Graduate students at Yale University have asked the National Labor Relations Board to certify Local 33 UNITE-HERE as their union. (Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images)

Teaching fellows at Yale University have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to join UNITE-HERE, days after a board decision granting graduate students the legal protection to unionize.

“We’re really looking forward to the NLRB process,” said Aaron Greenberg, a graduate student in political science who chairs the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale University. “We look forward to winning our election and beginning to negotiate our contract and resolving some issues that are important to our members.”

Graduate teachers in 10 departments at Yale, including English, Political Science and Physics, are asking the labor board to certify Local 33-UNITE-HERE as their union. Rather than file for elections as a large group, Yale organizers are adopting a department-by-department approach to build robust support for unionizing and speed up recognition by the university, Greenberg explained.

UNITE-HERE granted Yale graduate students a charter in March, but the teaching and research assistants had to wait on the labor board’s decision to win bargaining rights. The students say they are fighting for funding security, mental health care, affordable child care, equitable pay and parity for marginalized communities in academia.

Lindsay Zafir, a graduate student in history at Yale, wants the school to reconsider a recent change in the graduate pay structure that she says disadvantages people with the most experience in the classroom. Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences recently reduced the amount of money provided to student teachers who are paid per course, such as doctoral students at the tail end of their degree. Whereas Zafir earns $29,000 as a third-year graduate teacher, she said her colleague doing the exact same work will make $16,000 because she is in her seventh year.

“I’m going to be in her same shoes in a few years, and I want to make sure I can count on stable, equal pay,” Zafir said. 

Greenberg said the graduate students have tried to get the administration to come to the table to no avail. School administrators have argued that there is no need for unionization because graduate students have other forms of representation, such as the Graduate Student Assembly. What’s more, they say students are offered comprehensive benefits and generous financial aid, noting a recent decision to fund a sixth year of study in the humanities and social sciences.

Yale, like many other private universities, has come out against the labor board decision, arguing that recognizing students as employees would undermine the foundation of their education.

“The mentorship and training that Yale professors provide to graduate students is essential to educating the next generation of leading scholars. I have long been concerned that this relationship would become less productive and rewarding under a formal collective bargaining regime,” Yale President Peter Salovey wrote in a letter to students, faculty and staff last week.

Salovey said that while he objects to the board’s decision, “it presents an opportunity for our campus to engage in a robust discussion about the pros and cons of graduate student unionization. We should embrace the chance to debate this important issue. … All members of the Yale community should feel free to express their views on these matters.”

Yale is among several universities, including Columbia and Princeton, that have in recent days posted information on their websites warning students that unionizing may alter their relationship with faculty and limit their power as the union becomes their collective voice. The same prestigious universities submitted a joint brief to the labor board earlier this year expressing concern that teaching and research assistants might want to negotiate the length of a class, amount of grading or what’s included in curriculum. All of those possibilities, they argued, could lead to lengthy and expensive bargaining.

Across the country, there are more than 30 collective bargaining units representing more than 65,000 graduate students, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College. The vast majority of those groups are at public universities, which are governed by state laws and not the labor board.

New York University is the only private university to recognize its graduate student union without being prompted by the labor board. Other private universities have struck deals with graduate students that clear a path for them to unionize ahead of the board decision.

After a hard fought campaign, Cornell University graduate students reached an agreement with school administrators in June establishing election procedures, voter eligibility and a means for dispute resolution ahead of the labor board decision. The agreement assured that an election could be conducted without getting certification from the labor board.

So far, Yale graduate students are the only ones to file certification requests with the NLRB, though students at Columbia University say they plan to sit down with the board soon.