NLRB allowed graduate students across the nation to unionize. In January 2017, NLRB regional director John Walsh accepted a request from Local 33 to hold micro-elections across the 56 departments of Yale instead of one large unionization vote across the graduate school. 

In February 2017, Local 33 then called for election in nine departments and won elections in eight, losing one. Yale appealed Walsh’s ruling up to the federal NLRB, arguing that the graduate school should be treated as one unit, thus voiding the elections. Local 33 pushed forward and called on the NLRB to recognize the eight mini-unions.

During this process, presidential administrations turned over from a pro-union Democrat, Barack Obama, to an anti-union Republican, Donald Trump. This transition and the subsequent change in the NLRB’s membership makeup led to the withdrawal of the 2017 call in February of 2018.

Current Local 33 co-president Paul Seltzer GRD ’23 explained to the News that the petition was then withdrawn due to fears that a Trump administration NLRB would be hostile to the Union effort and set back unionization efforts on other campuses. Independent of Local 33,  graduate students at Boston College and the University of Chicago also withdrew their petitions.

According to Fields, the ball for the current petition lies in Yale’s court as Local 33 and the NLRB await the University’s answer on terms for a unionization ballot as well as on neutrality. 

The National Labor Relations Board was founded in 1935.

Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.