Graduate student workers at Yale have fought for union recognition since 1990, organizing strikes, protests and unauthorized elections, as well as a virtually unprecedented 2017 hunger strike. Meanwhile, the union has faced an unmoving administration, drawn-out legal challenges by the University, and controversy among graduate and professional students. 

Local 33, the graduate and professional student union, finally won recognition in January 2023 after  1,860 of 2,039 possible voters cast ballots in favor of forming a collective bargaining unit. 

After decades of resisting calls for graduate union recognition, Yale agreed to hold its first official union election in Oct. 2022 following Local 33’s submission of union authorization cards from the majority of graduate and professional students to the National Labor Relations Board. Representing approximately 4,000 eligible workers, Local 33’s election filing was the second largest in the country in 2022, according to Daily Union Elections, which tracks NLRB records. 

“It’s a historic day in New Haven, and there have been graduate workers organizing at Yale for decades,” Local 33 organizer Abigail Fields GRD ’24 said during the post-recognition victory party. And the win today is really the culmination, in a lot of ways, of generations of organizing, and that feels really incredible, and really powerful and moving to be a part of.”

While the pro-union election requires Yale to begin the process of contract negotiations, a contract with Local 33 may take years to come to fruition. Similar contract negotiations at other private universities have often lasted for years after elections, with negotiations lasting two and three years at Harvard and Columbia, respectively.   

Some graduate students told the News that more reliable physical and mental healthcare, higher wages and protections for international students were top priorities for the new contract. Others emphasized the need for a new independent grievance system, as the current system routes some students’ concerns through direct superiors, who are often the subjects of complaints. According to graduate union organizers at Columbia, NYU and Harvard, union contracts at those universities won many of the benefits sought by Local 33, including increased yearly pay and more affordable healthcare. 

As graduate and professional workers went to the polls in late 2022, Amy Basu GRD ’23 told the News that she is hopeful that a recognized and empowered Local 33 may 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 said. “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.”

Prior to its 2016 rebrand as Local 33, graduate students previously organized under the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and held their first major protest in 1991, challenging the University’s decision to cut library hours at the time. 

Gordon Lafer GRD ’95, a former GESO staff organizer and spokesperson, wrote to the News following Local 33’s recent election and characterized the University’s administration as “viscerally hostile to all unions” during his time at Yale. Despite broad support among graduate students for a union, exemplified by a majority of students submitting union support cards in 1991 and a three-day strike in 1992, GESO received substantial pushback from the administration. 

Lafer claimed that the University pressured faculty to intimidate pro-union students, pursued a one-sided “fake-court procedure” for three TAs charged with violating university rules after participating in a 1995 strike and attempted to dissuade the local fire department and a local bakery from supporting union strikers for Locals 34 and 35 in 1996. Local 34 is Yale’s clerical and technical workers union, and Local 35 represents Yale’s service and maintenance workers. 

While University spokesperson Karen Peart declined to comment on the incidents involving the TA charges, fire department and bakery in the 1990s, she drew attention to Yale’s history of “labor peace” with recognized Locals 34 and 35 in the past decades. 

In addition to the 1991 collection, GESO also collected union authorization cards from a majority of graduate workers in 2004, following a narrow loss in an unauthorized 2003 election, and in 2015. Despite moments of widespread support for unionization, GESO has repeatedly faced criticism for “aggressive” recruitment tactics, including from pro-union students. In 2015 interviews with the News, graduate students expressed qualms with organizers’ “mildly creepy” memorization of students’ names and faces, visitation of students’ homes and cornering of students in academic spaces. 

After the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that private school graduate workers have the right to unionize, GESO held NLRB-approved elections later that year for the first time. However, instead of organizing an election for all graduate students, GESO held elections on a department-by-department basis, running elections in nine departments and winning in eight of them. 

Approved by a regional branch of the NLRB but unprecedented at the private university level, the untraditional strategy sparked backlash. Reversing its previous neutrality on what is now Local 33, the Graduate Student Assembly voted to oppose the new approach. Yale additionally challenged the validity of the election in court, arguing that they were “undemocratic.” The University later argued that its graduate students were not union-eligible workers after the NLRB dismissed its initial challenges in 2017. 

While the University continued to pursue legal challenges to the departmental union election, refusing to recognize the results and begin contract negotiations, several Local 33 activists engaged in a months-long hunger strike held in a Beinecke Plaza encampment. Organization members would switch with each other when health concerns arose. In the University’s official statement regarding the 2017 strike, the administration called on protesters to end the fast for health reasons and stated that the protest was “unwarranted by the circumstances.”

Despite other private universities negotiating with graduate student unions at the time, former NLRB chairman William Gould told the News in 2018 that the University was still unlikely to recognize the unions, citing Yale’s “reputation for more hostility and antipathy towards unions” compared to peer institutions. 

Following the appointment of a new conservative member to the NLRB by former President Donald Trump, Local 33 and several other private university graduate unions withdrew their petitions to unionize, anticipating increased resistance to their cause. Around the same time, 80 members signed a petition expressing dissatisfaction with the union’s leadership and progress. Local 33 “demobilized” in the fall of 2018, according to former organizer Gabriel Winant ’18. 

However, having built solidarity with Locals 34 and 35 and energized by discussions of student living standards brought on by the pandemic, Local 33 began a new campaign in the fall of 2021. This resurgence would eventually lead to Local 33’s official recognition in early 2023. 

As contract negotiations move forward, Local 33 hopes to join the ranks of other private university graduate student unions that have won contracts, such as Columbia University, Harvard University, Tufts University, Georgetown University and several others. Even more graduate students’ unions, including those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago, have won elections and triggered negotiation processes in recent years.

Some of Local 33’s staunchest supporters in their recent fight to unionize have been leaders from Locals 34 and 35. After Yale agreed to the Local 33 elections in 2022, Barbara Vereen, chief steward of Local 34, drew comparisons between the Local 34’s activism in the early 1980s and that of Local 33. 

“When we were forming our union, Yale said we didn’t need one,” Vereen 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!”

In 2021, after almost 16 months of negotiations, Locals 34 and 35 ratified two separate five-year contracts with Yale. The contracts were the subject of mass protests in the spring and summer of 2020, including a more than 500-vehicle caravan in the streets of New Haven that July. During the protests, residents and union members called for increased hiring of New Haveners and “fair contracts” that improve job stability, healthcare and retirement benefits. 

The finalized contracts include wage increases and protections for employees that may have been previously laid off. Local 35’s contract includes a no-layoff clause and an “alternative placement” system in Local 34’s contract transitions employees to a different position with salary protections. 

Last February, Locals 34 and 35 union workers were awarded checks of up to $1,300 as part of a class-action lawsuit settlement regarding healthcare conditions in the new contracts, according to the New Haven Register. The lawsuit claimed that the Health Expectations Program required workers and spouses to undergo medical testing such as mammograms, colonoscopies and diabetes screenings or pay an “opt-out” fee of $25 a week. Test results would be shared with Yale wellness vendors, prompting concerns over privacy, as well as over lower-income workers’ true ability to opt out of testing if they could not afford to pay up to $1,300 in annual fees.

Neither union itself was a party to the lawsuit. In an interview with the New Haven Register, Stephanie Spangler, Yale’s vice provost for health affairs and academic integrity, emphasized that while Yale designed the HEP with union partners and advice of healthcare experts, the University hoped to “resolve what would have been expensive litigation” and prioritize “[its] relationship with [its] employees.” For the next four years, Yale will not charge opt-out fees and will revise its health data-sharing practices as part of the settlement agreement. 

Locals 34 and 35’s contracts will expire in January 2027.

Laura Ospina covers Yale-New Haven relations and the Latine community for the City desk. Originally from North Carolina's Research Triangle, she is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in Political Science.