For Aaron Greenberg, life as a Yale graduate student is an all-encompassing job.
“We teach, we work a lot of hours, and we do experiments,” said Greenberg, who is studying for his Ph. D while also serving on the New Haven Board of Aldermen. “We do a lot of work that helps the university run.”
And that’s in between actually taking classes. But students like Greenberg are not recognized by The National Labor Relations Board as employees because they attend a private institution, which-as of 2004’s ruling against Brown University students-is not subject to the same protections that would obligate public universities to allow them to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.
A private university can still choose to recognize graduate student unions, and that is what Greenberg and the rest of about 1,000 petition signees from the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, (GESO) are asking it to do. A few weeks ago the group held a rally in New Haven, after which the petition was hand-delivered to Thomas Pollard, Dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
“We’re just asking for a process,” Greenberg said during a phone interview. “Many of us have families. Many are concerned about our debt, and we want to make sure we’re as secure as we can be as we do the work we care about.”
A process would mean Yale allowing the students-a combination of teaching assistants and research assistants-to hold an election to determine whether the group will declare itself a union and seek recognition. It worked at New York University, (NYU) where last year GSOC-UAW Local 2110 was formed.
“What we have is an example set by NYU,” Greenberg said. “Graduate employees are beginning to recognize how vital their work is. They are beginning to realize that they would like to-as other employees are able to do-bargain regarding their pay and health benefits.”
Graduate workers at NYU were fighting for those rights years before the 2004 National Labor Relations Board decided that teaching assistants, research assistants, and proctors should be considered students and not employees in Brown University’s successful appeal of a 2001 verdict that had given them union and collective bargaining rights under federal law.
NYU graduate students first garnered union status-along with a contract mandating a 40 percent compensation increase and health benefits-in 2002.
“It pushed up the standards for other institutions,” said Lily Defriend, who is studying for a Ph. D in anthropology at NYU. “It set a precedent.”
But when the contract expired in 2005, so did the group’s recognition as a union. A group of graduate employees were prepared to petition for a reversal of the National Labor Relations Board’s position in 2010, but withdrew the bid in exchange for NYU agreeing to recognize the results of an election, in which 98.4 percent voted to reestablish the union.
“This is how you have impact organizing without having the power of legislation,” Defriend said.
But she admits that legislation would help, given the fact that the university can always, by law, change its mind.
“They still have that potential,” Defriend said. “That’s something they can do, but it’s a matter of accountability to us, and the power we built. When we lost our last contract, we kept a lot of the same benefits [because] if they took out health benefits and lowered our wages, we would have gone insane. People worry about their image.”