Opinion: The case for neutrality on Yale union talks

Pro-union signs were posted on Yale University bulletin boards in 2020.

Pro-union signs were posted on Yale University bulletin boards in 2020.

File photo

On the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 28, Yale University Provost Scott Strobel addressed an email to the university community titled “Graduate Student Unionization Effort.” In that communication, Strobel signaled that the university administration would honor UNITE HERE Local 33’s petition for a representation election, which leaders and members had delivered to the National Labor Review Board earlier that week. The university’s decision to follow the law in respect to the petition is a welcome one and shows how powerful the collective solidarity displayed by graduate workers and their allies in New Haven and across the university has been in recent weeks. We look forward to the election this week.

However, Strobel’s staunch refusal on behalf of the university to commit to neutrality is particularly disquieting and we believe contradictory to the principles of open discussion he made so central to his communication. We write today to encourage Strobel and other university administrators to change course by adopting an official stance of neutrality on the issue of graduate worker unionization.

Right now, the administration could declare neutrality and communicate to Yale’s staff and faculty that the university is not opposing graduate worker unionization. The administration could commit in writing to refrain from running an anti-union campaign, and could commit to refrain from communicating anti-union talking points to faculty, staff and students. It could even commit to negotiating a contract in good faith on a reasonable timeline, should graduate workers choose to unionize.

All these actions would stand in sharp contrast to the way that the university has historically reacted to graduate worker unionization efforts. To embrace neutrality can simply be a commitment not to use the weight of Yale as an institution to influence the democratic process. It is the decision to let graduate workers decide for themselves whether or not they should be represented by a graduate worker union.

It is also worth noting explicitly that the voices about which Strobel appears most concerned are of those who occupy positions of power, and not the voices of those more precariously employed by the university.

We believe in open and honest dialogue, and so let us conclude by being open and honest about our own affiliation to Local 33. In recent months, both of us have signed union cards and volunteered to help organize the department of Classics. We do not do so spurred by a sort of unmitigated discontent. Our department has been responsive to reform in many cases and we are indeed grateful for the support we receive, as well as for the opportunity to be part of such a community. In this way, we occupy a privileged position.

This is a position nonetheless attended by precarity. Nor, moreover, are all departments so supportive and responsive. We believe it is best through the apparatus of a union that we graduate students could collectively advocate for our needs.

As volunteer organizers, we have committed ourselves to respectful and open conversations with our peers on the question of graduate student unionization. We have encountered individuals — our friends and colleagues — with whom we have disagreed, and we have most welcomed those conversations that have challenged our own perspectives. Such discussion lies at the heart of personal, professional, and academic growth, and we write today to encourage precisely this kind of discussion.

Such discussion, however, requires an open, honest exchange, not strategic evasion. It also requires that we are able to participate, openly and honestly, without fear of retaliation. We write today in an effort to hold our institution accountable so that such a discussion can take place.

Like Provost Strobel, we believe in the value of honest and open debate. This is, indeed, why we seek an institutional commitment to neutrality. It is only in such an environment that we can make this ambition a reality.

Carl R. Rice is a seventh-year doctoral candidate in the Departments of History and Classics. He can be reached at carl.rice@yale.edu. Catherine Saterson is a second-year doctoral student in the Departments of Classics and Comparative Literature. She can be reached at catherine.saterson@yale.edu.