Taking advantage of a ruling last week by the National Labor Relations Board that gave students at private universities the right to organize, Yale graduate students filed a petition Monday to form a union.
“We’re excited to get our election, win our election, and begin negotiating a contract that addresses the issues that our members have been facing for years,” Aaron Greenberg, chair of the Yale Graduate Students and Employees Organization (GESO), said.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that both graduate and undergraduate students who work as teaching and research assistants should be considered employees. The case reversed a 2004 decision.
The move could affect thousands of students in Connecticut, where the issue of union representation for graduate students has already appeared on several campuses.
The University of Connecticut gave official recognition to its graduate employee union in 2014 and Yale’s GESO, recently rebranded as UNITE HERE Local 33, has been trying to gain university recognition since the early 1990s.
Many colleges and universities, including Yale, have argued that allowing grad students to unionize would undermine their academic relationship with the school.
“I have long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime, in which professors would be ‘supervisors’ of their graduate student ‘employees,” Yale President Peter Salovey wrote in an email to students and faculty concerning the ruling last week.
Yale filed an amicus brief in the Columbia case (along with the seven other Ivy League schools) calling on the NLRB to rule that the relationship graduate students have with their university is primarily academic.
Graduate students and adjunct faculty now teach about 70 percent of college courses, which has led to criticism that institutions are using them as a cost-cutting measure instead of hiring more expensive tenure-track faculty.
“They rely on these students to teach classes, support research projects and further the work of faculty, all of which contribute to the college’s academic bottom line. But, on payday, the anemic paychecks show how much the graduate student workers are undercompensated and underappreciated,” Brian Bonina, president of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges, said.
Greenberg said ensuring “secure teaching and funding, equity for people of color and for women and access to mental health care and affordable health care” were his group’s priorities.
Lindsay Zafir, graduate teacher in the history department at Yale said that “unilateral changes the Yale administration made over the last couple of years” meant that another Yale graduate teacher she co-taught a course with was making nearly half as much as her, despite having spent seven years with the program.
“Not only is this unfair, it puts our most experienced teachers in a precarious position,” she said.
“This is an extremely important ruling for graduate students at Yale where GESO has been working for many, many years for official recognition as a union,” Irene Mulvey, who serves as treasurer of the Connecticut Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said.
Mulvey, who is a long-time professor at Fairfield University, said that there was little momentum for a union at Fairfield right now, but “with this ruling, graduate student employees at any private university could be empowered to organize — Wesleyan, Trinity, etc.”
Greenberg agreed that the decision had “electrified” campuses across the country.
Both Mulvey and Greenberg were optimistic about the prospects for student organizing rights in the long term. The recent decision is the third time the NLRB has reversed its ruling on graduate unions in the last 16 years, first in 2000 and then in 2004. The president appoints the five-member NLRB board.
Unlike Yale and Fairfield, UConn is a public university, so its student employees have always had a right to form unions. The UConn GEU-UAW (affiliated with United Auto Workers) gained recognition in 2014.
Thirty-three schools currently have graduate employee unions, but most are at public universities where students already had a right to organize.
“This is a lot more than just a labor decision,” Mulvey said. “In my view, the decision reinforces higher education’s contribution to the common good.”