Graduate and professional workers vote on unionization
Graduate and professional students headed to the polls on Wednesday and Thursday to decide whether they may form a union. Results will be announced in January.
Tenzin Jorden, Photography Editor
On Wednesday and Thursday, thousands of graduate and professional students headed to the polls to decide whether they may form a union recognized by Yale.
The election is a historic first for the students, the University and Local 33 — the graduate union that has gone unrecognized by the University for over three decades. If the student workers vote union yes, the University will be required to negotiate a contract with Local 33 that may address current demands that the union says will improve working and living conditions. Election results will be released on Jan. 9 to account for over a hundred mail-in ballots that may be submitted over the next month.
The News spoke to 15 voters, all of whom said they voted union yes.
“I voted yes. I’m very keen for graduate students to get a union,” said Jasmine Sahu-Hough GRD ’27. “I hope people don’t see it as being oppositional with the University — I see it more as a tool for negotiation. It just helps to smooth that way to be represented collectively.”
Eligible voters include most currently employed and recently employed graduate and professional school teaching fellows and assistants, project assistants and researchers.
Local 33 has long demanded that the University recognize these student workers as workers, pointing to the National Labor Relations Board’s 2016 ruling that private school graduate workers have the right to unionize. If they win a union contract, these student workers will join thousands at peer institutions like Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, Tufts and Brown who have formed unions in the past six years.
Sahu-Hough added that in her home country of the United Kingdom, there are student unions that represent everyone, so she was surprised to learn there was no graduate student union at Yale.
Several voters pointed to the potential benefits that may be extended to international students with a union contract. Lydia Qu GRD ’27, who is from China, said that she hopes Yale will give her and other international students increased protection to ensure they may stay in the U.S.
“It’s difficult for me to continue with my visa, because it’s very easy to get rejected for STEM-related majors — for visa expiration,” Qu, who works as a psychology researcher, said. “I hope I can get more protection from the school, and that they recognize I’m a graduate student here and I do a lot of work for the school.”
Others emphasized that a graduate union could entail increased stipend pay, making New Haven housing more affordable as the cost of living rises.
Amy Basu GRD ’23 said she is grateful for the relative privileges she receives as a Yale graduate student and believes a recognized Local 33 will encourage Yale to build a better relationship with the city.
“We are quite privileged in our standard lives compared to the general population of New Haven,” Basu told the News. “Maybe once we have greater bargaining power, we can actually utilize that to push Yale to make changes to this, improving the actual community you’re based in.”
PhD students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who were employed last year were able to vote, even if they do not currently hold work positions. Basu said she wants to ensure that graduate workers may have a coalition in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Louis Deschuttere GRD ’22 said he was influenced to vote yes due to the strong organizing efforts of the students around him.
“It’s not in my interest, because I’m graduating soon and won’t work here anymore, but a lot of people, a lot of friends that I’ve talked to are going to be here for another two to four years,” Deschuttere said. “They’re super engaged, it’s so much effort and getting everyone together. I really see that as a benefit of voting yes — not for me, but for them.”
Local 33 has drawn thousands to rallies they have held over the past year, marking a stunning comeback from the adversity it has previously faced when organizing. This week’s election is not the first they have ever held, but it is the first that could feasibly result in a union for thousands of graduate and professional workers.
In 2003, Local 33, then called the Graduate Student Employee Organization, held an unofficial election that was not sanctioned by Yale or the National Labor Relations Board, in which students voted against unionization by 43 votes. In 2016, they received authorization from the NLRB to hold “microunit” elections in ten individual GSAS departments for about 700 students; union petitions were eventually dropped after Yale challenged their validity in court and a Trump-appointed NLRB took power.
This time, Local 33 hopes things will be different.
“We are grateful to every graduate worker who participated in this fundamental act of worker democracy,” Abigail Fields GRD ’24, an organizer with Local 33, wrote to the News. “This has been a monumental step towards a university that treats graduate workers with respect and towards a better standard. We look forward to the vote count on January 9th and are excited to begin contract negotiations with Yale’s administration.”
The union has received an outpouring of support from Local 34, Yale’s technical and clerical worker union, and Local 35, Yale’s service and maintenance worker union.
In addition, the undergraduate organization Students Unite Now expressed support for Local 33’s efforts and excitement for the election.
“Local 33’s working conditions are our learning conditions, and the union’s victory would also be a win for undergraduates,” SUN organizer Dereen Shirnekhi ’23 wrote to the News. “SUN is currently circulating a petition supporting Local 33’s fight for a union and a contract, and we encourage undergraduates to sign. We are so excited that graduate workers have this opportunity to vote for their union.”
University Provost Scott Strobel encouraged all eligible voters to “educate [themselves] by engaging with peers, faculty, and leaders of [their] school,” in a statement to the graduate and professional school community, emphasizing that election results are binding for all graduate and professional workers whether they vote or not.
Local 33 is affiliated with the national UNITE HERE union.