A group of graduate students affiliated with UNITE HERE Local 33 is seeking to pressure Yale University to abandon its legal appeal of an unprecedented decision by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Unlike other unions that have tried to organize graduate students at other universities, UNITE HERE is the only union to attempt a controversial strategy of micro-unit organizing in a handful of academic departments. This tactic has denied over 90% of Yale doctoral students the right to vote in union elections.
Yale has asked the NLRB to review this novel strategy. But instead of defending its tactics through the legal process it initiated, UNITE HERE has staged a series of protests in an effort to disrupt daily life at Yale and in the City of New Haven; recently it has called for activists to converge on New Haven for demonstrations around Yale’s Commencement.
The university regrets the union’s efforts to seek media attention by interfering with the day-to-day activities of our community. Yale strongly values freedom of expression and respects the protesters’ right to demonstrate, but does not tolerate disruption of university events and activities or interference with speakers. We will work to ensure that Commencement is a positive celebration for graduating students and their families.
Local 33 and its organizing tactics have not garnered strong support at Yale. The university’s democratically elected Graduate Student Assembly voted against the micro-unit strategy, and also voted disapproval of Local 33. Many students and faculty have raised concerns about intimidation and aggressive organizing tactics. In January, Yale appealed a regional office’s decision that permitted departmental elections in which only 157 out of 2600 Ph.D. students, in just 8 of 56 departments, voted for the union. The regional officer’s decision is subject to review by the full NLRB and federal courts.
Yale acts ethically and lawfully when it insists on NLRB or judicial review of a deeply flawed lower-level administrative decision. Declining to bargain is the well-accepted and only way to obtain further review of a regional office decision that is wrong as a matter of law. The professional union staff and lawyers backing Local 33 know this, just as they know that if the university bargains now it could waive its appeal rights. The union’s supporters who have publicly asserted it is somehow improper for Yale to appeal the lower decision, and who have sought in advance to delegitimize any decision of the NLRB, have failed to explain why the union has turned to extra-legal activism rather than exercise its right to seek relief in federal court.
Despite its disagreement with Local 33’s aims and tactics, Yale has respected the protesters’ efforts to express their views. Since late April, a small group of protesters have gathered peacefully in a wooden shelter they placed on Yale’s campus. Although these protesters are in violation of university policies on the shared use of campus space, Yale is committed to freedom of speech and expression and has chosen not to remove the shelter or interfere with their protest.
Yale has forged strong relationships with its unionized employees, thousands of whom are represented by UNITE HERE, and recently agreed to five-year contracts with UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35. But Yale and other universities consistently have believed that their graduate students who assist faculty with teaching as part of their education should not be considered employees under federal labor law. Over the course of six years at Yale, doctoral students’ required teaching takes up less than one-sixth of their time. The students receive annual stipends of $30,000 or more and do not pay tuition. Yale also provides doctoral students with health insurance at no cost. Over six years, Yale’s support for a single Ph.D. student equals nearly $375,000, and more than $445,000 for those with a family.