At Yale University's commencement ceremony last month, hundreds of graduating students and their supporters staged a labor protest. The dispute pits graduate student teachers who voted to form a union in February against a Yale administration that refuses to bargain and disputes the election's validity.
Yale is asking the National Labor Relations Board to review the Local 33-Unite Here union's organizing tactics. The university also intends to ask the federal labor regulator to reconsider its policy ruling last year that graduate student instructors at private universities are employees and therefore eligible to organize.
The response on New Haven, Conn., campus has been very divisive; a rotating group of students held a month-long hunger strike to protest the university administration. Yale's stance has divided students and faculty, and both sides have alleged the use of unfair tactics.
Political science Ph.D. candidate Aaron Greenberg, chair of the Local 33 union, says although classes have ended for the school year, the graduate students intend to continue their fight to bring the university to the table to negotiate over questions of pay, sexual harassment policies, health care, child care and other benefits.
"I had every expectation that the administration would sit down and begin negotiating with us" following the February elections, in which eight of the nine academic departments that held votes approved the union, Greenberg says.
When that didn't happen, he says, "we decided we needed a different kind of action. I fasted for 13 1/2 days."
Julia Powers, a comparative literature Ph.D. candidate, says she also fasted, for a week, because she does not believe that Yale is addressing what she calls a pervasive culture of sexual harassment on its campuses, documented in a 2015 report by the Association of American Universities.
"There's a sexual predator in my department, who was put in a position of supervision over me and my work," she says. The toxic environment forced some of her fellow students to leave the program, Powers says. "For me, it became unfortunately necessary to take drastic action."
The university says a panel of faculty and students review all sexual harassment claims filed, and it carries out punishment, but that the process is, by law, private.
Both at Yale and at Columbia University, where the administration is in a similar standoff with students, the central issue is whether graduate student instructors should be considered employees with a right to organize.
The interpretation of the law today stands with the unionizing students; they can be considered employees with the right to collectively bargain. But that has not remained consistent over the years, so both sides have laid claim to legal precedent.
Yale and other universities point out that for most of labor history, students were not legally employees. That changed with an NLRB decision in 2000, although the board later reversed itself two more times — in 2004 and again last year — under different White House administrations.
Lynn Cooley, Yale's dean of graduate schools, says classifying graduate student teachers as employees is wrong.
"I was a graduate student; the last thing I thought of myself as was an employee," she says. "You learn a huge amount from teaching. It's like the way you really learn your craft is by trying to teach it to someone else."
Cooley says there are many factors that make Yale's case unique. One of them is that, since 2000, the university has provided all of its doctoral graduate students at least $30,000 in annual stipend, full tuition, and health benefits. That cost, the university says, amounts to between $374,000 and $445,000 per student over six years, and enables the students to graduate debt-free.
She notes the students already have an elected body — the Graduate Student Assembly — that "fights for them with the administration and lobbies for them with the administration for things that are important to the students."
Cooley says Yale decided to dispute the unionization vote because of the way it was structured: separate elections were held for each academic department. And, she says, because only students who were teaching assistants were permitted to vote, only about 9 percent of the 2,600 doctoral students in the Graduate School voted.
She says that set up a system where the university might have to individually bargain with each department. That makes no sense, Cooley says, because students often work across departments, and receive the same financial packages and benefits.
Cooley defends Yale's refusal to bargain with the union as the university awaits federal review of the election.
As is the case with many agencies in Washington, however, the NLRB has not fully staffed up with the new Trump administration. Two Republican seats on the five-member board remain vacant, and appointments have been slow amid congressional investigations into Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Once the board is fully staffed, however, Robert Battista, former Republican chair of the NLRB from 2002 to 2007, says he expects that under Trump, the policy on graduate students as employees will switch again — this time in favor of universities.
"You shouldn't be overturning precedent willy-nilly," Battista says. But he says boards led by Democrats have used the wrong legal reasoning in deciding to allow students to unionize.
Greenberg, the grad student union activist, says Yale is exploiting the partisan swing to the right, and that by appealing to federal regulators, the university is undermining his efforts and those of many other graduate students at other campuses.
"What they do want is for Donald Trump to appoint anti-labor judges to the NLRB that will overturn our rights to organize as well as the rights of thousands of other workers across the country," he says.
If there is a middle ground between the Yale administration and her fellow students, musicology Ph.D. candidate Laura Brown occupies it.
"I am very pro-labor, I come from a union family," she says.
Brown does not, however, support the Local 33. She points out that Yale covers all of its Ph.D. students' full tuition and stipends, an atypical privilege.
"Yale's package for its graduate students is very, very good. That's not the case at other schools, necessarily," Brown says.
She does not think Yale students need a union. But she doesn't want to see Yale pushing for a national policy change that would bar students at other schools from making their own choice.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
At Yale University's commencement ceremony last month, hundreds of graduating students and their supporters staged a labor protest.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) We shall not - we shall not be moved. We shall not be moved.
CORNISH: The dispute pits Yale against its graduate student teachers. The grad students voted to form a union in February. Yale's administration disputes the validity of that election and refuses to bargain. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, this is spilling over into national labor policy.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Aaron Greenberg stands near what used to be the student union's protest headquarters outside the Yale president's office.
AARON GREENBERG: There were picnic tables and benches and plants.
NOGUCHI: The university tore down the encampment the day before. But Greenberg says the fight continues. He's a political science Ph.D. candidate and chair of the Local 33 Unite Here union. Instead of following the law and recognizing the new union, he says Yale is challenging its legitimacy and appealing to the National Labor Relations Board.
GREENBERG: When we saw this was the case, we decided we had to take a different kind of action. I fasted for 13-and-a-half days.
NOGUCHI: The hunger strike divided the community with some faculty and students arguing the tactic was coercive and dangerous. Others criticized how the union structured its vote. Both at Yale and at Columbia University where the administration is in a similar standoff with students, the central issue is whether graduate student instructors should be considered employees with a right to organize.
On that point, the law today stands with the students. Although, both sides can lay claim to legal precedent. Universities point out that for most of labor history, students were not considered employees. That changed with an NLRB decision in 2000. Although, the board later reversed itself two more times under different White House administrations. Today the students are considered employees. Lynn Cooley, Yale's dean of graduate schools, says that's wrong.
LYNN COOLEY: I was a graduate student. The last thing I thought of myself as was an employee. You learn a huge amount from teaching. It's, like, the way you really learn your craft is by trying to teach it to someone else.
NOGUCHI: Cooley says most graduate students could not cast votes in the union election, which limited eligibility to some students in a handful of academic departments. She says Yale is refusing to bargain as it awaits federal review of that election.
COOLEY: We're entitled to do that. It's legal to do that. And that's what we're doing.
NOGUCHI: And are you asking the NLRB to also reconsider the whole classification of graduate students as employees?
COOLEY: We'd like to, yes.
NOGUCHI: Robert Battista is a former Republican chair of the NLRB.
ROBERT BATTISTA: You shouldn't be overturning precedent willy-nilly.
NOGUCHI: And yet, he says, he expects the ruling to flip again once President Trump fills the Republican vacancies on the board, this time in favor of the universities. Aaron Greenberg, the grad student union activist, says Yale knows that, and by appealing to federal regulators, is undermining his efforts and those of many other graduate students at other campuses.
GREENBERG: They don't want to negotiate. What they do want is for Donald Trump to appoint anti-labor judges to the NLRB that will overturn our rights to organize as well as the rights of thousands of other workers across the country.
NOGUCHI: Laura Brown, a musicology grad student, is somewhat sympathetic.
LAURA BROWN: I am very pro-labor. I come from a union family.
NOGUCHI: Brown does not, however, support the Local 33. She points out Yale covers all of its doctoral students' full tuition and stipends, which she thinks is generous.
BROWN: Yale's package for its graduate students is very, very good. That's not the case at other schools necessarily.
NOGUCHI: So Brown is divided. She doesn't think Yale's grad students need a union, but she does want to preserve the right of students at other schools to make their own choice and doesn't want to see Yale pushing for a national policy change that would bar that. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, New Haven.
(SOUNDBITE OF VALERIE JUNE'S "WORKIN' WOMAN BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.