Union elections to be held in nine departments of the Graduate School

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will conduct union elections in nine departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) on Feb. 23. Students with current teaching appointments in the departments will vote whether to be represented by Local 33 of UNITE HERE.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will conduct union elections in nine departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) on Feb. 23. Students with current teaching appointments in the departments will vote whether to be represented by Local 33 of UNITE HERE.

The NLRB ruled last August that graduate students who assist with teaching and research at private universities are employees under the National Labor Relations Act and may unionize. UNITE HERE’s Local 33 subsequently filed 10 separate petitions for elections seeking separate bargaining units, called “micro-units,” within each of 10 departments in the Graduate School. Local 33 later withdrew one of the 10 petitions.

Last month, after lengthy hearings in which Yale opposed the petitions to establish micro-units, the NLRB regional director in Boston issued a decision approving the election petitions and directing that nine separate elections be held.

The university said that 313 students teaching this semester are eligible to vote, which is less than half of the doctoral students in the nine departments, and only about one-tenth of the Graduate School’s students.

“About 90% of all GSAS students have been disenfranchised from the important decision of whether to establish graduate student unions at Yale,” said Dean Lynn Cooley.

The prospective union has said that filing department by department petitions “means that the departments that want the union can have it, and those that don’t, won’t.”

In a published commentary, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler wrote: “At the heart of the matter lies the question of whether graduate student teaching fellows, who learn the art of teaching by leading discussion sections for Yale College courses, should be classified as employees. The National Labor Relations Board has changed its position on this question three times in the past 16 years. Unlike Yale’s unionized workforce, graduate students are only here for the few years it takes to complete their Ph.D. and prepare for permanent jobs in the academy or elsewhere. Doctoral students in the GSAS attend Yale tuition-free, are given annual stipends of more than $30,000 whether or not they are engaged in teaching that year, and receive comprehensive healthcare benefits for themselves and their families in order to study with outstanding faculty, and to take advantage of the University’s exceptional academic resources and services.”

The student-elected Graduate Student Assembly at Yale voted last October to oppose both the overall unionization effort by Local 33 and the department-by-department micro-unit election strategy.

On Feb. 15, Yale filed a request for review with the NLRB in Washington, D.C., of the Boston regional director’s decision regarding Local 33’s micro-unit election petitions.  

“This is a procedural right that parties in all NLRB cases have in order to ensure that the board supports a Regional Director’s administrative ruling,” according to the university. “In this case, Yale continues to believe that Local 33’s petitions for these nine micro-units are inappropriate, and that the regional director’s decision was incorrect and without precedent in higher education.” The NLRB denied Yale’s request for review on Feb. 22.

Since the NLRB ruling last August in a case involving Columbia University, graduate student union elections have been held at Columbia and Harvard universities. In contrast to the department-level micro units that Local 33 pursued in its election petitions at Yale, the elections at Columbia and Harvard were school-wide. The election outcomes at Columbia and Harvard have yet to be resolved.

Currently, the only existing union representing graduate student teaching assistants at a private university is at New York University (NYU). As with all the existing graduate student unions at public universities, the one at NYU is school-wide.

The union elections are in the Departments of Geology and Geophysics, Mathematics, Physics, East Asian Languages and Literatures, English, History, History of Art, Political Science, and Sociology.

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