NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Graduate workers at Yale University made history this year when they voted yes to a union.
For over a quarter-century these workers, now members of Local 33 Unite Here, have been organizing for the right to union representation and a voice at work. It is one of the longest continuous organizing drives in U.S. history.
The determination to improve their circumstances and make a better university has been handed down from one generation of graduate teachers at Yale to the next. Countless marches, meetings, rallies, petitions, letter campaigns, appeals from elected officials and other allies have marked their struggle. The university insisted that these teachers who the undergraduates depend upon for their studies, were students and not workers.
Last summer, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) affirmed that graduate teachers are in fact workers with the right to form unions. The Yale graduate teachers immediately filed for election. The ruling that the elections would go forward came down just after Donald Trump took office. At that unlikely moment, the graduate workers in eight departments voted yes for Local 33.
The battle has been remarkable in a number of ways.
The graduate teachers have had consistent support from the clerical and technical workers in Local 34 Unite Here and the service and maintenance workers in Local 35. These workers who do non-teaching jobs stood in solidarity with the graduate teachers because they knew that the new Local 33 would add to the strength of all workers on campus and in the region.
The graduate teachers have also won wide support from the New Haven community. Yale is one of the richest universities in the world in a city with high unemployment and high poverty. For the majority African American and Latino population, it is a constant struggle to get hired by Yale, one of the best job opportunities possible.
The graduate teachers came to realize that their plight was shared with that of the surrounding community. They participated in New Haven Rising’s successful door to door campaign to get the University to commit to hire 1,000 workers from the neighborhoods in greatest need.
On a national scale, the graduate teachers were inspired by union organizing at other private universities, as their victory may inspire their counterparts on other campuses around the nation.
Without this solidarity, it is hard to imagine that one generation of graduate student teachers after another would have had the ability to take on Yale with all its wealth and power and create such a win.
In an interview with People’s World, Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg offers a bird’s eye view into this remarkable and ongoing battle for workers’ rights and social justice.
Q: The graduate teachers at Yale have been organizing for a union for over 25 years. Can you comment on the significance of this victory?
A: Ours is one of the longest running continuously organized recognition drives in U.S. history. It is more important than ever for people doing the work at universities and other employers to stand up and fight for a voice in their workplace. It is inspiring to think there are not just hundreds of us here but thousands all over the country having the same conversation about the importance of a collective voice as the academy and the economy changes for young workers like us.
Q: How do you view the effect of the national election results and the role of the NLRB on your union and your members?
A: The most powerful thing our union and other unions can do now is continue to grow. We won our union but the next step is to start negotiating. We are focused on doing that and making sure all the issues that brought us to call for unionization will be addressed.
Q: What issues have compelled graduate teachers to demand a voice at work?
A: From transparency and equity in teaching and pay; to security for the most senior teachers who receive pay cuts up to 40%; to issues around access to mental healthcare and specialized healthcare; to the accessibility of affordable childcare for those who want to start families or raise children while they are here. We care about issues around race and gender equity in the workplace, the need for a grievance procedure to settle disputes and insure that we can be an organized voice that pushes for more race and gender equity in the university.
Q: What is the significance of the support you received from Unite Here Locals 34 and 35?
A: The example of Locals 34 and 35 has inspired us for years. Their example over the last many years shows it is possible to win great contracts that change people’s lives in a collaborative way. That’s what we want to do. We all work here and we all have the same employer. Those of us teaching should have a voice the same way those who provide other essential services have rights in their workplace.
Q: How did you work with New Haven Rising to get the support of the community?
A: The university is one of the largest employers in the region. The decisions they make really matter. This is something people have come to realize. The solidarity we feel all over the city is very sustaining.
Q: What has your own experience been in organizing for Local 33?
A: I started organizing in the fall of 2012 when I moved to New Haven to begin graduate studies in the political science department at Yale. I have been organizing ever since. I grew up in a family where my mom was a public school teacher and my family benefited directly from the benefits and security of the union contract she had. Our healthcare was taken care of. So much about the ways we lived would have been different without the union. When I arrived I thought it made sense that those who are teaching should have a voice in their work, in the context of the academy becoming more corporate and less driven by research and teaching priorities.
Q: How does your service on the New Haven Board of Alders relate to your union organizing?
A: The things that inspired me to run for office are the same that inspired me to run in the union. In New Haven my employer is the largest employer in one of most unequal cities in the most unequal state in the country. There are many ways to respond to inequality in New Haven. One has to be giving people more of a voice in the community or workplace.
Q: You spoke of the rally after election day where people could voice their dreams. What are your dreams?
A: I think my dream would be for academic workers to be able to do the work they love. People come to study, to get a PhD, teach, do research because they love it. I dream that those of use doing this work can continue to do it, to have resources to do it, to continue to train students, and students should have access to that kind of environment — where they can ask difficult questions and understand a little more about the way the world works — no matter where they come from.