- Interview by
- Caroline Reed
Graduate student workers at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, have been trying to unionize since the early 1990s. This fall, a new campaign for a graduate worker union began: in August of 2022, graduate workers began signing union cards, which were filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on October 24, 2022. A little over a month later, on November 30 and December 1, 2022, graduate workers at Yale voted in an NLRB election to form their union, Local 33–UNITE HERE.
On Monday, their efforts finally paid off: Yale grad student workers won their election to unionize by 91 percent margin. The victory comes in the wake of large, historic academic worker strikes in the University of California system and at the New School in New York City and other union victories at MIT and Boston University. Jacobin’s Caroline Reed sat down with Abigail Fields, a member of the union’s coordinating committee, and Ridge Liu, a copresident of the union, to talk about Local 33’s organizing efforts and why grad students wanted to unionize.
How did each of you get involved in the union?
I got involved in the union and started organizing a lot during my second year. I got really excited about the idea of building worker power at a place like Yale. I got involved right before a lot of graduate workers started doing work for the Take Back 2020 campaign to get Donald Trump out of office, which was a really exciting time to be involved.
I’ve been involved increasingly since then, through organizing in different ways with other graduate workers at Yale and with other workers in the coalition, undergraduates in SUN (Students Unite Now), members of the New Haven community, and New Haven Rising. I’ve been very excited to be part of a fight for graduate workers at Yale and for racial and economic justice in New Haven.
I find it to be extremely empowering and extremely meaningful to see how those fights are intertwined. As our campaign for a grad worker union has really taken shape in the past year and increasingly this past semester, I’ve been inspired by the choices that graduate workers have made to dedicate a lot of time and energy to fighting for a real seat at the table.
I probably got started organizing around the same time as you, Abigail, around my first or second year. I got increasingly involved when Trump was still in power, with COVID and everything, both organizing in the sciences around what reopening was going to look like, but also, I was in Houston at the time, so I did a lot of phone-banking for the election in 2020, calling voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, what have you.
Can you talk a little bit more about the practical consequences of Trump’s presidency for your organizing?
Right now, we’re in a different political moment that’s much more friendly to labor in this country. I think you see that in the wave of graduate worker unionization that’s happened with Columbia and Harvard winning really historic contracts, MIT and most recently Boston University grad workers winning their unions, and union drives at Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago. Even beyond the academic worker organizing, there’s the incredible things that have been happening at Starbucks and Amazon.
We’re just in a new moment for labor in this country that’s been really inspiring and rejuvenating. I think COVID plays a big part in that as well. I was going into teaching in the fall of 2020, and as you know from being a Yale College undergrad, it was really unclear what was going to happen week by week, month by month, and certainly semester by semester. To be put in a position where suddenly my bedroom was my classroom — I was teaching full time on Zoom and had very little support around what that would look like. I also had very little say in what it would look like to come back to campus, what my classroom would look like, what the PPE requirements were going to be, and what was going to be provided to us. It really put into perspective for a lot of people that we do essential work that keeps this university running, but we have a disproportionately small say in the conditions of that work. For me, organizing for a labor union is the main way to get that say.
In addition to what Abigail was saying, this brings up two things. First, I went back home to Houston during COVID, and during that time, my health care was still all anchored here in New Haven; all my health care was still through Yale Health. When I’m here that’s great, it’s free and accessible. But when I’m in Houston, it’s not. That was still the case during COVID. I was home for a full year, and I ended up having some dental issues and eventually had to get a root canal. In that situation, it’s clear that the benefits we have could be way better.
The other thing is that Trump and COVID threw into relief all the ways that we could be better supported. For example, with Trump, one of the things I think about is that there was this initiative called the “China initiative,” which was basically pursuing espionage charges against academics with relationships to China. In practice, what that meant was that, as a Chinese American, I felt under threat. It’s not clear that there was any merit to any of these cases, but the real feeling of increased hostility, not necessarily on the part of anyone who I interact with on a day-to-day level, but that academics like me were being charged, that was really chilling. That became more intense throughout Trump’s term, and especially during COVID, with people calling it “the China virus.”
I’d love to hear more about your personal stakes in this organizing. What are you most excited to win if you win this union?
Most of us come to grad school with an idea in mind about what kind of research we want to do. For me, that’s theoretical physics. A week into COVID, I got an email saying my PI [principal investigator] was uncertain about the funding situation and didn’t know how to train students over Zoom. He said I should find another position.
At the time, it felt like the world was collapsing. Looking back, I find it really ridiculous that I was at this place of all places — this place with its huge endowment — and facing funding uncertainty. When I was trying to figure out what to do next, I came across various ways in which we don’t have clarity on the terms of our work. We don’t really have a say in how conditions and policies are decided. Having a contract, having the ability to actually go and negotiate for solutions to the problems we face — that’s a huge part of why I do this.
There’s a lot of things I’d like to win in a contract, but I see this as a stake in the future of academia — the future of who gets to be in a space like this. I’m from a working-class Midwestern family and have gone to public schools my entire life. My experience of starting at Yale . . . I’ll just say I’ve never been to a shinier place than Yale. Upon coming here, I pretty quickly realized what it meant to work full time without getting a living wage, to really have to be in a position of piecing things together so I could save in case I had a dental emergency or to combat rising rent prices and the rising cost of living. Since I got here, I have had the experience of piecing together jobs just to get by in addition to what we make on our stipend.
I think about what it would mean to have higher wages with guaranteed cost-of-living adjustments. I wouldn’t have to be thinking constantly, “What’s the next thing I need to piece together to have a semblance of financial security?” I think that this experience of constantly living in a precarious situation without a safety net really affects my mental well-being and my ability to do my job. It also really dictates the terms of who gets to come here and work this job. These basic material stakes — a higher wage, better access to health care — these are things that tangibly affect who can come to a place like Yale. It’ll make this job more accessible to people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different educational backgrounds. I see it as something that’s going to benefit all of us, myself included.
How have you both had to grow in your organizing? What are you proud of in your fight for this union?
The times I’ve been most proud of are those moments of connection with people. Bringing people to an understanding of, “We’re in this together; we have the power to go and make change.” I’m thinking about talking to a bunch of international students in the sciences, where it’s a more precarious situation by virtue of being an international student. A lot of scientists and a lot of humanists, I imagine, feel like you should keep your head down and just do your work — just deal with everything on your own. But building connection with my friends and colleagues around the idea that this doesn’t have to be the way we deal with it . . . those moments of connection are the moments I’m proudest of because I feel the most concretely that we grad students have the power to get things done. This includes the big stuff like rallies and our card campaign, but also smaller moments like conversations with people. Those move me the most.
It’s really felt like this campaign has been about talking about what we can win when we fight together. It’s also been about building community and real relationships, solidarity. I’ve seen that time and time again, and I’ve been so inspired by my coworkers because they’ve continued to choose to talk to their coworkers more, to go have an in-depth conversation about their stakes or share their story or open up.
I’m resisting this urge that I’ve had to home in on myself and my work and allow myself to be siloed off. I’m really resisting that, and I’ve experienced such a sense of collective power and collective care in this campaign. It fills me with a ton of hope for what graduate workers here can win and what academic workers more broadly can win anywhere when they’re committed to each other.
Right up to the union election, Local 33 was demanding neutrality from Yale. You were demanding that Yale not do any union busting or intimidate organizers. Can you talk about experiences that you’ve had coming up against administration?
There have been graduate workers organizing at Yale for decades, and for the majority of that time, the university administration has taken the stance that graduate workers are not workers. In the past, top administrators at Yale have sent messages to graduate workers and other members of the Yale community that explicitly carry this message and engaged in other anti-union tactics.
This time, when we filed over three thousand signed union cards with the NLRB, Provost Scott Strobel sent an email acknowledging our election petition, and the university administration agreed without major delay to let graduate workers decide for ourselves in an NLRB election if we wanted a union. After receiving the results of our election on January 9, 2023, in which we won our union by a 91 percent margin, President Peter Salovey sent an email to the Yale community saying that the administration would recognize the union and looked forward to negotiating in good faith. It is heartening to see this change in direction from the administration, and we are hopeful that we will be able to negotiate a great contract with the university.
Graduate workers have known for a long time that our work is essential to the functioning of the university. Language programs, for example, rely on the work that graduate language instructors like myself and my colleagues do. When I taught French, I was the instructor on record for an entire section of language learners that met five days a week. I was responsible for lesson-planning, creating homework and quizzes, editing and proctoring exams, grading, holding class and office hours — all the things that go into creating a safe, supportive, and effective learning environment. While I really enjoy teaching, I also had the experience of not having a say in my working conditions and a real seat at the table. Graduate instructors deserve to receive adequate compensation, support, and training for the work we do, and I believe that a union and a contract are the way to ensure that we get those things.
A lot of people come to grad school, especially at a place like Yale, with the expectation that their work will be a labor of love, where compensation and benefits are secondary. Has it been difficult to convince your colleagues that they are workers and that they should be concerned with the terms of that work?
I’m in the physics department, and we teach for the first two years. After that, we’re paid to do research, and my experience of that has been that, for as long as I’ve been a teaching fellow, I’ve been clear that I’m a teacher, teaching students, which is self-evidently work. When I’m doing research — sometimes at the same time as taking classes and teaching — I’m learning physics, but I’m also doing work. When I’m coding or designing or whatever, that is the word that comes to mind. I’m producing knowledge.
I’m doing the same things that my friends are doing who didn’t go to grad school, people working in Silicon Valley or something. It’s the same sort of thing. For a lot of the people I’m talking to, their experience of what they’re doing is clearly work. Working and learning aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s clear that we’re doing both. In my conversations, we haven’t had much debate over that because it’s so clear. That frees us up to have the much more compelling conversation of “What’s the support we actually need to do the work?”
It’s very clear to me how the labor of graduate workers contributes to the research mission and the educational mission of this university. A lot of us are brought here for a love of the work. One of the major reasons why I wanted to pursue a PhD was that I wanted to be an educator. The union is just about making it possible for everyone to pursue what might well be a calling and a passion for many of us. That’s still a job. Everyone should be able to work whatever job they choose with dignity, especially at an institution that has the resources that Yale has.
What do you get out of being partnered with the other unions at Yale? How do you think of your relationship with Local 34 [Yale clerical and technical workers], Local 35 [Yale service and maintenance workers], Local 217 [representing hospitality workers across Connecticut], and New Haven Rising?
I have benefited so much, and I’m really grateful to be part of a union campaign that’s driven by workers. It’s been a really powerful experience to come together with my colleagues around a common fight. I’ve also been extremely grateful that we’ve had the support from the other unions. To be part of a coalition in which workers at this university in various spaces are standing by each other is such a unique experience. A lot of graduate workers have a lot of interactions with Yale College students and are oriented toward undergraduates, and it’s meant a lot to see more and more undergraduates at this university also understand the importance of unified and organized academic labor.
It’s been incredibly grounding to be in a coalition that’s rooted in trying to make the city a better place. It helps us resist the town-gown divide, the urge to stay in the Yale bubble or not talk to anyone outside of East Rock, where grad students live. It’s been incredibly meaningful for me to go door-knocking in the summers with New Haven Rising and for it to not be separate. So many other things at this place are separate; I like that we can resist that.
It’s also a resistance to a scarcity mindset that might lead someone to believe that if an academic worker here is being treated better and making more, that might subtract from the earnings of a clerical worker or someone else. It’s been important for my understanding of what it means to organize to be part of a coalition of workers who are demanding every step of the way that an institution like Yale, which has an endowment of over $40 billion, can afford to and must treat everyone it employs with dignity and respect. That’s been really powerful.
I feel like this campaign has been going on forever — for decades — but it’s really picked up this year. What do you think has led to so many people being willing to sign cards and join the union this year?
The pandemic threw into stark relief for a lot of people the relative lack of control that we have over our working conditions. That was troubling and stressful — it’s scary to not feel like you have any say or protection.
Something that’s been exciting here, as I’ve been having hundreds of conversations with colleagues, is how clear people are on their material stakes: the things they want to win and the possibility of winning them through organizing. I think that’s because of conversations that people have been having here; we’ve also seen a wave of grad worker organization over the past few years. It’s also seeming more possible for people; it doesn’t seem like a far-fetched ideal. So many workers at our peer institutions have fought for this and won big material changes. Seeing it happen at our peer institutions has made it seem within reach for us as well.
At the same time, there’s been a lot of continuity here. Conversations I was having during and even before COVID were also about the lack of mental health care, the fact that this university has never been as diverse as it could be, and the high price of rent. A lot of those things have accelerated because of the pandemic, but the key issues that drive people are the same. A decent part of it is seeing other unions win these things, and the national political situation — we don’t have Trump right now, and that’s a huge deal. At this moment, grad students see how possible it is to change their own circumstances.