Yale's grad students charter a union. (Courtesy UNITE-HERE)

On Wednesday evening, something happened that generations of graduate students at Yale University had awaited for nearly two decades: The founding of a union. With about 1,500 members present, amidst New Haven's other unions and with the support of a who's who of Connecticut public officials, the international president of UNITE-HERE arrived to certify their majority support and grant them a charter.

"It’s a really historic and amazing event, and something that will bring a new local to the UNITE-HERE family at Yale for the first time in 30 years," says Aaron Greenberg, a graduate student in political science who chairs the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. "We’re not waiting for the administration to come to the table."

It felt momentous, but it was mostly symbolic. Ever since the National Labor Relations Board decided in 2004 that graduate students didn't qualify as employees, they haven't had the right to organize a union that their employers — the universities — were bound to respect. Since then, universities have shifted more and more of their instructional loads from professors onto graduate students, who have simultaneously been taking on a greater share of overall student debt.

Some public schools and one private one have voluntarily agreed to bargain with graduate student groups. But under current law, they can at any time decide that they'd rather not — and Yale, like most private universities, has given little indication it's willing to do so. So while graduate student organizing has continued at dozens of schools, prospects for gaining actual bargaining power appear weak.

That could change in the next few months, when a much more labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board rules in a case concerning graduate students at Columbia University. Late last year, it invited briefs on the question of whether the board's 2004 decision should be overturned, and the board's influential general counsel submitted a brief arguing that it should: Performing work over which the university has a substantial amount of control in exchange for compensation makes a graduate student just as much of an employee as a tenured professor.

Private universities have vociferously disagreed. In their own amicus brief, the entire Ivy League plus MIT and Stanford argued that teaching is part of a graduate student's education, and that their relationship with the institution is therefore non-economic in nature. The elite schools also worry that granting grad students collective bargaining rights would interfere with academic freedom, since changes to teaching loads — even something as small as adding an essay to exam — could become the subject of extended negotiation, decreasing the flexibility of instruction.

Many of the unions filing briefs dispute that concern, saying that graduate student unions in the public sector have proven to be flexible, and enhance academic freedom by protecting teachers from politically or economically-related interference. Graduate teaching assistants also perform better when they feel respected on the job, argued the American Federation of Teachers.

At Yale, the fight has spilled over onto public spaces on campus as well. In response to the Graduate Employees and Students Organization's protests, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences put up posters displaying how much PhD candidates cost the university: They receive a full-tuition fellowship worth $38,700, plus a minimum stipend of $29,000. Yale has said that graduate students have other forms of representation, like the Graduate Student Assembly, and don't need a union to be heard.

It's true that not all graduate students want a union — a vote failed in 2003, when graduate students still had employee status — or agree with GESO's tactics. One 118 students signed an open letter in January voicing concerns with the group's "manipulative" approach.

In response, Greenberg says that they're not just fighting over pay and benefits, but also the rights of historically marginalized communities in academia. In that context, being heard is one thing, and having real power is another. "We just want the chance to vote, to democratically decide on the future of our time here and our work and our conditions," he says.