During the past year, Local 33 of UNITE HERE, which is seeking to unionize students in several departments of the Graduate School, has held a number of protests and demonstrations on campus. Yale has fully respected those peaceful gatherings and the right of demonstrators to express their views — both pro and con — on the question of graduate student unionization. However, actions this week by members of Local 33 raise concerns about the safety and well-being of the demonstrators and about their apparent disregard for longstanding university policies and principles regarding the appropriate time, place and manner for exercising freedom of expression.
Yale as an institution is resolutely committed to freedom of speech and expression, the principles of which are embodied in the Woodward Report. The university continues to welcome an open, respectful, and robust discussion on the important issue of graduate teaching fellow unionization. Yale also enjoys strong and productive relationships with its clerical, service, and maintenance employees, whose unions — UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35 — recently concluded five-year contracts, marking many years of historic labor peace on campus.
On Tuesday of this week, eight graduate students affiliated with Local 33 announced that they would engage in a fast. The university believes this action is unwarranted by the circumstances. Yale cannot compel anyone to refrain from this activity, but strongly urges that students not put their health at risk or encourage others to do so. In response to the fasting, President Peter Salovey has stated, “My primary concern is for the health and safety of our students. While I deeply respect their right to freedom of speech and expression, I urge our graduate students to reconsider this decision and to avoid actions that could be harmful to their well-being.” On Wednesday morning, a small number of graduate student union organizers attempted to block access to Woolsey Hall, disrupting an information session during “Bulldog Days” for high school students recently admitted into Yale College and their families. Later on Wednesday on Beinecke Plaza, without seeking the required approval to hold a demonstration there, Local 33 members erected a large tent-like structure as part of what they said would be an ongoing, indefinite protest. The demonstrators have been formally notified that their continuing presence and the structure do not comply with university policies on free expression.
The matter of Local 33’s graduate student organizing drive is currently before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB conducted elections in February in nine departments of the Graduate School for which Local 33 filed petitions. Although there are 2,600 doctoral students in the Graduate School, only 228 students cast eligible votes in the nine academic departments in which elections were held. The low vote count (under 9%) was due to Local 33’s “micro-unit strategy” of holding nine separate union elections, and preventing students in the rest of the school’s departments from having a say on the question of 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 has requested that the NLRB review Local 33’s questionable micro-unit strategy, which 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. Yale’s request for a review is still pending. As the NLRB process in which Yale and Local 33 are engaged is still underway, Yale has informed Local 33 that requests to engage in collective bargaining in the eight departments that voted to be represented by Local 33 are premature.
Yale continues to provide unsurpassed support to its doctoral students. They receive annual stipends of $30,000 or more, and a tuition fellowship or other grants fully cover the annual tuition of $39,800. Yale pays for the health insurance of all the doctoral students. 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, the university 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, doctoral students gain valuable teaching experience as part of their training by devoting no more than a sixth of their time to teaching, and in many cases far less.
Additional information about graduate education at Yale can be found on the Graduate School’s website. As with any issue, all members of the Yale community should feel free to express their views on this critical matter in higher education.