National Unions Throw Strength Behind Grad Unions

Lucy Gellman photoFour major national unions announced a new partnership on Wednesday that will seek to put pressure on private universities like Yale to negotiate with graduate student teachers who have already voted to unionize.

That pressure, they announced, will no longer be the hard hammer of petitions for union recognition before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is controlled by a conservative majority appointed by President Donald Trump.

Instead, the new effort will rely on the soft power of mobilizing millions of union members throughout the country to knock on doors, make phone calls, organize rallies, and leverage political connections to push private universities to formally recognize their graduate student teacher unions.

That announcement came during a Wednesday afternoon conference call with reporters, in which national leaders from the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said that their two organizations will partner with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and UNITE-HERE on behalf of graduate student teacher unions at private universities.

The union leaders were joined on the call by graduate student teacher representatives from Yale University, Columbia University, University of Chicago, Boston College, and Loyola University Chicago.

Last month, Yale’s graduate student teacher union, Local 33, withdrew its petition for recognition from the NLRB after the university challenged its successful elections in eight graduate school departments (out of 56) in 2017.

On Wednesday’s call, UAW northeast regional Director Julie Kushner and AFT President Randi Weingarten announced that Yale’s graduate student teachers are not the only ones to have withdrawn a petition from the NLRB recently. Graduate student teachers at Boston College and the University of Chicago have also withdrawn NLRB petitions after their respective universities challenged their successful elections.

Kushner said that the four unions have a total of 4.4 million members in the United States. She said that that membership base represents a formidable force for graduate student teachers to tap into in their own pursuit for union recognition.

“These workers are not going away,” UAW President Dennis Williams said about graduate student teachers who have thus far been thwarted by their universities. “And we will stand with them as long as it takes.” He said that universities like Yale should stop hiding behind anti-worker labor boards, and should acknowledge the voice and intentions of these workers.

“We will not be deterred,” AFT President Randi Weingarten agreed. She said that a NLRB decision in August 2016 ruled that graduate student teachers at Columbia University are both students and teachers, and are therefore worthy of union recognition and collective bargaining rights.

She said that 60 campuses across the country currently have graduate student teacher unions that have contracts and negotiate with their universities, but that most of those campuses are in the public sector. She said that it is time to throw their collective union might behind the private university graduate student efforts. 

Local 33 was represented on the call by Lena Eckart-Erdheim, a history PhD candidate at Yale who is also the co-president of the graduate student teacher union.

“Universities are increasingly replacing full-time tenure track faculty with low-paid, short-term positions,” she said. She said that she first got involved with the graduate student teacher unionization efforts after the university dropped 20 to 40 percent wage cuts on a number of graduate student teachers at the school.

“New York City, New Haven, Boston, Chicago, these are union towns,” Weingarten said, in reference to the cities where the graduate student teachers hailed from. She said that this new initiative will bring together building service workers, public school teachers, UAW manufacturing workers all working together on behalf of collective bargaining for graduate student teachers.

Yale argues that it doesn’t need to recognize the results of the Local 33 elections because they took place in only a small fraction of the graduate school’s departments. Local 33 argues that each of the eight victorious units has unique demands and those should serve as independent unions. Yale argues that the bargaining unit should encompass all 56 graduate school departments.

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posted by: 1644 on March 14, 2018  4:15pm

Those “20-40%” “wage” cuts, actually stipend reductions, were made in response to graduate student requests to spread aid for humanities students over six rather than five years.  Eckhart is correct is that the bigger issue is that schools are replacing tenure track faculty positions with adjuncts and non-ladder positions.  However, the more schools spend on graduate student stipends, the less money they have for faculty salaries.  Even for a school like Yale, resources are finite, and more spending in one area means less spending in another.  As it is, Yale has responded to the dearth of ladder positions by reducing admissions to doctoral programs.  If the graduate students succeed in pressing Yale to extend the time of stipends beyond six years, we can be sure that more graduate students will be dropped from the doctoral programs due to a failure to complete their work in a timely fashion.  BTW, Yale is on a bit of a hiring spree for young faculty with interdisciplinary skills, making generous salary offers.

posted by: robn on March 15, 2018  7:57am

I don’t know how many times this has to be written, but the majority of grad students (many in STEM with shining prospects for employment after finishing their degrees) rejected the minority of activists (many in the humanities who are rightly worried about their future). The activists, along with their STEM peers, have one of the most generous student compensation arrangements in the world.

posted by: JCFremont on March 15, 2018  9:58am

Before they unionize I want to see an audit on how many of these “workers” are filling out federal and state returns declaring their stipends and non-qualified scholarship (scholarship and grant money paid for room and board & healtcare) is earned income and is Taxable. If your stipends are around 20k you might owe the state and fed.