Graduate Student Hunger Strikers Pressure Yale to Start Union Contract Talks

Posted May 3, 2017

MP3 Interview with Aaron Greenberg, chairman of Local 33 UNITE HERE, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

yale

In February of this year, after an almost 30-year struggle, graduate student teachers at Yale University won a union election in eight departments. The vote was monitored by the National Labor Relations Board. Yale’s administration has fiercely opposed unionization, taking the position that these doctoral students who teach undergraduates are students, not employees, and that a union would interfere with the mentoring relationship that grad students have with senior faculty. The union members belong to Local 33 of UNITE HERE, which is also the parent union of thousands of other employees at Yale.

Despite this victory, the administration has still refused to begin the collective bargaining process that would lead to a contract, stating that such negotiations are “premature” because Yale is appealing the decision. After years of employing all sorts of tactics – strikes, marches, petition drives, and more – eight union members began an open-ended water-only fast on April 25 to pressure the university to come to the bargaining table. The fasters have set up a domed structure on a plaza outside the president’s office where they rest and greet friends and supporters, which have included the area’s congresswoman and one of the Connecticut’s U.S. senators. Yale’s administration has said the structure must be removed, but has not yet taken steps to do so.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Aaron Greenberg, chairman of Local 33 on the seventh day of the fast. Here, Greenberg, a doctoral candidate in political science, talks about the long-running battle for unionization and his hopes for moving Yale to negotiate through this unconventional, direct action tactic.

AARON GREENBERG: We’re fasting because in February we won union elections, but the university administration has refused to negotiate with us. They’ve told us to wait. They’ve told us negotiating would be premature. So, we’re waiting without eating. Their plan is to wait and to delay and to abuse the legal process so that Donald Trump can appoint anti-labor judges to the National Labor Relations Board, where they have an active appeal, and where Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s anti-labor judges can overturn our right to organize. We think that’s unacceptable.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Who decided that a fast would be the next step, and if you could, describe a little bit the process by which you came to that decision.

AARON GREENBERG: So, right now it’s me and seven of my colleagues who are on this indefinite fast – colleagues from departments all over the university. And after winning our elections, it became clear, unfortunately, that the administration was going to stall. We submitted over 12,000 letters from members of the New Haven community, the Yale community, elected officials, clergy, calling on the administration to sit down and negotiate with us. We set a deadline of April 12. We showed up; they were not here. In the past, we have tried everything: demonstrations, petitions, pickets, rallies. Nothing has worked. So we decided we needed to take a next step to draw attention to what the university is doing. What’s powerful about our hunger fast is that it’s ongoing; it’s as ongoing as the university’s legal delays. The university is paying anti-labor attorneys thousands of dollars a day to challenge our rights as workers in court. This is a very powerful way to show, okay, we’re going to wait, but we’re going to wait this way, without eating. We’re going to wait in a very public, but also a very beautiful and peaceful way that is visible to the entire Yale community and visible to President Salovey and top members of the Yale administration who can see that members of the Yale community are willing to go without food indefinitely until we sit down to negotiate.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It’s extreme, and I guess you feel it’s an extreme situation. I moved here almost exactly 30 years ago, and I believe that the organizing was going on then to organize grad students. So what kind of support – or what kind of feedback of any kind, positive or negative – have you gotten within the Yale community, within the New Haven community, and maybe at other universities?

AARON GREENBERG: So just as you said, it’s not that we’ve been waiting a few months; we’ve been waiting 25 or 30 years. This campaign has been one of the longest unionization drives in American history, and at every point the university administration has fought us, has tried to stall, has tried to delay, has said "No," and we’re tired of waiting. The support that we’ve gotten from the New Haven community, from clergy, from our colleagues, from the faculty, has been overwhelming, and it’s just been so powerful.

I think many people feel that, especially after we’ve won our elections – secret ballot elections supervised by the federal government, the gold standard in labor relations – it’s only right that the employer begin negotiating. To be clear, we’re not asking for contracts tomorrow or next week. We’re asking to start the conversation and to start that in good faith. And instead, the university administration, President Salovey personally, I want to emphasize; top members of the administration, personally; members of the Yale Corporation, personally, are deciding essentially to side with Donald Trump over members of our own community.

Our elections were certified by the regional National Labor Relations Board. The only thing standing between us and negotiating with them is that the university administration is pursuing an appeal that challenges the whole basis of our right to organize. The legal issues are the university’s; they could withdraw that appeal and negotiate tomorrow. So, it’s specious, duplicitous and shameful for the university to claim there are outstanding legal issues; there are none. The outstanding legal issues are theirs. They’re the outstanding legal issues of their anti-labor, anti-worker law firm, and we urge the administration to drop their appeal and begin negotiating in good faith.

For more information on the unionization campaign, visit Local 33 Unite-Here's website at local33.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/local33unitehere and on Twitter at twitter.com/33unitehere.

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