Grad Students March For Union Recognition

Contributed PhotosGraduate-student employees marched through the rain Wednesday to take up some unfinished business with Yale’s new president.

The graduate students, who teach courses and conduct research as part of their tenure on campus, have been trying for years to gain union recognition at Yale. Yale President Peter Salovey’s predecessor, Rick Levin, opposed the move.

As with an earlier organizing drive at Yale, the ultimately successful 15-year quest to unionize clerical and technical workers, opponents have argued that a traditionally unrepresented group of workers doesn’t need union representation the way, say, factory workers did; while supporters have argued that anti-labor forces always disingenuously use that point to try to prevent new groups of exploited workers from seeking better conditions.

At Wednesday’s march, organizers from Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO-UNITE HERE) delivered a petition to Salovey’s office at Woodbridge Hall with the signatures of over 1,000 grad students. The petition calls for Yale to follow the example of New York University, which last December “voluntarily agreed to a process for graduate students to vote on union representation in an environment free of intimidation.” Grad students at NYU then voted overwhelmingly to form a union, which is now negotiating a first contract. University of Connecticut has since followed suite.

Leaders of other Yale UNITE HERE locals joined the march, as did Newhallville Alder Delphine Clyburn (at right in photo).

“We teach. We grade. We hold office hours. We oversee experiments. We do work,” GESO Chair Aaron Greenberg, who’s also a city alder representing Wooster Square, told the crowd filling Beinecke Plaza outside Woodbridge Hall. “The university trusts us to teach. They should trust us to negotiate over the conditions of our work.”

Click here
to read the petition presented to Salovey. In addition to the unionization demand, it called for less sexual harassment in the workplace, higher and granting tenure to more women and people of color, and affordable and accessible health care for workers.

Asked for a response, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy issued this statement: “Yale University and the Graduate School have worked and will continue to work productively with faculty and students, including the Graduate Student Assembly, on the issues identified by the petition.  We are committed to the best possible academic outcomes for our students.”

Click here to read a report on the march in the Yale Daily News.

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posted by: robn on May 1, 2014  8:51am

“We teach. We grade. We hold office hours. We oversee experiments. We do work,”

Honest question. Isn’t it also correct that in return for these chores you’re given tuition discounts and in some cases not charged tuition at all?

posted by: win win on May 1, 2014  9:23am

If gradute student teachers at UCONN and NYU and UMASS and the University of Wisconsin and SUNY and the UC system and CUNY and Rutgers etc….are workers and have the right to negotiate the conditions of their work with their employer then how are their computer parts at Yale not workers and why should they have no such rights?

posted by: lawrence st on May 1, 2014  9:31am

Robn, you are correct. We are paid, because we are employees. If you look at what we’re asking for, it is not pay. It is for a voice in matters that concern us, our work, and the environment in which we work.

posted by: Brutus2011 on May 1, 2014  10:38am

I see this as an important event that highlights the labor-management dynamic in education—not only higher education as highlighted here but also public education.

Here grad students are asking for basic rights in participation to their employment (labor). The university is reluctant to formalize such an agreement (management).

Why, or why not?

Fast forward from Yale grad students to adjunct faculty at other Ct colleges and universities. They have the same problem.

Now complete the circle by considering the public education reform debate embroiling our city and state (and country). Managers and administrators (public and private) want to retain power and control and to be able to shuffle their subordinate workers (teachers and paras) as they see fit.

It is all the same game—labor and management. We all need to see this for what it is and not continue to see it as about educating our young people.

Power and control.

And until we all see this clearly for what it is, well-intentioned citizens will continue to not exercise their power under the Constitution to bend the laws to protect the citizenry.

We, the people, are the sovereign here—not the managers and administrators.

posted by: woosterbill on May 1, 2014  11:20am


That’s a good question, but a focus on tuition remission obscures the fact that the majority of graduate employees do not simultaneously work and take classes.

I’m a doctoral candidate in my seventh (and thankfully final) year at Yale, and only took classes during the first two - at which point I was fully satisfied with the stipend and tuition remission I received, and didn’t see any point in unionizing. The university, for the most part, treats its graduate students - emphasis on students - very well indeed.

The bulk of my time here, though, has been spent not receiving instruction but giving it, not consuming university resources but producing them. As an employee over the last 5 years, I’ve seen my hours increase while my pay has decreased, I’ve been given more responsibility but less job security, and as an individual there’s nothing I can do to improve my working conditions. Yale can and should treat its graduate employees better, and the only way that will happen is if we organize and win the right to bargain collectively, just as other Yale employees currently do.

posted by: McKitt on May 1, 2014  11:48am

It’s important to note that GESO does not actually represent a majority of graduate students and previous efforts to secure a vote in support of a union from the graduate students have not been successful.

posted by: robn on May 1, 2014  12:05pm


Thanks for some clarification but I don’t quite get the tail end of your argument. Is the core of the argument that Yale extorts cheap labor in exchange for the eventual award of a graduate degree?

posted by: lmarq on May 1, 2014  12:25pm

Employees, regardless of the type of pay (tuition remission), deserve the power to voice their opinions in how they are treated as employees, including in the determination of whether they want to organize.  This is particularly apparent when the institution for which they work prize the sharing of ideas and empowerment of voices.

posted by: wendy1 on May 1, 2014  12:32pm

I wish I had been there.  I support any union that needs help.  Yale is a stingy employer.  I know.  I remember when 100 women got arrested years ago defending GESO.  This included Barbara Ehrenreich, the author, and a well-know n and loved prof. at Yale.

posted by: woosterbill on May 1, 2014  12:46pm


I wouldn’t use language quite that inflammatory, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. The majority of a Ph.D. student’s time at Yale is spent not on coursework but rather on a mixture of teaching and independent research.

The teaching component, particularly in the humanities, provides a great deal of cheap labor, and not just menial, behind-the-scenes gruntwork (i.e. grading). I’ve personally taught four seminars of my own design, completely independently. Often first-year students’ only experience working closely with an instructor comes in just these kinds of introductory, writing-intensive seminars, and therefore they are a crucial component of a Yale education. Graduate students teach many of them, not just to gain experience, but also because ladder faculty find them too labor-intensive to spend their time on.

It’s rather humorous that I have spent years doing the work that tenured faculty consider too burdensome, and yet the administration refuses to acknowledge that I’ve done any work at all.

Is the reward of a Yale degree worth the sacrifices, union or no? Of course it is, or none of us would be here. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t have a voice in negotiating the terms of our employment.

posted by: lawrence st on May 1, 2014  12:51pm


If GESO didn’t represent a majority of graduate students, then they could not have turned in a petition with a supermajority of graduate students signed-on.

And yes, previous efforts failed, in a large part because of underhanded tactics by Yale that, if graduate students were recognized by the NLRB, would have been illegal. Also, that was over a decade ago. Saying that because the vote failed then GESO doesn’t have the support now is like saying because GW Bush beat John Kerry, Obama’s presidency is illegitimate.

posted by: McKitt on May 1, 2014  2:43pm

Lawrence, every article I have been able to find on the march quotes 1000+ signatures. If you would be able to clarify the amount (with a breakdown by department), I would certainly be interested. There are currently 2860 students directly enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and a further 146 professional students pursuing PhD’s through GSAS. Without over 2000 signatures, I don’t see how GESO can claim to represent a supermajority.

posted by: lawrence st on May 1, 2014  4:22pm


I can’t break down the numbers because I don’t know them. But I can tell you that not everyone enrolled in GSAS is enrolled in a PhD program. For instance, IR and European Studies are masters students in GSAS, and they are not the only programs.

posted by: McKitt on May 1, 2014  5:04pm

That’s a fair point, but just using Yale’s own statistics, there are 2646 students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences that are registered for a PhD degree:

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 1, 2014  5:39pm

To the union Haters.Do your homework.

National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act 1935)

The National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act 1935) was implemented in 1935. This act gave employees and organizations the right to engage in protective activity and to gain union representation. Prior to implementing the NLRA, the individual states had the responsibility of regulating Labor Law. Prior to the implementation of the NLRA, states were establishing policies and laws that were pro business. The unions were organizing and voting for recognition, but the courts did not force the employers to the bargaining table. The NLRA unified the Labor Laws under Federal Jurisdiction and helped to return some power back to the employee. The Wagner Act established a court called the National Labor Relations Board. The sole duty of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was to enforce the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).The NLRA grants employees the right to engage in “concerted activity,” free from employer interference, restraint, and coercion. The NLRA gives employees the right to form a union.

So to all of you union haters.When are you going to form a union on your jobs.

posted by: robn on May 1, 2014  11:02pm


Is the current compensation done on a university scale, department basis or is it doled out at the discretion of individual profs? Is there any performance incentive? What’s the ballpark compensation and the hours required? I’m not pulling your chain; just can’t form an opinion because I have no idea how GS’s are compensated.

posted by: robn on May 2, 2014  8:47am


Why do you think it is that the GESO cannot secure a vote in support of a union?

posted by: McKitt on May 2, 2014  12:36pm

GESO is strongest in the humanities and those students make up only about 25% of the graduate school. Issues that concern GESO include sixth year funding, availability of jobs after graduation, and the availability of teaching fellow appointments. These are generally not issues that affect the sciences (due to more grant availability, more awareness of non-academic career paths, and fewer teaching requirements). Also despite these complaints, Yale graduate students are among the most well-off graduate students in the country (highest stipends, and among the highest job placement rates), and I think most students recognize this.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the Graduate Student Assembly, an elected body which can accurately claim to represent 95% of all PhD students, has made these three issues its top three priorities over the last few years. The GSA regularly meets with the administration and their negotiated charter gives them the power to censure university officials through the Graduate School Executive Committee if they feel as though they are being ignored. This has never been necessary, as the GSAS administration (through the Dean) has been exemplary in their advocacy for graduate students interests in their dealings with the greater Yale administration.

posted by: woosterbill on May 2, 2014  8:40pm

@ robn,

I’ll try to answer your questions in order:

1. Departmental - science departments generally pay more than humanities, but there’s no clear organization to it as far as I’ve been able to tell from talking with colleagues.

2. No performance incentives for typical work, although there are departmental prizes for exceptional essays/articles/dissertations/etc. Nothing at all tied to teaching evaluations or anything like that.

3. I can’t speak for other departments, but the stipend for me was around 25K for the first five years (with teaching required in 3), and then it dropped to about 18K in years 6 and 7 when it was purely compensation for teaching rather than a full stipend. Full-time students are limited to 10 hrs/wk outside employment, so it’s next to impossible to supplement this meagre income externally. As for hours required, it depends on whether one is a Teaching Fellow (similar to a TA elsewhere) or a Part Time Acting Instructor (same teaching responsibilities as a professor, but nowhere near the pay). I’d estimate that the former takes about 15-20 hours per week during the school year, and the latter closer to 30.

Again, I’d like to stress that the desire for union representation isn’t so much about pure compensation as it is about having a say in our working conditions and establishing fair, predictable employment situations across the GSAS. The reduction in pay after 5 years (even as teaching responsibilities generally increase at this point) is a particular point of contention, especially in the humanities where getting a Ph.D. and a job after just 5 years is becoming increasingly unlikely. I don’t know a single person in my department who’s gotten a tenure-track job in his or her 5th year, and 7 is more typical than 6. This is just the way things are on the nationwide academic job market these days, but the GSAS policies have yet to reflect as much.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on May 4, 2014  11:33am

I was proud to be at the rally to turn in the petition with my colleagues in the Graduate School, as well as our allies and supporters who turned out from Local 34, Local 35, Yale faculty, Yale undergrads, New Haven residents, and reps from both UConn and NYU.

It’s unfortunate that McKitt is playing the GESO and the GSA against one another. These are two fundamentally different organizations that do not have to be in opposition with one another. The GSA can play an important role in providing feedback and recommendations to the Yale administration, as was the case with the Deans search this spring. GESO seeks a different relationship whereby Yale would be legally required to sit at the table as equals with graduate employees and negotiate a contract. I also recommend that McKitt look up the history of GSA and how it was established in the late-nineties in response to GESO organizing and action.

robn, re: union vote, I think it’s important to have an understanding of changes in labor law over the course of the past 15 years. NYU was the first private university to achieve recognition for graduate employee union, winning their first contract in 2002. This was possible because in 2000 the NLRB voted unanimously ruled that graduate assistants at private universities were statutory “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act. In 2004, the Bush administration NLRB voted 3-2 to reverse that decision, and after the NYU contract expired in 2005 the university decided not to negotiate with the union. That decision still has not been reversed (it has been rumored that the Obama NLRB will reverse the 2004 Brown decision), making an NLRB election impossible.

There are, however, other ways to gain union recognition, and many of us in GESO have hope that after the NYU administration agreed to respect the results of last December’s election (in which 98.4% voted for a union), Yale will follow in working for a process for union representation, as the petition calls for.

posted by: McKitt on May 5, 2014  12:19pm

It was not my intention to play the two organizations against one another and I do recognize that GSA was born out of discontent in the ‘90s when graduate students were paid substantially less and did not have nearly the standard of leaving that they can now afford. My point was, many students (particularly those in the sciences) are satisfied with the process of having GSA raise their concerns with the administration and this may partially explain the difficulty that GESO has in securing support for a union from students in those disciplines.

At NYU (where there was indeed overwhelming support for a union by those who voted), the union is comprised only of students in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Students in the Life and Physical Sciences did not participate in the vote and are not part of the collective bargaining unit.

posted by: robn on May 5, 2014  1:13pm

No matter the historical context. GESO should not, as is so often done in New Haven, manufacture a consensus out of thin air.

posted by: Eddie on May 6, 2014  11:05am


GESO built sufficient consensus to get 1000 signatures on a petition and turn out hundreds of graduate students in the rain.  Moreover as McKittt notes many of the issues that GESO has organized around now enjoy so much consensus that the GSA has made the same issues a priority. 

This level of this consensus stands in dramatic contrast to Yale’s position.  In the 20 plus years that graduate students have been organizing for a union, Yale has consistently refused to allow a NLRB sanctioned election.  In recent years, Yale has refused this election on the basis of a Bush-appointed NLRB ruling.  Thus, Yale is relying on a partisan and rightwing ruling from a federal board to deny graduate students even the choice of deciding this question with the protection of the NLRB.  This is manufacturing consensus out of thin air.  Engaging in thousands of conversations to identify core issues that affect graduate students is not.