For Clare Fentress and other graduate student workers at Yale University, unionization would help secure livable wages, better health care, and independent grievance systems. But most importantly, forming a union will cement the recognition—long denied to thousands of graduate workers in the United States—that they, too, are workers who deserve labor rights and protections.
Fentress, a student at the Yale School of Architecture, and 4,000 of her peers at Yale came one step closer to this goal last week after casting their ballots in a union election. Because grad workers also have the opportunity to vote by mail, the full results will not be known until January 9, but Local 33-UNITE HERE is widely expected to prevail—a historic victory after over 30 years of organizing.
“This semester, thousands of grad workers signed union cards and said ‘union yes’ because they want to win pay that keeps up with the rising cost of living, better access to mental health, dental, and specialist health care; protections for international student workers; and real recourse in situations of abuse, discrimination, or harassment,” said Ridge Liu, co-president of Local 33.
Though grad workers form the backbone of the university, Local 33 argues that they are not receiving proper compensation, which is well below the necessary wage needed to live in New Haven. Additionally, the current graduate worker health care plan lacks access to dental and mental health care. Local 33 organizers stress that a union can attack many of these problems while helping the university become a place that better respects worker input in their decision-making. For Fentress, a union will be a meaningful space for grad workers to better advocate for themselves while also making campus more democratic.
Indeed, unionization efforts at institutions like Harvard and Columbia over the past few years have won stronger wages and worker protections. Harvard Graduate Student Union organizer Ege Yumusauk, who also helped negotiate HGSU’s first contract with Harvard, explained that the first contract won workers more than $1 million in benefits, including a 5 percent pay bump.
In October, Local 33 triggered the formal unionization process with the submission of more than 3,000 union-authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board. To call for a vote, union organizers must receive these cards from 30 percent of the intended collective bargaining unit. Local 33 over doubled that amount, collecting union-authorization cards from more than 70 percent of graduate workers.
The vote comes on the heels of 34 years of organizing, first by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and then Local 33. It’s also not the first time Local 33 has gone through the formal election process with the National Labor Relations Board. After the Obama-era NLRB reopened the door for graduate student workers to unionize in 2017, Local 33 organizers submitted union cards in multiple departments at Yale and prevailed. However, delay tactics by Yale allowed for a change in presidential administrations, from Obama to Trump, thus changing the composition of the NLRB.
“There was a concern that the Republican majority would use its majority to reverse the Columbia decision and those organizing students did not want their petitions to be a vehicle for the creation of bad law. So there is essentially a moratorium on petitions being filed,” said Mark Gaston Pearce, a Yale visiting professor at Georgetown University, executive director of the Worker’s Rights Institute, and Obama-era NLRB chair who helped author the Columbia decision. Local 33 withdrew its petition alongside Boston College and the University of Chicago and the effort ended in disappointment.
The disappointment in 2017 was just another example of Yale’s anti-union stance, according to Yale labor historian and professor Jennifer Klein. She witnessed NLRB hearings firsthand as Yale’s anti-union law firm Proskauer Rose appealed rulings and questioned if grad students were actually workers. “Somewhere in the ’60s or ’70s we went from being Yale University to Yale Corporation and our administration allowed for the corporatization of a space that is supposed to be for learning and free thought,” Klein told The Nation. “The trustees, and administrators who dance to their tunes, decided that standing ideologically against unions was more important than supporting their workers. And in the long run, this decision meant that we as a university wasted more money fighting unionization than just working with them and giving them their due.”
Between 2017 and 2022, Local 33 organizers bided their time, organizing and building up a network to quickly win a union when more favorable NLRB and unionization conditions emerged, which came with the election of Joe Biden as president as well as his labor-friendly appointments to the NLRB.
“This semester, we’ve very quickly organized, building upon the work of our predecessors,” Fentress told The Nation. “This time around, the national conversation on unionization has shifted in our favor, and most, if not all, of my peers have responded very positively to our efforts.”
During this iteration of the vote, Local 33 called on Yale to remain neutral in the election process, meaning to not actively campaign against a union. Yet the university chose to send out e-mails to faculty and graduate student workers laying out the “advantages and disadvantages” of unionization. The university has publicly said that it respects free speech and open discourse on the issue.
“Local 33 has identified areas of concern to graduate students,” said Karen Peart, interim vice president for communications at Yale University, in a statement to The Nation. “The university has made significant progress in these areas for our students in recent years, often in collaboration with the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate & Professional Student Senate. We encourage every eligible student to vote in the NLRB election, and all students, whether eligible to vote in this election or not, to seek information about the potential advantages and disadvantages of union representation.”
When Local 33 submitted union authorization cards, Yale had the opportunity to voluntarily recognize the union. Instead, they refused and called for an election. At the time, Local 33 was concerned that the university would use its old playbook of delay to push off the election
Yet the NLRB, Yale, and Local 33 came to an agreement on the election’s date and parameters within three weeks. According to labor law scholar at the University of Connecticut Richard Fischl, the NLRB has taken a muscular stance in support of unionization efforts. “Yale’s learned that they can’t be as publicly anti-union this time around because [Yale President] Salovey doesn’t want Biden to call him or call him out, more and more Americans are coming to support unions, especially young people, and Yale doesn’t want to be featured on the front page of The New York Times as being publicly anti-union,” Klein said. “They recognized that this time around they’ll probably have to recognize the union, because national discourse has shifted in support of unionization efforts across the nation.”
Unionization will give grad workers an important seat at the table at the university, furthering democratization of the university’s decision-making process, said Klein. Because of the inextricable ties between Yale and New Haven, the unionization vote also carries significance for Local 33’s two sister unions, Local 34 and Local 35, which represent many of the clerical, technical, janitorial, cleaning, and dining hall staff,
“The quality of life of every single person in New Haven rises and falls with Yale,” said UNITE HERE secretary Gwen Mills, who was born in New Haven and organized with Local 33 and the two sister unions. “Yale has long had a decision about whether to respect and invest in New Haven, or whether to hold their nose and wish they weren’t in New Haven. Grad workers have long been part of the union fight to win more investment and better treatment of New Haven, so winning formal recognition makes our fight even stronger.”