Abraham Payne, Contributing Photographer

After three decades of labor activism marked by tensions with the University, culminating in protests, a hunger strike and legal challenges to the union’s recognition, the recent ratification of Local 33’s inaugural agreement stood as the most favorable deal for graduate workers in the Ivy League.

After revamped activism in fall 2021, union organizers achieved a landslide victory with 91 percent of eligible members voting in favor of forming a union in January 2023 and Yale agreeing to recognize the union until 2031.

Effective from Dec. 16, 2023, to July 31, 2028, Local 33 UNITE HERE, Yale’s graduate workers’ union, ratified its first contract with the University in December 2023. The agreement secured higher pay, improved healthcare and increased protections for international students. 

“I feel incredibly proud,” Adam Waters, a Local 33’s bargaining committee member, told the News in December. “This is a really amazing contract that’s going to be transformative for me. And I know it’s going to be transformative for a lot of other graduate workers as well … [Yale] is going to be among the best places to work as a graduate worker in the country.” 

With 99.4 percent of voters in favor, the new contract guaranteed a minimum of $48,330 stipend for Yale PhD workers. Yale PhD workers received an immediate 17.7 percent raise on their previous stipend and will receive a 30 percent raise over the course of the five-year contract. These raises made Yale PhD workers the highest-paid PhD workers in the Ivy League. 

Additionally, the contract created a grievance procedure that includes a union steward and affirms members’ right to a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation. The contract further implemented an annual $300,000 fund for out-of-pocket health care and dental expenses. 

Out of what the New Haven Independent estimates to be over 3,200 eligible voters, 1,705 members voted in support of the contract with only 10 dissenting. Negotiations for the contract between the University and Local 33 took significantly less time compared to peer institutions such as Harvard and Brown universities, which both university and union representatives attributed to a strong working relationship between the union and Yale. 

“This new contract reflects negotiations between Local 33–UNITE HERE and Yale that were conducted with collegiality and respect,” Provost Scott Strobel wrote in an email sent to Yale community members in December. “Throughout the election and negotiation processes, the university has been guided by its commitment to the educational and research mission and to the well-being and success of all its students and graduate workers.”

Graduate student workers began fighting for union recognition and fair contracts with the activist group TA Solidarity’s founding back in 1987. Then known as the Graduate Employees and Student Organization, the group officially formed in 1990. In 2016, GESO rebranded as Local 33, nominally joining Yale unions Locals 34 and 35 UNITE HERE, which represent service, technical, clerical and maintenance workers at the University. 

In 1991, activists organized their first protest as a sit-in against the University’s decision to cut library hours. In February 1992, GESO organized a three-day strike to put pressure on Yale. 

Former union staff organizer and spokesperson Gordon Lafer GRD ’95 described strong tensions between the University and graduate students, citing intimidation by professors, disciplinary procedures for students who participated in a 1995 strike and the University allegedly discouraging the New Haven fire department and a local business from aiding workers on strike. 

“In my time at Yale, the administration was viscerally hostile to all unions,” Lafer wrote to the News in January 2023.

The University spokesperson declined to comment to the News in January 2023 on specific tensions with GESO in the 1990s but she noted the history of “labor peace” with Locals 34 and 35. 

Graduate students continued to work towards recognition and fair labor conditions throughout the 2000s and 2010s, collecting union authorization cards from a majority of graduate workers in 2004 and 2015. Yale refused to recognize GESO. 

Organizer Sarah Haley GRD ’10 noted that throughout the 2000s, the union centralized its focus on both “bread and butter” issues like wage raises and on a larger push for 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.”

Following the National Labor Relations Board’s 2016 ruling that private school graduate workers have the right to unionize, GESO held NLRB-approved elections for the first time later that year, running department-by-department elections and winning eight out of nine of them. 

The department-by-department elections sparked a backlash from both the Graduate Student Assembly and the University. Yale blocked union recognition by challenging the legal validity of the elections through the courts in 2017, and when the NLRB dismissed those challenges, the University later argued that graduate students were not union-eligible. 

Frustrated by Yale’s continuous legal challenges, union organizers mounted a month-long fast and occupation of Beinecke Plaza in 2017. The unprecedented hunger strike sought to pressure Yale into recognizing the union election results and begin contract negotiations. 

“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,” Robin Dawson GRD ’19, who participated in the hunger strike, told the News in January 2023. “It was a beautiful spiritual experience in some ways — it sounds kind of cheesy, but it was — and after 10 days, I passed the fast to my friend.”

Local 33 later “demobilized” in the fall of 2018 due to dissatisfaction with union leadership voiced by some members and an anticipated resistance to union recognition due to a conservative shift in the NLRB. 

This road of activism was revamped in the fall of 2021. The new campaign culminated in a landslide victory in January 2023. Yale has agreed to recognize the union until 2031, ensuring its existence through potential changes in federal labor guidelines. 

Contract negotiations between the University and graduate workers spanned nine months. 

Chris is an associate beat reporter for Student Life. He is a freshman in Morse studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics.