Members of UNITE HERE Local 33 and their supporters continued to show their mettle in the fight to have their new graduate student teachers union recognized by Yale University, as their encampment got some actual metal just in time for graduation.
Tuesday marked the three-week mark for union members who have embarked on a water-only diet until university officials agree to meet with them at the negotiating table to discuss a first contract for the eight academic departments out of 50 whose graduate student teachers voted to form UNITE HERE locals.
After outwitting the administration to install a “bow shed” at Beinecke Plaza, unfurling a “Trump University” banner at the Yale School of Management, creating a human clock at Cross Campus and risking the ire of New Haveners by getting arrested at intersections downtown and delaying people’s commute, union members further poked the bear by unveiling a new addition to their encampment: a giant Local 33 sign made of sheet metal.
The sign was created by Sheet Metal Workers Local 40 in solidarity with the graduate student employees’ ongoing battle with the university. Though the original eight fasters have passed the fasting baton to another set of graduate student colleagues, the mantra of “No contract, no peace,” continues to ring out around campus.
It started quietly on Tuesday, with a candlelight vigil in front of the darkened windows of Yale President Peter Salovey’s house on Hillhouse Avenue. Supporters numbering at nearly 250 created a giant circle in front of the house while Yale police officers paced in front of the home’s doors.
“It’s been 21 days of us fasting and marching and picketing, and of us waiting 21 days for the Yale administration to meet its basic legal obligation to negotiate with us,” noted Local 33 Chair and Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg. “Every day, more people have learned about our struggle. More have come to see us at 33 Wall St. Our community has grown stronger and stronger by the day. We ask once again, steps from his home, how much longer?”
A bigger demonstration is in the works to coincide with Yale’s graduation Monday. National UNITE HERE officials have organized busloads of demonstrators to come to town from New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
Lena Eckert-Erdheim, a graduate teacher in the history department, told the crowd Tuesday night that she believes that Yale continues to underestimate Local 33’s commitment.
“In February I voted for a union,” Eckert-Erdheim, who has been fasting for seven days, said. “I have been waiting four years to cast that vote and it felt so good to be part of the group that brought it home. But I never thought it would take something like this, not eating for seven days to get Yale to respect it. Yale continues to underestimate us. They underestimate our commitment to our students and our pride in our work. They underestimate our commitment to each other and they underestimate our commitment to our union.
“But every day we grow stronger and they become more afraid,” she added. “They pull down our signs, tell us to be quiet and they tell us that our problems are not real. But we’ve shown over the years that nothing will turn us around and nothing will divide us from each other. President Salovey we’re here and we will win. There is no question is about that. The only choice you get to make is how much longer.”
Bob Proto, UNITE HERE Local 35 president, said that the union followed all the rules that Yale said it had to to be recognized. And now Yale is backing out of the deal by appealing the decision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
“Yale lied,” Proto told the crowd Tuesday night. “We followed the law to the T. We did exactly what Yale has been telling us for a couple of decades now. We followed the law and will continue to follow the law in asking them to sit down and bargain with the teachers and the researchers that carry on Yale’s mission.”
Yale has repeatedly called on Local 33 protesters to end their fast and argued that the proper forum for resolving this dispute is through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Yale has twice appealed to the NLRB — which will soon have new appointees from President Donald Trump — to overturn a decision that allowed unionizing elections to take place in only nine out of more than 50 academic departments; UNITE HERE won eight of those elections. Yale argues that it already provides generous terms for graduate students, who study tuition-free and receive annual stipends of $30,000 a year or more along with health insurance.
The protesters and their supporters broke their momentary silence during Tuesday night’s demonstration to let Salovey and his neighbors know that they aren’t going anywhere unless it is to the negotiating table.
And they chanted and marched, with megaphones on high and drums blazing, all the way back to their encampment at 33 Wall St. where the hefty new sign, which was so heavy that at least two people had to carry it, made its debut.
D. Taylor, the UNITE HERE International president, made the observation that humility has never been part of Yale’s vocabulary. Nor has understanding working people. But he said the university did understand the work of Locals 33, 34 and 35 and the labor union in New England, and UNITE HERE’s work across the country.
“We will never, never give up,” he said. “We will never live on our knees. We will fight on our feet. And if they can sacrifice these fasters the way they have, then we sure can have one hell of a victory party when we win our union here.”
Yale issued this statement Wednesday in response to the continuing protests:
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.