We are three of the thousands of graduate teachers and researchers who are voting this week for our union, Local 33. Our reasons for voting yes are varied — shaped by the disappointment and anger we have felt about how Yale values us, our colleagues and our work. But more than this, we know that as union members, we can help bring about a university where our value is recognized and our contributions count. Our union will do this by giving us a formal seat at the table, yes — but more deeply, by establishing that each of us has agency and a voice that matters; that each of us makes a real contribution to knowledge, to academia and to the communities that we care about. Our votes for the union are not votes against Yale, but for a university that takes our work as seriously as we do.
For as long as we can remember, academia has been in a deep, multifaceted crisis. For graduate students the crisis appears in the form of a contradiction. On the one hand, there are the high ethical ideals of scholarly work, which supposedly give it the quality of a calling, and which drew most of us to graduate school: we have questions that we want to answer, scientific or social issues we want to understand, problems that we want to help address. Our motivation to do this through our research and teaching is strong enough that we seek to commit our lives to it. On the other hand, upon making that commitment, we encounter the degraded — and for many, impossible — material conditions under which we have to carry out this work.
Across the humanities and much of the social sciences, stable academic employment has deteriorated significantly — in some fields almost zeroing out. It is not that there is no need for our work, or no value that we create for Yale: one of us — Abigail — works in the French Department, for example, where it is common for graduate language instructors to put in workweeks double the official workload, because this is what it takes to do the job properly. When the university takes actions like assigning official workloads that are less than it takes to teach a course, it is not taking responsibility for what it would mean to properly carry out its academic mission. So in the classrooms, we handle it instead as best we can.
In the sciences, professors spend their time applying for grants to keep their labs running and there’s tremendous pressure on graduate researchers to produce results at a faster and faster pace to keep up with grant cycles. We run experiments, manage lab operations, author papers and secure federal grant funding that pays for our work and even tuition. Yale tells us we’re here in graduate school for our own training and benefit, but it’s up to us to keep basic science alive.
Our work enriches Yale, and Yale says it is committed to diversity, but one of us — Micah — is the only Black woman who is a graduate worker in her department, political science. This isn’t only a problem of representation; It’s a problem of the integrity of our scholarship. How are we supposed to succeed in understanding political institutions and dynamics — of which race is, of course, a key element — if only some people are participating?
These are only a few of the obstacles that get in the way of our ability to do our work, and these compound with others. In a 2019 Yale self-study, 40 percent of graduate students reported that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Within this group, 63 percent reported that it interfered with their performance, limited their ability to participate, or created a hostile environment. One-third of those who experienced harassment attributed the behavior to a professor or instructor. That means in 2019 an estimated 415 out of 3080 Yale graduate workers had been sexually harassed by someone in a position of academic authority since starting their program Yale. This is a huge number on its own terms — large enough that it is common to know someone this has happened to. Imagine what this does to our scholarly endeavors — much less our ability to live our lives with dignity — when we have no independent recourse and no institutional power.
The hundreds of graduate employees who are not U.S. citizens face an additional layer of difficulty. They are more vulnerable to abuse because they are more dependent on the goodwill of faculty. Some of our colleagues have not seen their families for years. Others get stuck in their home countries on visits, risking their income and academic standing. At Harvard, the graduate student union negotiated for their university to maintain income for international scholars stuck outside the country. When U.S.-China relations deteriorated in the Trump years, some Yale graduate workers in China could not get their visas approved and lost access to their stipends, or were unable to enroll in their graduate program. Yale could have guaranteed support for them. Why should international borders decide what research gets done and by whom, especially when university decisions can make a difference?
Some of these issues are specific to academic work. Some are general. Many combine these. Graduate students across campus, like many working people, are struggling with pay that is outpaced by the costs of housing and childcare. Like workers across the country, we have had to deal with dangerous working conditions during the pandemic. We worked in closed spaces with dozens of students, and in clinical settings as frontline workers. Our dental coverage has annual premiums ranging between $309.60 and $1,506.12 with a $50 deductible. Yet the maximum annual benefit per person is only $1,500. This coverage leaves some of us postponing needed dental care to dodge the bills. All of this, naturally, takes a toll on mental health. A 2020 study of 4,000 STEM graduate workers in the U.S. found that 37 percent have major depressive disorder, up 19 percentage points from before the pandemic. Yet during the pandemic, some of us had group therapy sessions canceled and weeks or even months of delays in accessing therapy.
Separately, all of us have confronted the shortcomings of our workplace, and the anxiety, depression, vulnerability, fear and anger that are so common in graduate school. When university administrators say that we are not workers, they are diminishing our value, mobilizing these conditions against us and signaling their own willingness to abandon the ideals of academic work.
But we will not do so. That would mean abandoning our own commitments to producing and disseminating knowledge and to defending ourselves and each other as we do so. One of us — Arita — works in the Genetics Department, where she was able to explain a rare mutation causing a congenital disorder for a teenage patient that had been unexplained since her birth. Given the importance of our work, are we really supposed to believe we don’t deserve adequate compensation and basic workplace protections? Together, we affirm the meaning and contribution of what each of us does in the lab, the classroom, the field and the library.
Some say the academy is a calling. Maybe so. One thing is for sure: when we vote yes for our union this week, we’ll finally get to answer and Yale will have to listen.
Abigail Fields GRD ’24
Micah English GRD ’26
Arita Acharya GRD ’24