Courtesy of Gabriel Winant

With the support of 91 percent of graduate and professional student workers, Local 33 has won recognition as a union from Yale after 33 years of activism. 

Seven organizers spanning the union’s complete history spoke to the News about the decades of strikes, demonstrations, lobbying and organizing that paved the way for this year’s victory.

Beginnings in the 1990s

Local 33, known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization until 2016, first found roots in the activist group TA Solidarity. Founded in 1987, the group lobbied the University to address the problems that graduate student workers faced — which included unclear policies on pay levels and positions, low wages and teaching policy disparities between students in different departments.

According to former GESO chair Ivana Krajcinovic GRD ’93, the Pollitt-Kagan plan — devised by Jerome Pollitt ’57, former GSAS dean and current Sterling Professor Emeritus of classical archaeology and history of art, and former Yale College dean Donald Kagan — stifled faith in TA Solidarity. Among other recommendations, the plan proposed cutting 25 percent of TA positions and preventing graduate students unlikely to receive their degrees within six years from holding teaching jobs. After its announcement, Krajcinovic said many students realized they “actually had to be a labor union” and began to mobilize.

“I think it sent a message that you can’t just unilaterally impose rules that are going to impact what you would call working conditions,” Krajcinovic told the News. “We all went to graduate school to be able to search for the truth and to study. And to be muzzled when it came to how we were going to function in our first jobs as teachers was just really at odds with that vision that most of us came to grad school for.”

With that, GESO came to fruition in 1990, affiliating with Yale unions Local 34 and Local 35, which represent service, clerical, technical and maintenance workers at the University. 

According to former staff organizer and spokesperson Gordon Lafer GRD ’95, the group’s first major protest occurred in 1991 when it organized a sit-in to protest the University’s decision to cut library hours. At the time, Lafer told the News that this decision symbolized Yale’s “cuts to education in general.”

For several days leading up to this, Yale threatened that everyone would be arrested – ultimately they caved in — a few hundred of us sat in, and the administration announced that it had just decided on its own to keep the library open later that night, with no arrests,” Lafer wrote to the News. “In my time at Yale, the administration was viscerally hostile to all unions.”

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in the 1970s that graduate students could not be considered workers eligible for union representation under government jurisdiction, making voluntary university recognition the most viable avenue toward an official union. In their attempts to put pressure on Yale, GESO organizers collected union support cards from a majority of graduate students in 1991 and later authorized a three-day strike in February 1992, the first of its kind. 

Lafer and Krajcinovic each spoke to strong opposition from the University during GESO’s initial efforts to unionize. Yale, Krajcinovic said, “didn’t even want to say the word GESO” or acknowledge members’ presence when they joined Locals 34 and 35 at the bargaining table for their own contracts. 

Krajcinovic added that the union did secure some changes to working conditions through conversations with Judith Rodin, then-dean of the GSAS. One included the addition of a new teaching level — an employment tier that determines hours and pay — which increased wages for a large number of TAs. Before this change, according to Krajcinovic, the most common TA level had a salary of $6,900 per year, which would total about $15,036 in 2023. Today, graduate worker stipends range from $38,300 to $40,000 per year, thanks to a raise that went into effect last semester.

“We ruined a trip to Mexico for her because we were threatening [a strike]. I remember her actually admitting that in a meeting, and saying the least we could do is take [her] out to this tablecloth Mexican restaurant in New Haven,” Krajcinovic recalled. “We were like, ‘Well, on these wages, we can take you to Taco Bell.’”

Lafer, who went on to serve as a senior labor policy advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives and now teaches about organized labor at the University of Oregon,  remembers Yale’s retaliation against GESO activists during the mid to late 1990s when he served as a communications director for Locals 33, 34 and 35. 

Lafer recalled one incident when Yale charged three TAs with violating university rules for participating in a 1995 strike, trying them in a “fake-court procedure” where witnesses could not see the evidence against them or be cross-examined. In 1996, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that Robin Brown, one of the three students, was permanently fired from her job in the Yale English Department. GESO brought legal charges against Yale for these events, but the NLRB ruled that the strike was only a partial strike, making it unprotected.

Lafer also claimed that Yale called the local fire department, ordering it to ban fire barrels to prevent picketing union activists from staying warm during Locals 34 and 35’s strikes in the winter of 1996. He also described Yale telling a local bakery, which planned on donating day-old bread to union strikers, that it would never receive a catering contract with the University again unless it threw out the bread. 

Lafer also described intimidation by professors. One professor in his own department, he said, drew up a list of all TAs involved in the grading strike to prevent them from teaching the next semester. 

I also remember how Yale administrators pressured faculty to get them to threaten grad students in order to intimidate people out of supporting the union or participating in a strike,” Lafer added. “I know a couple people who were denied letters of recommendation because they participated in a strike — one of them was never able to get an academic job and ended up teaching high school.”

University spokesperson Karen Peart declined to comment on the incidents involving the disciplinary trial, bakery and fire department in the 1990s. However, she emphasized Yale’s history of “labor peace” with Locals 34 and 35 throughout past decades.

“We are fortunate to have a strong relationship at Yale with UNITE HERE and Locals 34 and 35,” Peart wrote to the News. “Since 2002, we have negotiated five collective bargaining agreements with Locals 34 and 35. All five agreements were resolved on time without conflict or strikes.”

The 2000s: A fight for structural change

During the union’s next organizing cycle in the early 2000s, the graduate labor landscape of private universities went through a series of shifts. After the NLRB declared in 2000 under the administration of President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 that private school graduate workers had a right to unionize, the board nevertheless sided with the University in unfair labor practice cases brought to them by GESO. 

Under President George W. Bush ’68, the NLRB reversed the Clinton NLRB decision in 2004, creating another setback for private school graduate unions. Graduate workers at Yale nonetheless stuck with their campaign to unionize, engaging in their fourth and fifth teaching strikes in 2003 and 2005. Shana Redmond ’08, a former GESO organizer who participated in both strikes, said that anti-union faculty advisors would sometimes intimidate their graduate students.

“We would have faculty advisors who would threaten their students, or who would withdraw wages, or who would encourage other students to ‘snitch’ in order to announce who didn’t meet with their section this week, or who went on strike this week. But there was a lot of tattletaling,” Redmond said. “There was kind of a localized micromanagement from individual faculty who were discouraging our students from engaging with the union.”

During her time at Yale, Redmond organized within the African American Studies department and advocated for the University to “materially represent what it claimed to care about around questions of diversity, equity and inclusion.” She and other GESO members lobbied the University to raise graduate admissions for those of underrepresented backgrounds and hire more faculty of minority groups. 

GESO conducted long-term research projects on the University’s investments, eventually holding multiple rallies calling for Yale to divest from the hedge fund Farallon Capital Management. GESO’s research found that Farallon profited from stock in the Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that received numerous allegations of human rights abuses and lobbied to increase prison sentences. 

Redmond remembers that within her department, frequent conversations about the union’s research into divestment and its Equal Rights and Access Committee led to “dense membership” in GESO. 

“Especially when there was momentum from the newer students who are coming in, particularly in African American Studies, once there was a critical mass, a lot more people were receptive to having a conversation, even if they had had a previously unfavorable conversation or experience with the union,” Redmond added. 

Organizer Sarah Haley GRD ’10 stressed that during her time with GESO, the union focused on both “bread and butter” issues like wage raises and structural social justice activism. 

“We were all part of an ethic and a politic of social justice,” Haley said. “And so there was an insistence that what unions do is organize intensely for improvement in the conditions of our labor, and also for the broader politics around racial and social justice. I think that came to fruition in particular campaigns, like the campaign for essentially an anti-racist structure of higher education.”

Aspects of GESO demonstrated majority approval several times throughout its history, with large majorities of graduate students voting to endorse most GESO positions in a 1992 referendum. In 2004, GESO collected union authorization cards from 60 percent of TAs, conflicting with their earlier narrow loss in a 2003 election unauthorized by Yale. 

Krajcinovic and Redmond each claimed that although they were able to garner substantial support from other graduate workers through their organizing efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s, an air of skepticism and later opposition still existed. Krajcinovic noted a “fear of the unknown” and of retaliation, while Redmond recounted difficulties in organizing student workers who were unsettled by certain recruitment strategies such as activists showing up at their homes. 

Cycle three: department elections, legal battles and hunger strikes

GESO organizers started a new union campaign in 2010, following many of the same strategies as their predecessors. Gabriel Winant ’18, a former organizer with GESO, explained that home visits were a common union organizing strategy throughout the country. He also noted that GESO’s parent union UNITE HERE strongly encouraged home visits, but that they eventually ceased door-knocking due to negative reactions. 

Addressing criticisms alleging the “invasiveness” of GESO tactics at the time — including the home visits and stories of members following graduate students to bathrooms and classrooms — Winant stressed that most efforts aimed to “overcorrect” the challenges unions faced on campus. He added that some especially enthusiastic organizers may not have understood the polarizing nature of the union debate. Moreover, organizing through collective action was often difficult due to the “individualistic” nature of academia.

“I think part of that was the kind of messiness of working through the kind of status change that we were trying to do,” Winant said. “I think that ethos in that environment makes collective type tactics of union organizing, in general, often pretty distasteful for people.”

Despite running into disparities between departments — among history graduate students, “probably 90 percent of people” expressed approval, while in some departments, there were “zero people” supporting the union — Winant and other organizers fought hard to drum up solidarity among all students. 

After much time spent campaigning, he helped build organizing committees and membership majorities in departments like Geology and Geophysics, Astronomy and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. However, persistent organizing tactics still hit a wall in some departments — especially Chemistry, a department Winant said he “haunted.” 

“I was around constantly so everyone knew my face and knew what it meant to see me around. ​​ And grad students, even supportive ones, didn’t want to be seen talking to me for that reason,” he recalled. “But if you’re persistent — and I particularly was extremely — and if you’re up for just riding it out and trying to figure out who gives you the time of day and why they did that, you can get somewhere. And so that was a very powerful experience for me.”

In 2015, the union collected authorization cards from a majority of GSAS students. Winant noted that two-thirds of GSAS workers demonstrated their support for the campaign publicly when a large banner bearing the faces of about 2,000 supporters was delivered to Woodbridge Hall. 

Rebranding as Local 33, GESO held NLRB-approved elections for the first time in 2016, following the board’s ruling that private school graduate workers could unionize. Instead of holding a vote throughout GSAS or the professional schools, though, the union opted to hold NLRB-sanctioned elections in a handful of individual departments, resulting in eight voting and filing to unionize. 

The Graduate Student Assembly, long neutral on Local 33, voted to oppose this strategy and the union’s organizing tactics. Additionally, Yale challenged the elections in court as “undemocratic.” 

Winant said that it was a misconception that these departmental units were to represent the entire student body; he also maintained that the elections respected differences in opinion across departments, pointing out that it is common at many employers for union status to differ across different segments. 

“From our perspective, that was a perfectly appropriate and democratic procedure in which our feeling was, ‘Okay, we get it, the campus is polarized.’ So let’s let the people who want this do it,” Winant maintained. “There are always different kinds of possible democratic election rules that reflect different conceptions of what the people’s choice could be.”

The NLRB dismissed Yale’s election challenges in 2017, but the University requested a review of the decision and attempted to file an appeal arguing that its graduate students were not union-eligible workers. In an effort to pressure Yale to recognize the election results and begin contract negotiations, several Local 33 activists engaged in a means of civil disobedience virtually unprecedented in the history of American organized labor: a hunger strike. 

During the month-long fast held in a Beinecke Plaza encampment, Local 33 members switched places with each other a few times to preserve members’ health. Former organizer Robin Dawson GRD ’19 took part in the fast for 10 days. She affirmed that while the protest was difficult for her and other participants, she felt “well-taken care of” by a team of volunteer nurses and supporters who joined them in occupying the plaza. Hundreds also conducted their own marches and demonstrations during the hunger strike.

“We had so much support from staff who worked at the University, from our friends who were from undergraduates, from our friends who are also graduate teachers and researchers… it was so much more than not eating,” Dawson said. “It was a beautiful spiritual experience in some ways — it sounds kind of cheesy, but it was — and after my 10 days, I passed off the fast to my friend.”

The University voiced steadfast opposition to the fast. When the News asked Yale President Peter Salovey for comment on “the eight graduate students starving themselves just feet from his office,” he read a statement asking the protestors to reconsider their actions for health reasons and arguing the fast was “unwarranted by the circumstances.”

Around the same time, 23 graduate students in the union were arrested for blocking streets as part of a protest against widespread sexual harassment and assault at Yale, which Winant described as an “acute” problem felt across campus. Winant and Dawson both mentioned a campus climate survey that reported a majority of female graduate students had experienced sexual harassment.

Long after the hunger strike and protests, former President Donald Trump appointed a new conservative member to the NLRB, shifting the board further to the right. Anticipating opposition to their election petitions and overall cause, Local 33 and several other private university graduate unions dropped their petitions

Winant recalled an eventual sense of burnout among those who had long fought for the union. Days before Local 33 withdrew their NLRB petitions, 80 members signed a petition expressing dissatisfaction with the union’s leadership and progress, as they had still not won recognition. In the fall of 2018, according to Winant, Local 33 “demobilized.”

“We came back that fall, and for a moment, we kind of thought we could get back up. And we realized it’s just not there,” Winant said. “People burned out. It’s too many twists and turns and zigs and zags. That moment became an opportunity for the union to digest some of that and try to figure out how to become an organization that still could really fight and push.”

The momentum rebuilds

Local 33 spent the next chapter in its history building solidarity with Locals 34 and 35 and the community organization New Haven Rising, with members often engaging in political activism. It kicked off a new union recognition campaign in the fall of 2021, later holding two demonstrations that drew thousands in 2022. Winant attributed much of the union’s recent momentum to the experiences of current leadership, many of whom emerged from the reckoning in 2018. Haley also noted the importance of building deep relationships between unions and workers over time.

The national atmosphere around private university graduate unions has also changed. Since the NLRB’s 2016 decision affirming their right to exist, graduate unions have secured labor contracts at several private universities, including Harvard University, Columbia University and Brown University. According to Seltzer and other graduate students previously interviewed by the News, the pandemic and the cost-of-living boost across the country further influenced the demand for a union, as it exacerbated hardships related to labor and social conditions.

Seltzer, who had been involved in the union since 2017, emphasized the importance of having conversations with graduate and professional students at other institutions about the issues they face and their victories. 

“I spent a lot of time just talking to my colleagues about why we would want a union and what kinds of things we would want to see change at Yale,” Seltzer told the News. “Many other schools in the past few years have won contracts that have raised wages, gotten them better health care, gotten them grievance procedures — all things that have made huge differences.”

Local 33 submitted union authorization cards from the majority of graduate and professional students to the NLRB in October 2022. In response, Yale agreed to hold an official union election for the first time in history. On Jan. 9, it was official: graduate and professional workers won a union in a sweeping landslide, with 91 percent voting “Union Yes.”

Yale has agreed to recognize the union and begin the collective bargaining process in good faith. 

Current and former organizers who spoke to the News expressed they were “overjoyed,” “thrilled” and “enthusiastic” when Local 33’s near-universal victory was official, with several noting significant progress in the climate around unions on campus. Many watched the NLRB tally votes over Zoom.

“It felt so incredible — I’m trying to figure out how to put all of the positive emotions into one sentence,” Seltzer said. “When I had a union job before grad school, I felt so empowered as a worker, and I’m really excited to feel that same kind of empowerment here at Yale.”

Some, including Krajcinovic, felt a mixture of happiness and anger when results were announced. 

Although she was “physically shaking for a couple of hours” from adrenaline in her body, Krajcinovic soon reflected on the fact that it took over 30 years of organizing, protests, strikes and other collective action for Local 33 to achieve recognition.

“We have had people that were heavily involved that have died. We’ve had people — this has gone on so long — who now have kids … kids that grew up to be now at Yale,” she stressed. “I have somebody from my years, a few years older than we are — he just got a Medicare card. It should not have taken this long. And it better not take a long time for them to get a contract.”

In her statement to the News, Peart emphasized that the University shifted to an “interest-based” approach to negotiations with Locals 34 and 35 in 2002, and that it plans to take a similar approach with Local 33. Interest-based bargaining involves joint negotiation between an employer and union, where both parties come to agreements that each stands to gain from. 

According to the NLRB, the bargaining unit represented by Local 33 will include about 4,000 graduate and professional school workers.

Megan Vaz is the former city desk editor. She previously covered Yale-New Haven relations and Yale unions, additionally serving as an audience desk staffer.