Yale Grad Workers Unionize at Last

Yale teaching and research assistants form a union after decades of organizing and amid a wave of union activity.

January 11, 2023
Graphic saying "We won!" about the Yale graduate student union election.
Yale graduate assistants voted to form a union after decades of organizing.
(@33unitehere/Twitter)

Graduate student instructors and researchers at Yale University voted to unionize, 1,860 to 179, they announced this week. Some 3,214 workers total were eligible to vote.

The National Labor Relations Board certified the election, which was years in the making.

Yale’s is one of academe’s longest-running graduate student organizing campaigns, dating back to the 1990s. The campaign gained new traction after the NLRB, which has historically flip-flopped on graduate students’ union rights, said in 2016 that teaching assistants and student researchers at Columbia University were entitled to collective bargaining.

In 2017, Yale student workers in eight departments even voted to unionize as part of an unusual “micro-unit” strategy. But Yale continued to challenge the legitimacy of the union, both in terms of strategy and whether graduate students really are workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act and not just students. Amid these challenges, in 2018, under a Trump-era NLRB, Yale’s would-be union pulled its petition from board consideration and went back to organizing.

Today’s labor landscape is different, in ways that bode well for the new union. Most immediately, Yale pledged this week to bargain with the new union, affiliated with Unite Here, in good faith.

“As we move forward together, I know we will continue to sustain the spirit of openness and inclusivity we fostered during the election process,” Yale president Peter Salovey said in a statement about the election results. “Throughout the fall semester, we have consistently affirmed a few key facts and principles: that the leaders of the university care about the well-being of all our students, that a democratic election in which all eligible students have the right to vote was the appropriate way to decide the question about unionization, and that we should address this matter as a community through civil, open discourse.”

Beyond Yale, the U.S. economy is seeing a union boom, and graduate workers are no exception. Across the University of California system, for instance, graduate students affiliated with the United Auto Workers were part of a major strike that ended last month in significant gains for academic workers.

A few more recent examples, at private institutions: graduate workers at Boston University voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union in December; graduate workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology voted in April to form a union affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE); and graduate workers at Northwestern University are currently holding a union election in affiliation with UE. Graduate workers at the University of Chicago filed for a union election, also in affiliation with UE, in November. And graduate workers at Northeastern University said this week that a majority of their ranks had signed cards favor of unionization, with the UAW.

Inflation and the Pandemic Drive the Union Boom

Graduate students on various campuses attribute their union activity to long-standing concerns about graduate assistants' rights and working conditions, and the impact of inflation on their limited pay.

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At Johns Hopkins University, where graduate student workers will hold their own union election this month, in affiliation with UE, the union’s platform is a minimum stipend of a $40,000 for all Ph.D. students instead of the current $34,500.

Some institutions already have announced large pay increases in response to student demands. Earlier this month, the University of Chicago announced a forthcoming raise in minimum annual Ph.D. student funding, to $37,000 from $33,000. Duke University announced a comparable increase in in September.

At Yale and beyond, the pandemic is another big driver of union activity.

Paul Seltzer, a teaching assistant in history at Yale who supported unionization, said Tuesday that "when the pandemic hit, I saw my teaching hours go up and up, and I did not get raise or compensation that reflected that drastic increase in hours. I also didn’t have a say in how and when I was doing my work, and it just really became clear to me that I needed a voice that only a union can provide.”

Seltzer said that prior to attending graduate school, he worked in the food service industry and saw his first raise ever upon ratification of his union’s initial contract. He added, “I saw our health-care costs go drastically down. And we had mechanisms to hold our bosses accountable if they didn’t treat us right.”

Arita Acharya, a graduate student researcher in genetics at Yale, said, “There’s a lot of factors that have contributed to this incredible wave of unionization in higher education, and I think one really important factor was the COVID pandemic.” Teams of scientists, including graduate workers, "were actually front-line workers during the pandemic, doing research to try and help us get out of it.”

At Yale, possible contract goals include cost-of-living adjustments, better dental and vision insurance coverage, more accessible mental health care, guaranteed time off, protections for international students and strong grievance procedures.

William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said that the “overwhelming vote in favor of representation by Yale graduate assistants is the culmination of years of effort” and “fully consistent with the trend in higher education over the past decade.”

The number of union-represented graduate assistants has grown by more than 50 percent since 2012, Herbert said.

Given how the NLRB composition changes, it’s always a “possibility that a university might seek to have the Columbia University decision overturned,” he said. That’s less likely, however, “as graduate assistant collective bargaining becomes increasingly the norm in higher education.”

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