The National Context
Efforts by academic workers to unionize are not new. The first faculty union was formed at Howard University in 1918 and the first graduate worker union was formed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969. A 2020 report by researchers at Hunter College counted over half a million unionized faculty, postdocs, and graduate workers at public and private universities in the United States.
Until recently, most successful campaigns to form graduate worker unions and negotiate contracts have been at public universities. While graduate teachers and researchers at private universities like Yale have been organizing for decades, we fall under federal law, rather than the state laws that cover public university workers.
Since 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued its decision that graduate workers at private universities are covered by federal labor laws, graduate workers at dozens of private universities have sought to form unions. There are now 13 recognized grad unions at private universities—up from just 1 in 2015. Graduate workers at Yale’s peer institutions of Harvard, Columbia, and Brown have successfully negotiated contracts to ensure higher wages, more affordable healthcare, and independent grievance procedures.
Organizing at Yale
Graduate workers have been organizing at Yale since the 1980s in solidarity with other campus workers and for a recognized union of our own. While Yale has refused to voluntarily recognize a graduate union, previous generations of grad worker advocacy, organizing, and direct action have resulted in significant improvements to our salaries and benefits. In the 1986-87 academic year, when Yale grad workers formed a group called TA Solidarity, Yale did not provide free health insurance to graduate student workers, grad workers were paid monthly for nine months out of the year, and the maximum stipend pay was $7,500 per year. Many graduate student workers made less than that amount, or even nothing at all.
Members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) and then Local 33 have organized for decades for better pay; parental leave; endowment divestment from private prisons and Puerto Rican debt; family and dependent healthcare; protections for international student workers; access to better mental healthcare; and many other issues that impact our lives as graduate workers at Yale.
In 2016, after so many years of attempting to persuade Yale to voluntarily recognize one union of graduate workers, Local 33 tried a strategy to give individual departments a path for deciding whether they wanted to unionize through NLRB elections. Eight departments held successful votes through this process. However, the Yale administration refused multiple requests to recognize and bargain with these departmental unions. After it became clear that Yale and several other private university administrations were prepared to appeal to Trump appointees at the NLRB to overturn the 2016 decision on grad worker unionization, Local 33 joined grad workers at Boston College and the University of Chicago in withdrawing petitions for representation elections from the National Labor Relations Board.
Now, with a more labor-friendly NLRB and recent union victories at Yale’s peer institutions, winning a union at Yale and translating the power of our collective vision and organizing in to a recognized union and a contract has never been more possible.
Getting there will take graduate workers from across Yale getting involved, organizing their colleagues, and working together. What do you want to win?