After 30 years of struggle spanning several Yale University administrations, graduate teachers and researchers won a union vote by an overwhelming 91 percent margin in early January. After decades of fighting unionization, Yale President Peter Salovey announced the vote results and declared his administration would not contest the election and would bargain in good faith with the union to negotiate a contract. Local 33 will represent some 4,000 students on campus.
One of the factors leading to the eventual union victory was the steadfast support by the community and other workers on campus: including members of Local 34, representing clerical and technical employees and Local 35 which represents grounds, maintenance and dining hall workers, all of which are affiliated with the national Unite HERE union.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with two members of Local 33 about their victory at Yale, and the work ahead negotiating their first contract. We hear first from Paul Seltzer, co-president of Local 33 and a graduate teaching assistant in the history department, followed by Arita Acharya, a genetics graduate student who serves on Local 33’s Coordinating Committee.
PAUL SELTZER: The consensus is really clear that grad workers at Yale want and need a union. Over the past few months, we have had thousands and thousands of conversations with our graduate worker co-workers about what we can win together with a union.
ARITA ACHARYA: I think it’s been really clear from those conversations and from the election result that grad workers are workers. We consider ourselves workers and we want a union, our seat at the table and a say in our working conditions.
MELINDA TUHUS: I know successive administrations were fighting this as hard as they could, saying you’re students, not workers and that they didn’t want a union to interfere with the relationship, which is what anti-union people always say. And I know President Salovey said the administration would bargain in good faith and was not going to appeal the vote count. But when did the administration stop opposing the organizing?
ARITA ACHARYA: As you said, in the past the Yale administration has opposed grad worker unionization for a long time, over 30 years. They have engaged in union-busting tactics in the past. It was great to see that this time they didn’t use the same kind of intense union-busting tactics. After the election results were announced, we got that email you mentioned from President Salovey saying that Yale is going to negotiate with us in good faith.
You know, it was really heartening to receive that email and to see that the university administration is actually recognizing graduate workers as workers. And I’m really looking forward to getting to the negotiating table and negotiating a great contract.
MELINDA TUHUS: Arita, in the past I guess it’s been harder to make inroads into the hard sciences, the grad workers that work in those fields. This time it was across the board, I guess, right? Do you know what happened to change that, that every sector of the university were on board with the union?
ARITA ACHARYA: Yeah, I’m in the genetics department in the biological sciences and I think from all my conversations with my co-workers, it is really clear to all of us that we do work that is vital for the research and educational missions of this institution. I think one big factor was actually the pandemic. We were hit by this new disease we didn’t know anything about and it was researchers in virology and immunology labs all around the globe that the world turned to to actually figure out this new disease and how we could treat it and how we could cure it.
And those teams of researchers included graduate researchers all across the country. And so, graduate workers working in virology and immunology labs during Covid were frontline workers during this pandemic and were vital to our response to this pandemic. And I think it’s clear among my colleagues that we really do deserve a seat at the table and a say in our working conditions.
MELINDA TUHUS: How much, if at all, the vote was influenced by all the other organizing, some of it quite successful that’s been going on the past few years, like at Starbucks and Amazon? Do you think that played a role, like it sort of changed people’s perspective on the value of a union or even the possibility of being in a union?
PAUL SELTZER: Yeah, our campaign is part of a really big wave of graduate worker organizing across the U.S. In the past few years, grad workers at Harvard and Columbia have settled really historic contracts, winning big pay increases, benefits and protections. And more recently, grad workers at MIT have won their union and most recently grad workers at Boston University earlier this week and workers at Northwestern also won and currently we know that workers at Chicago and Johns Hopkins are also signing cards. I have noticed that given this context, it gives graduate workers a new context to see that having a union is beneficial.
MELINDA TUHUS: Tell me what the next step is and what are some of the things you’re hoping and planning to bargain for?
ARITA ACHARYA: Now that we’ve won our election, we have the opportunity to internally identify our priorities for negotiating and then begin bargaining with Yale. In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with my co-workers over the last year during this campaign, there’s a wide variety of things that people want. I personally am really excited that now we might have a chance to negotiate higher pay, dental and vision care and a grievance procedure to work out conflicts in the workplace. That’s stuff I’m really excited for.
For the best listening experience and to never miss an episode, subscribe to Between The Lines on your favorite podcast app or platform: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Tunein + Alexa, Castbox, Overcast, Podfriend, iHeartRadio, Castro, Pocket Casts, RSS Feed.