Fasts End As Grads, Protesters Fill Streets

Lucy Gellman PhotoWhile Yale students were handed degrees Monday, graduate student teachers two blocks away were handed cups of ginger and butternut soup to end, at least for now, a nationally watched protest fast.
Paul Bass Photos

Two separated seas of gowns — one orange, one black — replaced cars on New Haven’s streets, as Yale’s graduation collided with a march and rally to mark the end of the protest fast as well as a continuing labor dispute over graduate student teachers.

The New Haven police assigned about 200 cops to join Yale police in bringing order to the potential chaos on closed-off streets from York Street to Church Street, according to Assistant Chief Otoniel Reyes. Public works, traffic and parking crews, and the fire department all pitched in too.

Yale conferred degrees to 3,618 graduate and undergraduate students at the annual commencement. The students wore black caps and gowns as they paraded down Elm and various side streets, then gathered on Old Campus courtyard.

Meanwhile, up to 1,000 supporters of UNITE HERE Local 33, the new union representing graduate student teachers in eight academic departments, swarmed other streets. They poured in from at least six states to support Local 33’s call for Yale to negotiate a first contract rather than pursue repeated appeals of the new union’s election before the National Labor Relations Board.

Taking turns when health problems loomed, eight Local 33 members have been fasting in succession to bring attention to their quest for contract negotiations. They accuse Yale of delaying negotiations through repeated appeals in the hopes that new NLRB members appointed by President Donald Trump will adopt a more anti-union stance. (Yale officials argue that instead of fasting the union should focus on the NLRB process to work out the disagreement.)

Cops choreographed the two swarms of gowned protesters so they wouldn’t interfere with each other. UNITE HERE organizers coordinated with police and put out the call to supporters not to interfere with the graduation, according to police spokesman Officer David Hartman. But police were aware of other groups posting a call on the web for arrests, so they were prepared for potential unplanned activity. It all ended up going smoothly, with no arrests.

Lodging A Protest

Lucy Gellman PhotosAs graduating students dressed in their caps and gowns and met with family and friends around 7:50 a.m. Monday, some union supporters gathered at New Haven’s Elks Lodge on Dixwell Avenue and at College and Elm Streets, outside of UNITE HERE’s downtown offices. As marchers poured in, picking up orange protest swag from UNITE HERE organizers, they greeted each other in the grassy lot by the Elks Lodge, then began to assemble in rows of eight that would march down Dixwell Avenue.

Walking to the front with a large banner, Yale graduate student Charles Decker (one of the eight initial fasters; pictured above) spoke of how organizers ensured the protests would not disrupt Yale’s graduation.

“So many of our classmates and students are graduating today,” said Decker. “My wife is graduating today, so if we were disruptive, I think there’d be some trouble at home. It’s a great day of celebration and we want it to be that. But we also want to remind Yale that if they think we’re going away, we’re not.”

Chanting “What do we want?/ Contracts!/ When do we want them?/ Now!,” “We’re certified!/ Negotiate!,” and “We are the union/ The mighty mighty union,” marchers made their way down Dixwell, filling the avenue with orange.

One of the marchers, Idelier Pettigrew, who spent last year campaigning for Hillary Clinton, is a member of Construction and General Laborers Union “We’re all a union, all together, in this strong, vibrant community,” she said. “We respect Yale and we’re grateful for them in the community, but we also need to be recognized.”

Marcher Mirjaam Parada (pictured) came in from Providence, where she works at the Omni Hotel and belongs to UNITE HERE Local 26. She said she participated in a protest fast herself, three years ago. She said the fast helped workers win higher wages and better hours.

Marchers included members of the national and state chapters of the AFL-CIO, Make the Road Connecticut and New York, United Auto Workers, Teamsters Local 443, Jobs with Justice, Letter Carriers Union, United Steel Workers, Young Workers Group, the Working Families Party, CT Citizens Action, and the Democratic National Convention.

The marchers also included graduate students from Duke, Columbia, and Princeton. One of them, Heba Gowayed of Princeton, said she knows graduate students who are living in professors’ attics and working odd jobs on top of their teaching loads to make ends meet. As an advocate for refugee rights in New Haven, she called for collective bargaining rights.

“If we don’t have a way to represent ourselves, we’re going to be left out of the discussion,” she said.

Groups of orange-clad marchers merged at York and Broadway. There, top Downtown cop Sgt. Sean Maher and Officer Anthony Ryken directed several officers at a blockade separating the marchers from Elm Street, where a formal procession of graduating students and professors was scheduled for 10 a.m.

“Union power in the ivory tower!” protesters chanted. ““I believe/I believe that/ I believe that we will win!”

As marchers turned from Broadway onto York, a few students and parents looked on, some pulling out their phones to snap a picture or start a video of the event. One parent, Tanya Metrano, had travelled to New Haven to watch her son Anthony received his PhD degree in chemistry. Standing at the curb, she rolled her eyes and raised her arms.

“My son thinks everyone should have freedom of speech. But on graduation? This is ridiculous,” Metrano said. “Really? They don’t get the right to graduate?” 

Students do get the right to graduate, maintained New Haven State Rep. Robyn Porter as she held a position with state Comptroller (and gubernatorial hopeful) Kevin Lembo and State Reps. Toni Walker and Matt Lesser toward the front of the line. But graduate students should also get the right to bargain collectively, she argued. “I’m disappointed in Yale,” she said.

Souped Up

As protesters reached Temple and Wall Street, a few peeled off, taking off their orange shirts and caps to reveal doctoral robes beneath. The protesters cheered them on, clapping with congratulations. Then they turned onto Elm, where Yale’s formal procession was about to begin.

As drums and tubas sounded from across Elm Street, close to Sterling Library, protesters broke into “We shall not be moved,” singing as the first faces of the procession flooded Elm Street, and headed down College towards Phelps Gate.

As students and professors rounded the bend at Elm and College, some cheered on the protesters. Several parents who had lined the street followed suit, throwing their fists in the air. And in return, Local 33 members and supporters took a break from singing, and broke into applause.

Wooooo!” yelled Local 33 Co-Chair Robin Canavan, cupping her hands around her mouth to carry the sound. “Woooo! Congratulations!”

As the procession ended, marchers headed toward their final destination: a large white tent on Church Street in front of City Hall, decorated with a large orange and white archway of balloons at the entrance.

Members of UNITE HERE poured steamy, orange cups of butternut squash and ginger soup from ball jars, handing them to the fasters with plastic spoons on the stage.

The fast was “a profoundly spiritual tool to reclaim the university’s moral high ground,” said Father Clete Kiley, founder of a group called Priest-Labor Initiative, who consulted with the fasters.

“We have a history of fighting with Yale since 1941,” UNITE HERE Local 35 and Central Labor Council President Bob Proto declared at the rally, “and we’re not going away.”

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posted by: Acer on May 22, 2017  10:42am

I am confused to the max. My initial understanding was that the protesting grad students were on a real hunger strike. My understanding of a hunger strike is that you try and compel those that you are protesting against to acknowledge your point of contention through your “heroic” act of actually putting your life on the line through slow starvation. Now, this news source is describing the Grad students’ act as “fasting”. Really? “Fasting” as a means of compelling your adversary to negotiate or capitulate is pretty weak. “Fasting” is something you do for religious observances or to lose weight, not to make a strong political statement. Hopefully, they will have learned a lesson to be used, as they become our next generation of parents and “strong”  leaders of industry and government, you don’t say “hunger strike” when what you really mean is you are going on a diet - say what you mean and mean what you say.

posted by: GroveStreet on May 22, 2017  10:48am

Local 33 is just embarrassing. A bunch of do-nothings. Unimpressed.

posted by: Renewhavener on May 22, 2017  11:52am

Still feel that those within the grads who believe they need a union have not done enough to earn whatever additional monetary or health benefits that they seek.  Moreover, to the extent that they say they need a union to seek redress on other matters pertaining to the norms and laws of up-right society, there are other avenues and institutions outside the university framework for that as well.

Considering the on-again-off-again nature of the fast, the participants tag-teaming with each other and the coincident terminus of the protest at commencement (and presumably before summer plans kick in), it all just speaks to a sort of user-friendly, convenient, almost permissive style of civil disobedience.  The fact that Unite trucked in extra heft for today even underlines this to some extent.  Not to worry everyone, the protest organizers or their Unite masterminds might say, there’s a app for that!

Looking back overall on the moment it is easier to be impressed with the clever tent they built than the spirit behind the protest they made.

posted by: robn on May 22, 2017  12:02pm

“They poured in from at least six states to support Local 33”...

...just like the money did in 2011 when UNITE purchased themselves a Board of Aldermen.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 22, 2017  12:21pm

My household received some postcards announcing this ‘ACTION’ on Saturday.

Obviously, this list came from the Voting Rolls, as some old housemates got noticed.

Ironically, my name must have been scrubbed from the list because I was not invited.

WTF - Union Local 33????  It’s not like I would have gone to your party anyway, but I find it interesting that this level of micro-managing consent has reared its ugly head once again.

The Rot is at the Top.

posted by: wendy1 on May 22, 2017  12:23pm

God bless the kids and god bless the union.  I was with both groups today and sang labor songs to parents who were also behind fences .  Someday their kids may need a union to defend them from greedy employers.  I cheered the kids on wishing them good employment, fair pay, and good benefits.  I urged kids to go to law, medical, and nursing school.  I wished them health and safety in a more dangerous world.  The ghosts of Martin, Malcolm, Bella, Eleanor, Robeson, Goldberg, and many others were with me and them.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 22, 2017  12:55pm

Do Grad Students routinely get fired?  No, because they are students, not laborers.

posted by: BevHills730 on May 22, 2017  1:15pm

Bill. It was a great action. You should have come out!

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 22, 2017  1:49pm


It was an expensive action, that is for sure—between the mailers, the buses, the free pizza, the bottled water and let’s not forget to give it up to the Sound Guy (Horizon)!!!!

(At least my friend, Vechel made a little dough running the board).

If I were a union laborer at Yale, I would be appalled if this is where my Union Dues went…

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 22, 2017  1:54pm

Besides Bev, I stand by the Proletariat, not the Pomp and Circumstance of Political Poseurs….

I would have never had a good time!!!!

posted by: dew21 on May 22, 2017  3:23pm

I fully support the Graduate students’ right to protest and to ask Yale to come to the table to negotiate; however, I do believe that this “fast” or pseudo hunger strike is very misguided. With several very dear friends who either require the use of a wheelchair to live their daily lives (through no fault of their own), or who have died from, or had their lives severely altered due to, auto-immune diseases like Crohn’s and Colitis, I find the use of a fast, and subsequent use of wheelchairs to make a public statement EXTREMELY tone deaf. 

I’ve been very supportive of this cause until the 33 Wall Street Boathouse was erected and the graduate students began to simulate life threatening acts for the cause, without acknowledgement or consideration of the way that would make so many in the Yale community feel.  Don’t you think that a person who uses a wheelchair would love to simply begin eating again after a month and regain enough strength and stamina to never need to use the wheel chair again?  Don’t you think that a person with an auto-immune disease would love to tap out and have a friend take a turn for a few weeks? Think about that! Seriously, think about it.

A more effective tactic would have been to take actions that directly relate to the issues in question: stop teaching, stop grading papers, show up to the health plan and have a town hall meeting with the Director about the discrepancies between health plans. Have the departments that voted to unionize not show up for commencement, the list goes on…

posted by: OhHum on May 22, 2017  4:01pm

Oh how they have suffered, with just ginger and butternut squash soup. What! No petits fours? You’re still an embarrassment. If nothing else the Occupy Wall Street movement managed to stay the course over the Summer and well beyond. Next time you protest bring your big boy pants to the event.

posted by: Westville voter on May 22, 2017  4:10pm

200 police to patrol this circus of outside protesters bused in by 34/35. That’s a big overtime bill we taxpaying citizens get to pay to help UNITE tighten its grip on power in New Haven. This is not about graduate students. It never was. This is just the current round of UNITE’s efforts to gain leverage over Yale. These graduate students are being used, New Haven is being used, and tax-paying residents get the bill. UNITE cannot be allowed to continue to hijack this city.

posted by: LookOut on May 22, 2017  5:28pm

As a taxpayer, I’m furious that my tax bill continues to be inflated to pay for items such as extra police to deal with this nonsense.

If I were a member of this union, I would be appalled that my dues are being spent on this charade.

posted by: JCFremont on May 22, 2017  6:20pm

As a former member of a union I can tell you the mission of today’s private sector unions is to get the 50+ members to retirement while trying to keep the last few work and jurisdiction rules that haven’t been automated out. If YaLe agreed to extend graduate years won’t like tenure close the amount of positions available?  Or, they can add more head students which will decrease teaching positions.
And NHI bad optics. Giving a column to a student of “Mediaval Spanish History ” dId open up a whole slew of comments about obsolete skills sets, although showing Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 2 might be a fun way to start a class.

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on May 22, 2017  6:30pm

Does UNITE suffer from a bad deal with Yale? Last I knew, they were doing pretty well. Has something changed?

And the grad students in “33” are clearly pawns, enlisted not because any Yale employees really care about their plight, but because UNITE wants to use the threat of being able to shut down classes, in order to profit during future labor negotiations.

Too bad UNITE doesn’t enlist their organizational muscle to help raise minimum wages in New Haven or Connecticut. Instead they come off as being concerned only about themselves and their own narrow, selfish interests.

posted by: cupojoe on May 22, 2017  7:19pm

Yale 1, Union stooges 0.

posted by: eliantonio on May 23, 2017  8:09am

This was a sham of a political action organized by a union that holds the strings to most of new Haven alder persons.
The cost of their cute little orange outfits, police overtime and lost wages could have been better used to actually feed those who DO NOT have the option of having g a hot meal.
I’m sick of these idiots causing traffic delays, complaining of their first world issues and taking attention away from the real issues of the working poor, the truly hungry and homeless and those who are being taken advantage by unscrupulous employers.
Just go away.  Or at least keep your actions contained only to yale property

posted by: wendy1 on May 23, 2017  8:12am

It is sad and disgusting that Yale used John Lewis and Stevie Wonder as PR pawns when we know how little they really care about AA’s or the city.  By the way, all you cynical boomers and naysayers,  Yale spends more $$ on their PR than they do on the city.  They advertise their largess worldwide but you have to pay excessive taxes to support the city coffers, not them.  I have no problem with the union’s spending and I applaud their PR talent.  They need press coverage and they got it yesterday—-WSJ,  USA Today…...

posted by: dew21 on May 23, 2017  9:51am

@wendy1 “I have no problem with the union’s spending and I applaud their PR talent. They need
press coverage and they got it yesterday—-WSJ, USA Today…...”

You applaud the use of mock life-threatening tactics and the public mockery of those who use wheelchairs for a PR stunt to be featured in newspapers?!  What?

Also, by “AA’s” are you referring to African American people?  Was it too much effort to type out the words African American?  Would you refer to the more general Americans as “A’s”? 

@eliantonio- “The cost of their cute little orange outfits, police overtime and lost wages could have been better used to actually feed those who DO NOT have the option of having g a hot meal.”

Couldn’t agree more!!! The time and effort here could have been directed in so many more meaningful and legitimate ways.

posted by: OutofTown on May 23, 2017  10:19am

Woooohoooooo, soooooouuuuuupppp.  Seems 33 Wall was about a few folks who needed to vent frustrations, get in the paper, and be heard.  Now they can stick closer to church-oriented social activities.

posted by: wendy1 on May 23, 2017  12:14pm

dew21—-yes,  my fingers get tired and if we didn’t live a segregated life here I would only use A’s.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 23, 2017  2:57pm


You need to be extra-sensitive to abbreviations and labels these days….

I had absolutely no idea what you were referring to and was wondering what Alcoholics Anonymous or American Airlines had to do with any of this…..

posted by: win win on May 25, 2017  12:44pm

@ the naySayers and armchair critics - when was the last time you put your body on the line for justice? When was the last time you even inconvenienced yourself to better working and living conditions in this city? When was the last time you stood up to a $26 billion institution?

Is anyone buying your constant drone of “I support unions generally but…” not when they actually take action or actually organize their members to stand up for their rights at work… ??

I support local 33 because Yale needs to be held accountable to its host community before we all get gentrified out

posted by: win win on May 25, 2017  12:55pm

Good reporting yet apparently commenters missed the entire point of WHY student workers are protesting in the first place : because Yale is breaking the law and tramping their rights. Union members in local 34 and local 35 have had to protest, strike, and put themselves on the line to get contracts as well. Let’s not forget Yale ignored them and paid them pennies for as long as they could get away with it. This is really not so different y’all

posted by: robn on May 25, 2017  1:09pm


Thirteen million pennies for each grad student.

2 seminars which is a total class time of 5 hours per week (plus prep plus grading so to be really conservative, quadruple it to 20 hours per week)...For that half week, 3/4 of the year, one is compensated $28,000 per year, which extrapolates out to a full time salary of $75,000 (free time has value right?), plus free tuition which (for undergrads) is a $46,000 value, plus gold plated health benefits which in CT are worth $9,000 for a family of three. This totals $130,000 which is far more than I and most people I know make per year.

posted by: OhHum on May 25, 2017  1:28pm

Win Win - You’re a little late to the party, the people of 33 picked up and left for the Summer vacation. They’ll be back in Sept. when once again they have to live the miserable existence forced upon them by the Yale corp. The rest of us will work to survive putting in far more than the 400 hours they had to work this academic year. Please don’t try and tell us that they are being taken advantage of by Yale. 30K, free tuition, free healthcare, less than a 20 hr. work week. Those mean SOB’s at Yale.

posted by: dew21 on May 25, 2017  1:40pm

Be careful with the accusations, @Win Win

“Is anyone buying your constant drone of “I support unions generally but…” not when they actually take action or actually organize their members to stand up for their rights at work… ??”

I too stood in the lines with you all and for my own union, and have made significant sacrifices prior to being a union member in support of the greater good of those who are underrepresented or left behind in policy decisions.  I spent 10 years of my adult life doing so.

My question remains- why make a mockery of those persons with physical differences in ability and subject ones self to the appearance of physical and medical harm, when so many people who actually experience those real-life challenges would do anything to have the existing level of benefits that Yale graduate students and staff have? 

Stand up for your rights, strike, petition, protest, march, close streets… but please, don’t pretend to swap your good health and privilege for the cause while knowing that many of your peers and colleagues may not be able to make those same swaps with their very real, life threatening and life altering conditions.