At Photo Booth Day, art student Jenny Tang memorialized a message about democracy.
Tang joined hundreds of other Yale graduate student teachers in attending the event Wednesday afternoon organized by UNITE HERE Local 33, which is seeking to organize them into a recognized union.
The event gave new meaning to the term “photo op.”
Local 33 set up three photo booths inside the sanctuary of First and Summerfield Church at the corner of Church and Chapel, the building where all Yale’s unions are headquartered. Then they asked graduate student teachers to fill out a sign about why they support the unionizing drive and have their photo taken with it.
The idea was to boost and broadcast support for the drive at a critical moment.
The drive began 24 years ago (the same year Jenny Tang was born) and has struggled since against Yale’s refusal to recognize a graduate student union. In recent months the drive got a big boost: an Aug. 23 National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students are “workers” under the law with union organizing rights. That immediately increased the chances that Local 33 — formerly known as GESO, or Graduate Employees And Students Organization — can prevail. The NLRB shot down the main arguments Yale and other universities had used to oppose these drives, that graduate students aren’t “workers” and that their activity would destroy the collegiality of campus life.
Despite the favorable NLRB ruling, the quest for union recognition is not a done deal. Local 33 does not enjoy support from the majority of graduate student teachers in many of Yale’s departments; the Graduate Student Assembly has gone on record opposing the drive. So Local 33 filed a petition with the NLRB to have the union recognized in just ten departments, since changed to nine.
At NLRB hearings in Hartford (read about them here), Yale has argued that such partial approval would set the wrong precedent, and that the union should have to win the support of all departments in order to give all graduate students their democratic right to choose or reject representation. Local 33 President Aaron Greenberg Wednesday argued that it’s more democratic to let members of individual departments — which have different concerns and workplace conditions — seek representation. (Scroll down in this article to read more about the individual concerns of members in different departments.)
Those Hartford hearings have ended. Now it’s a waiting game to see how the NLRB will rule on who gets to vote on union representation.
Meanwhile, Local 33 sought to keep the drive’s momentum alive and communicate its message with Wednesday’s event. It invited participants to step into the photo booth in hopes of next stepping into a voting booth — to choose union representation — and finally to a contract negotiating table.
Jenny Tang wrote a message on her sign about democracy.
“Debilitated labor,” she wrote, “is debilitated democracy.”
After completing the shoot, she elaborated.
“Labor all across the country has been taken apart post-World War II,” she said. “Democracy is not just a guarantee through law and voting. It’s about representation.”
In practice, that means being able to have a say in your working hours and conditions and pay, she and others at the event said. Several, including Greenberg, criticized a Yale decision last year to cut the pay graduate student teachers receive in their last years for teaching the same workload. A union, he said, would be able to negotiate those kinds of decisions.
Graduate teaching fellows are divided into two “levels” across departments: those who teach six to 10 hours a week and those who teach 15 to 20 hours a week, she said. Students at the level with fewer hours receive a $4,000 teaching stipend in their total financial aid package; those with more hours receive $8,000. Yale defends its overall package of aid as generous.
Tang finished Wednesday’s routine by hanging her sign up on a makeshift wall with hundreds of other similar messages. If the NLRB rules labor’s way, Local 33 will need to bring that message on a campaign trail.