Stepping up a quarter-century-old labor fight, hundreds of Yale graduate students marched through downtown Wednesday evening and then, with the help of a U.S. Congresswoman and other top officials, held a convention to authorize a new union to represent them.
The new union is called Local 33 of UNITE HERE, a national union that already represents Yale’s blue-collar and office workers.
It is a new name and, in organizers’ view, status for a group called the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO). GESO has been trying since 1990 to gain union recognition from Yale and negotiate pay and working conditions.
Organizers argued the new union label will advance that long-term fight, along with the possibility of an upcoming National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that would recognize the rights of grad students at private universities. The Yale effort has also been buoyed by grad-student organizing victories at New York University and the University of Connecticut.
Greater New Haven Central Labor Council and Local 35 President Bob Proto compared students’ current struggle to that of clerical and technical workers who negotiated with Yale to unionize.
“Yale is not yet shameful enough to act on it,” he said. “If not for a contract, Yale would be treating us the exact same way.”
GESO Prsident Aaron Greenberg, who’s also a Wooster Square alder, said Local 33 plans to seek to negotiate with the university. He called again for a no-intimidation vote for a Yale-recognized union.
“We look forward to sitting with them to negotiate,” he said. “We’ve shown we’re ready and represent a majority. It’s up to them to do the right thing and sit down with us. The issues are not going away.”
GESO (now Local 33) has been the target of recent criticism from some graduate students for aggressive organizing tactics.
Meanwhile, the Local 33 name does not give the group any new legal status with the NLRB or with Yale. Yale reacted to Monday night’s news by reaffirming that it does not recognize grad students as “workers” meriting union recognition or negotiation status.
“Naming GESO as Local 33 is not perceived at Yale as anything new or different,” said Yale spokesman Tom Conroy. It has not changed graduate students’ status or Yale’s relationship with GESO, he said.
Yale and eight peer universities filed an amicus brief with the NLRB last month arguing private universities should not be forced to recognized graduate-student unions, since the relationship between universities and students should only be academic.“Amici believe that reversal or modification of Brown would significantly damage private sector graduate education in this country and will represent an inappropriate intrusion into long protected areas of academic freedom and autonomy,” the brief argues.
Click here to read the whole brief.
The brief was filed in opposite to a petition by the United Auto Workers seeking to organize graduate students at Columbia and the New School.
Jepsen Helps Count
Hundreds of grad students and supporters from Yale’s UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35 marched Wednesday evening from Yale’s Phelps Gate to the Omni Hotel. Along with city and state officials, the students packed the hotel’s upstairs banquet hall and demanded to be recognized by an administration that has refused to negotiate with them for the past quarter century.
Accompanied by police escorts, students marched down the middle of Chapel Street toward the hotel on Temple Street, with each department marked by a sign of large red letters.
“Got to be 33!” they chanted as they walked. “I believe that we will win.”
Aaron Greenberg said he was reminded of the graduate students who came before him, “making poverty wages” before GESO was formed. They affiliated with UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35. “The success of GESO hinged on the support of all Yale’s workers,” he said. “We would not be here without our comrades at Locals 34 and 35. We’re proud to formally join the family of unions at Yale University.”
GESO asked more than 10 top federal, state and city officials to monitor the counting of union authorization cards this past Sunday from what the union claimed was a majority of the close to 3,000 graduate students at Yale’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro said she was “honored” to be with GESO leaders Wednesday evening to verify that the collected cards “constitute a clear majority of supporters among graduate teachers and researchers.”
DeLauro said Yale and the students do not have to be at odds. “There’s no reason a great university and a strong union cannot stand side by side,” she said.
UNITE HERE International President Donald “D” Taylor read aloud from the charter before handing it to Greenberg. “You can always determine your friends not when times are good, but when you’re in a fight,” he said, to cheers from the crowd.
In the early days of GESO, organizing pushed Yale to increase pay and benefits for grad-student teachers.
Yale now guarantees financial support to humanities and social science graduate students in their sixth years, meaning more than a total of $825,000 in stipends for this academic year. But now it has decreased the rate of pay for students who want to do extra teaching beyond their teaching requirement, according to an email from Lynn Cooley, dean of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
“In the past, payments for teaching 15-20 hours per week ranged from $7,590 to $10,250 per term, depending on the TF level. We set the payment for teaching 15-20 hours per week to $8,000, which is still above the market rate paid to teachers without a Ph.D. degree who are doing independent teaching. The savings from this adjustment made it possible to afford the 6th-year funding initiative,” the email reads.
Students past their sixth year of study have to pay registration fees of $540 per semester this year, for the cost of access to the gym, library, email and other expenses. “I know the CRF represents a hardship for humanities and social sciences students in year 7 and beyond, but to put Yale’s CRF in context, none of our peer institutions pays the equivalent fee for students beyond year 6. In fact, many of our peers require students to pay such fees after the 5th year, and these charges can be substantially higher, as much as $5,000 per year,” Cooley’s email reads.
Sixth-year history graduate student Abbey Agresta wrote an article in the New Haven Register calling the decision to cut graduate pay “shameful.”
She said next year her total annual income will round out to about $14,920, a 47 percent reduction, given that she will be paid less for teaching classes as well as paying a registration fee per semester. “The system is now such that the most experienced graduate teachers in the History department are paid the least,” she wrote.
Conroy said Yale pays its graduate students more than peer universities do. “I’ve never heard GESO point to any other schools’ programs and say they’re more generous,” he said.
Rev. Scott Marks of the local activist group New Haven Rising, whose members joined the march and rally Wednesday evening, said GESO has been fighting alongside its organizers “every step of the way. I don’t know about you but New Haven Rising recognizes Local 33.”
Students spoke out about why they wanted a union—to organize for equal funding for equal work, better mental health services, and support for women and students of color.
Graduate student Charles Decker said he had to wait for months to get assigned a therapist for mental health care, and then “several more months” to switch to a treatment that was better for him
“Graduate students shouldn’t have to wait months and months for basic health care,” he said. “There is a mental health crisis at Yale University right now. Only through the power of a union contract can we actually address this crisis.”
Though students have a common target in the administration, in the past as now, GESO/Local 33 has been fraught by complaints from not just ideological critiques, but fellow students who might be sympathetic to the cause but express outrage over organizing tactics.
In 2003, GESO lost a symbolic vote it held to show the university graduate students were pro-unionization. The loss was primarily due to a group of graduate students who, upset about the aggressive way GESO was organizing, mobilized people to vote in opposition to the union. Leaders then promised to take the complaints seriously and talk about how to change its tactics.
Similar complaints have resurfaced among this generation’s students. In late January 2016, students published an open letter in DOWN magazine criticizing GESO for rude and undemocratic organizing tactics, including allegedly following students to their homes and using physical force to speak with them, manipulating students with personal information, ignoring students’ other commitments, and not being transparent about the organization’s structure and meetings.
This leadership committee published an open letter promising to reestablish the “Equal Rights and Access Standing Committee” to serve as an open forum for members interested in talking about organizing tactics and to release a statement before spring break summarizing its progress and goals.
Aaron Greenberg said students have been collectively working on how to make the union better through those committee meetings. In any union, he said, there are disagreements over how to achieve their goals.