Yale University update on graduate student unionization

Local 33 of UNITE HERE has conceded that ballots challenged by Yale in the February union elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board should not be counted. Yale had challenged the votes cast by professional school students and master’s students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences because those students do not share the necessary community of interest with doctoral students serving as teaching fellows.

The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had scheduled a hearing on the challenged ballots to begin April 24, but that hearing will not be held as a result of Local 33’s agreement with Yale that the challenged voters should be deemed ineligible to vote and that their ballots should remain sealed.

Although there are 2,600 doctoral students in the Graduate School, the concession by Local 33 on the challenged ballots means that a total of only 228 students voted in the nine academic departments in which elections were held. The low vote count relative to the overall Graduate School population (under 9%) was due to Local 33’s micro-unit strategy, which prevented students in the rest of the school’s departments from having a say on the question of teaching fellow unionization. The Graduate Student Assembly — the student government elected by all graduate students — had passed resolutions prior to the elections opposing both Local 33 and its exclusionary micro-unit approach.

Yale’s request for review of Local 33’s questionable micro-unit strategy is still pending before the NLRB in Washington, D.C. That strategy is unprecedented in higher education. Unions that have organized at other private universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Duke and Cornell, have all sought school-wide bargaining units — not the separate departmental units advocated by Local 33 at Yale.  The regional director’s determination that Yale’s teaching fellows are employees is also in dispute.

As the NLRB process in which Yale and Local 33 are engaged is still underway and unresolved, Yale has informed Local 33 that requests to engage in collective bargaining are premature. Yale as an institution is deeply committed to freedom of speech and expression, and the university respects the right of all members of the community to peacefully express their views on the question of graduate student unionization at Yale.

Among first-tier research universities, Yale provides unsurpassed support to Ph.D. students. The doctoral students at Yale receive annual stipends of $30,000 or more, and a tuition fellowship or other grants fully cover the annual tuition of $39,800. The students also receive free health care. If a student has a spouse, but no dependent children, Yale pays half the cost of the spouse’s health insurance. If a student has a spouse and children, Yale covers the full cost of their health insurance. Over six years, the total cost of support equals nearly $375,000 for a single Ph.D. student. For a student with a family, the support totals more than $445,000. Over the course of six years, no more than 14% of a doctoral student’s time is devoted to teaching as part of his or her training, and for many students it is even less.