When the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate student assistants working at private universities are employees on August 23, 2016, in a case involving Columbia University, the fact that Yale graduate students petitioned six days later to form a union was no surprise.
However, when it came to the strategy Local 33 employed in voting for unionization, “We were shocked,” Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley said.
Local 33, Yale’s unofficial graduate student union, held votes in nine out of the 56 graduate school departments at Yale on whether to form a union. Eight of these departments voted in favor of unionization, while one, the Department of Physics, voted against it.
This micro-unit bargaining strategy in which only select departments participated in the vote for unionization, led to much controversy and opposition from both the school administration as well as other graduate students.
On December 15, 2017, the NLRB overruled the case (known as Specialty Healthcare) that formed a foundation for the precedent for Local 33’s micro-unit strategy.
In eliminating the “overwhelming” community of interest standard, the NLRB must now decide on a case-by-case basis if a smaller group of employees can represent a unit that can collectively bargain for the larger group.
Yale is currently waiting for the NLRB to rule on its appeal of Local 33’s petition to unionize before agreeing to proceed with negotiations with Local 33.
Columbia University similarly appealed the decision to unionize by its own graduate student union Graduate Workers of Columbia; however, given the NLRB’s rejection of this decision the GWC hopes to begin bargaining soon, Bargaining Committee member Ian Bradley-Perrin said.
Ian Bradley-Perrin became involved with the GWC because of personal struggles with late pay. As an international student, he could not work off campus and had no source of income other than the salary he received as a teaching assistant. Late pay put him in a difficult financial situation, but as he became involved, he heard stories of sexual harassment, uneven pay scales for similar or the same work, or students not getting paid at all.
“It was clear to me as graduate students and as international students we really had no power,” Bradley-Perrin said.
Another point of contention between Yale and the school with regards to the micro-unit bargaining approach is the possibility for Local 33 to negotiate several different contracts for each of the eight different departments that voted to unionize, which would pose an unworkable administrative burden for the school, Cooley said.
“We try our very best in the graduate school to be even-handed and to have policies that are carried out fairly for everyone. We make sure every PhD student has the same financial aid package, living stipend, tuition, and access to healthcare,” Cooley said.
The school’s argument against graduate student unionization, in general, was the fact that Yale does not consider graduate students as employees, and teaching is a part of their education and training to receive a diploma.
However, Yale was unable to convince the NLRB of this argument.
“This is the same argument that Columbia made to the NLRB. The NLRB, the largest voice on labor which is backed up by the government rejected that. Therefore the voters do not agree with Columbia and do not agree with Yale,” Bradley-Perrin said.
“There is a difference between the work you do for your own education and the work you do for a professor. I research HIV but I do plenty of work on a diversity of different topics that are interesting for me to work on but don’t have anything to do with my dissertation,” he said.
Because of Local 33’s micro-unit strategy, it is possible that Local 33 could wish to negotiate several different contracts for each of the individual different departments, which from the school’s perspective poses an unworkable administrative burden, Cooley said.
The GWC chose to hold an election among all graduate students, the majority of which voted collectively for unionization.
“We thought it was important to have a broad of scope as possible and have as many people recognized under one union as possible because there’s power in numbers,” Bradley-Perrin said.
According to Bradley-Perrin, it is possible to have a complex, detailed contract that serves different departments under one cohesive contract. This strategy seemed the best way to the GWS to present a united front.
The GWC hopes to have a contract that gains some sort of third-party recourse in which student complaints can be directed towards a union that works on issues for the students, as students are currently expected to approach advisors within the very departments about which these students have concerns.
“These eight departments represent less than 10 percent of the graduate student population, and some students were worried that the university might use whatever contract they bargained for and apply it to the rest of the students who did not organize,” Graduate Student Assembly (GSA) Chair Wendy Xiao said.
The GSA is the graduate school’s body of elected student representatives, and its stance on Local 33’s mission and practice is divided. The main reason for which people opposed the micro-unit bargaining strategy was the claim that allowing only certain departments to vote was undemocratic.
The aspect of Local 33 that faced the most vehement opposition was the group’s recruitment practices.
“People reported being approached and intimidated, being followed to their houses, coming to their labs in places where people are technically not allowed,” Xiao said.
There is also a feeling in some departments that those who did not vote to unionize cannot speak up about their discontents and are not kept in the loop throughout the union’s decision-making process.
At Columbia, there was a two-thirds majority that voted to unionize.
“Our vote demonstrated that our students are unified. The division is between the administration and students,” Bradley-Perrin.
However, Xiao is positive about the stability of the GSA despite unionization and its ability to make change within the graduate school community.
“I think that the actual work of the GSA isn’t really going to change. People in the GSA come up with great ideas and do really meaningful things, and I don’t think all of that is going to disappear, union or no union” Xiao said.
“I think we’re really excited to start bargaining, it’s been a really long fight. We’re wishing our colleagues everywhere working on similar issues the best of luck in organizing. We support them,” Bradley-Perrin said.