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 this unstoppable battle. 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 teachers 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. They 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 in common 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 will certainly 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 the Yale Corporation with all its wealth and power and create a win far beyond their members.
In an interview with People's World Local 33 Chair Aaron Greenberg offers a birds 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. Especially in this political moment in our country our victory meant so much to us and to so many people in New Haven and across the state and country. Young workers standing up and winning a union is just an extraordinary achievement. 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. For us 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: Our joint action with the unions at Yale and community organizations across New Haven following the 2016 election in November in City Hall was incredibly inspiring. We filled the atrium with everyone together imagining the world we want. We heard from all generations from the very young to those who have been in the struggle for decades. This was an incredibly inspiring event in a difficult moment for our city and our country. 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: Can you discuss the insurgence in graduate teacher organizing at Yale in the last few years?
A: What has energized our campaign is the movement of our colleagues at public and private universities across the country who have been organizing. Our first major public actions happened just six months after the graduate teachers at New York University won their recognition election in December, 2013. By May 2014 we were out in the streets with petitions to the university. Since then over a dozen campaigns for unionization have emerged at private universities all over the country. At the largest peer institutions in the Northeast, some in the Midwest, and some in the West, there is a wave of organizing of young academic workers.
Q: What issues have compelled graduate teachers to demand a voice at work?
A: Some of the issues that have brought our members over the years to call for unionization range 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, to 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 overall. All of us see the union as a way to improve lives here and improve the quality of teaching and improve the life of 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 and years. Their example shows it is possible to really change peoples lives through securing great contracts. 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 are inspired by their collective wisdom over generations. 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. Locals 34 and 35 have shown that a great university can have great unions. Unionization is compatible with a world class research and teaching institution.
Q: How did you work with New Haven Rising to get the support of the community?
A: It means so much to know the community in New Haven, from elected allies to community allies and faith leaders are behind us. They realize in this moment when workers want to organize and have a voice they should be allowed to. 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. I had a sense of what it means to be in a 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 which is the reason we come to graduate school to be scholars. I thought from the very beginning that a collective voice in our workplace would be vital to make the academy more democratic and realize the values this university and all universities should have.
Q: How does your service on the New Haven Board of Alders relate to your union organizing?
A: So many things I learn from organizing colleagues in the workplace are invaluable to me as I work with neighbors and colleagues in the city to make sure we all get our collective voice heard too. 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. It is such an inspiration to work with my colleagues to tackle major issues in our city from unemployment and underemployment to violence and crime and public safety to access of services for young people. .
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. Since college the academy has felt like my home -- an institution that values imagination and creativity and curiosity. 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. That's a small part of my dream I think we in Local 33 and as well academic workers organizing across the country are trying to fulfill every day.