Update on graduate student unionization

Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, sent the message below to FAS and GSAS faculty updating them on the graduate student unionization drive at Yale. The message outlined Yale’s position on graduation student unionization, its concerns about the organizing strategy pursued by UNITE HERE Local 33, and the status of the matter before the National Labor Relations Board. It also addressed the protests held by UNITE HERE and Yale’s commitment to freedom of expression.

Yale’s 316th Commencement was a joyous celebration for the 3,618 graduates and their families. All of us take pride in the accomplishments of our extraordinary students. Thank you for all that you contribute to their education.

Many of you have asked about Monday’s demonstrations in support of graduate student unionization at Yale organized by UNITE HERE Local 33, and we wanted to provide an update on the university’s position. Yale’s commitment to freedom of expression remains unwavering: all members of our community are given space to voice their opinions. We respect the right to protest, even when we strongly disagree with the protesters’ goals.

At the heart of the matter is our core conviction that graduate students at Yale are primarily students learning to be scholars and teachers, with teaching assistant opportunities built into the graduate student curriculum. They receive the same competitive stipend — at least $30,000 — each year, regardless of whether they assist in teaching; over the course of six years at Yale their required teaching apprenticeship is only one small part of their educational program. Their situation is quite different from that of university employees who are hired and paid wages for performing their jobs as they pursue their work careers here.
 
Since 2000, our doctoral students have been fully funded (stipend, tuition, and health insurance), making it possible to earn a Yale Ph.D. degree debt-free. Enhancements to graduate student support continue to be made every year, usually based on well-researched proposals from the Graduate Student Assembly.
 
Yale remains committed to a collaborative relationship with its unionized employees, thousands of whom are represented by UNITE HERE. The university and our unions have worked closely together, especially over the last fourteen years, to strengthen our ties. The recent mutual achievement of Yale’s new five-year contract agreements with Locals 34 and 35 is a testament to our shared work toward a common cause.

But we are deeply concerned about the divisive process that Local 33 has used to pursue a union of graduate students at Yale. In February, a regional office under the National Labor Relations Board permitted Local 33 to hold elections at Yale in which 157 graduate students (out of 228 eligible votes cast) voted in favor of unionization. The elections were organized according to a micro-unit strategy that is unprecedented in higher education. As a result of this micro-unit approach, graduate students in only 9 of 56 departments were eligible to participate; 90% of Yale’s 2,600 doctoral students were denied the right to vote. Last fall, the democratically elected Graduate Student Assembly voted to oppose both Local 33 itself and its micro-unit strategy.

Yale has asked the full NLRB in Washington, D.C., to review this method of organization—one that is both novel in a university setting and highly controversial among students on our campus. Although the NLRB has allowed micro-unit organization in other contexts (e.g., department stores, health care), the approach has never before been authorized in higher education. Yale has acted ethically and legally throughout this process: 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. Accordingly, Yale will continue to await the final outcome of the legal process now underway.  

For more than a month, a shelter erected by graduate student demonstrators has been in place on Beinecke Plaza. Protestors erected the structure without warning or permission and ignored repeated reminders that its continued presence violated university policies. This past Monday, the protestors declared the end to their hunger/fasting strike, but made it clear that they have no intention of relocating the shelter. Earlier today, Yale removed the shelter from Beinecke Plaza. The shelter, together with picnic tables, an Astroturf patio, couches, bookcases, house plants, and electrical lighting, will be stored until the owners reclaim these items. At the time of its removal, it was occupied by three Yale graduate students and two additional individuals unaffiliated with the university.

We appreciate that faculty have a wide range of views on the important issue of graduate student unionization. We remain grateful that our shared commitment to excellence in education transcends our differences.


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