Grad students head to the polls today and tomorrow. What would a recognized union look like?
Yale’s graduate and professional student workers will vote in a federal unionization process this week, with results expected in January.
Yale Daily News
On Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, thousands of Yale’s graduate and professional students will head to the polls to decide whether to form a union recognized by the University.
Approving the measure would open up a host of possibilities for what this union might look like and how it would function on campus.
Depending on the results of the upcoming election, the University may begin negotiations with organizers at Local 33 — the currently unrecognized graduate union — to create a legally binding contract called a collective bargaining agreement. This would outline labor terms and may include new working benefits for all graduate students and professional students employed in union-eligible positions on campus.
Local 33 organizer Micah English GRD ’26 told the News she worked a union job before coming to Yale, where the difference in pay, healthcare access and agency over her working conditions was palpable.
“To be a worker anywhere, but especially at an institution with the resources Yale has, and to not have basic protections to make you feel seen, respected, and safe is a reality that nobody should have to accept,” English told the News. “I’m done accepting it, and that’s why I’m fighting for a union.”
Local 33 has long argued that a contract with the University will drastically improve working and living conditions for graduate and professional student workers. Potential benefits they have advocated for include increased stipend payments, a strong grievance procedure for claims of discrimination and harrassment by supervisors, improved dental and vision coverage, legal protections for international students and guaranteed sick pay.
To best understand the potential path forward, the News spoke to graduate and professional students and faculty, along with organizers from recognized graduate unions at Columbia University, New York University and Harvard University who shared their experiences during contract negotiations and the impact of unionization on their campuses.
What kinds of work do graduate and professional students do?
Teaching is included in graduate students’ funding packages and “is considered part of [an] academic or financial requirement,” per the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’s site.
Teaching fellow positions are classified as either at Level 10, which goes up to 10 hours a week of work, or Level 20, which goes up to 20 hours a week. Professional school students are appointed at the same stipends and levels as teaching fellows, but are called teaching assistants. After completing their departmental teaching requirement, students might teach as “non-stipend” TFs, whereby they can earn $4,000 or $8,000 per term, depending on whether they are Level 10 or Level 20.
Graduate and professional students can also hold a variety of other employment positions on campus. They might conduct research or perform clerical duties, which can come with intricate power dynamics – many student workers do work for professors they also study under and depend on to graduate.
“For some in academia, student labor, and even post-doc/post-bac labor, is not acknowledged as such because of the “in training” status of those performing it,” John Gonzalez GRD ’24, a GSA representative who co-sponsored a bill to create an ad-hoc committee investigating unionization, wrote to the News.
A potential union would cover most teaching fellows, writing fellows, project assistants, research assistants and teaching assistants from the GSAS and professional schools, with some exceptions.
A wave of academic worker unionization at private schools
Although academic workers at dozens of public universities have successfully negotiated union contracts since the 1960s, only nine graduate and professional worker unions at private universities have secured them.
The bulk of these organizations received recognition amid a recent wave of academic worker unionization, which kicked off in 2016 after the NLRB ruled that private university graduate students have the right to unionize. Additionally, several private school graduate unions have since won elections and currently await contract negotiations.
After the ruling, Local 33 submitted a series of petitions for “microunit” unions by a handful of departments that held successful elections, which University officials challenged in court as undemocratic. They eventually dropped petitions in 2018, anticipating hostility toward labor unions from a more conservative, Trump Administration NLRB.
Four years after the setback, Local 33 has made a striking comeback to campus life, which some attribute to the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic put students’ monetary and lifestyle concerns into a new perspective for many in the community. Gonzalez referred to the pandemic as a “major energizing force” that has lasted beyond its worst days, as issues impacting student workers’ living and working conditions remain.
“Graduate student workers are frustrated by a lack of progress on key issues that affect their quality of life, like the stipend being below cost of living with inflation,” explained GSA president Jo Machesky GRD ’24.
On Oct. 25, Local 33 filed a petition with the NLRB for an official union election after spending the previous two semesters collecting election authorization signatures from a majority of union-eligible graduate and professional students. The University announced it would hold an election four days later.
What happens after the union election?
If a majority of students vote for the recognition of a union, the collective bargaining process begins in which the union, the University and their lawyers negotiate to form an official labor contract.
According to graduate union organizers at Columbia, NYU and Harvard, their contracts addressed several demands raised by their respective unions, many of which were similar to those of Local 33. Some contract wins included increased yearly pay, strong protections for international students, more affordable vision and dental care, a grievance procedure system and more support for the spouses and children of student workers.
Most notably, graduate and professional workers at the three universities received yearly pay raises in their contracts. Ashley Williams, an organizer with the graduate union Student Workers of Columbia, emphasized that Columbia’s contract, like those at the other two universities, also included a retroactive pay raise that added money to wages paid during previous semesters.
Tova Benjamin of NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee union categorized their key contract victories into rights, benefits and protections. At NYU, rights in the contract included affordable health care and terms for parental leave, while benefits included union-funded reimbursements for out-of-pocket health expenses and a tax and legal aid fund for international students.
Ege Yumusak, who organized with the Harvard Graduate Student Union as an international student, described the personal impact of similar benefits in their contract.
“Materially, the results are clear — you can see the last contract’s results, but over a million dollars in benefits distributed to people every year,” she said. “For myself, there were immigration costs, over $1,000 of which got reimbursed by my union in my last year.”
Local 33’s English told the News she wants to fight for a union grievance procedure that would address and investigate workplace harassment, discrimination or other kinds of adversity. At NYU, Benjamin said that she investigates such working conditions, brings notice to them and advocates for the students involved through her position as a union unit representative.
If a contract is secured, actively working graduate and professional students covered in the collective bargaining unit must pay dues or agency fees, which may cover a variety of operational costs. Dues are usually taken as a percentage of wages — at Harvard and Columbia, they stand at 1.44 percent, while at NYU, they stand at 2 percent — through automatic deduction from paychecks.
At Columbia, according to Williams, members included in the bargaining unit during the year — meaning they are actively employed in a union position — receive a bonus in their raises that aim to cover union dues.
Contract negotiations at private universities typically last years after a union yes vote, though some bargaining processes have lasted far longer than others. At Harvard, it took two years for the university and union to settle a first contract after the election, while at Columbia, it took about five. Columbia recognized the union in 2019 after waging a failed legal battle against their December 2016 election victory, and they only reached a contract in January 2022 after three years of contentious negotiating.
Local 33 maintains that an NLRB contract will bolster existing efforts to better the lives of graduate and professional students across schools.
“A union and a contract would provide graduate workers with a sense of security and stability at Yale,” Buğra Sahin GRD ’26, a Local 33 organizer, wrote to the News. “I want to work at a university where all graduate workers advocating for improvements—on the GSA, the GPSS, or through our union Local 33—can work together to make our workplace more just, equitable, and accessible for all of us.”
After polls close on Thursday night, graduate and professional students will wait about another month until election results are announced by the NLRB on Jan 9.