grad student strike

Why Yale’s Graduate Student Union Hunger Strike Matters

Students from Yale’s newly-formed graduate student union, Local 33-UNITE HERE, declared an indefinite hunger strike last week in protest of the University administration’s refusal to engage in collective bargaining with them. 

Yale’s graduate students voted in February to unionize, and would be one of the first to do so since the National Labor Relations Board ruled last year in the case of Columbia University that graduate students at private universities had the right to collective bargaining under a union. Yale’s administration refuses to sit at the table with Local 33-UNITE HERE, challenging the union’s’ decision to vote department by department, instead of school wide, as unusual and exclusionary. Union organizers, however, pushed back on this argument, and claim instead that Yale is attempting to drag out the process until Donald Trump appoints new, ostensibly more labour-unfriendly members to the National Labor Relations Board.

Private universities have historically been against the formation of graduate student unions. While they claim this is because the relationship between an academic advisor and a graduate student is unlike that of an employer and an employee, and third party unions would interfere with a student’s education, there has been no evidence backing up that claim. The truth instead is that graduate students unions are linked to more support for students, better pay, less exploitative policies, and more power in the hands of students as opposed to administrators. Exploitation in academia — particularly the humanities — is a well known plague, with graduate students and adjunct faculty alike sometimes being forced to survive below the poverty line.

Graduate Student Unions don’t just stand for higher wages for some, however. They push back against the distribution of power in the university, the kinds of decisions a university makes and whose interests those decisions serve, and push to alter the environment and composition of the university. This is especially important when we live in a time of heated debates over education: which racial groups have access to education, who has the financial ability to go to university, whose voice has monopoly over the conversations at university, and what work a university produces and in whose favour.

The fight for better medical support and health insurance, higher wages, and better support networks increases the accessibility of academia to those who are not white, wealthy or middle class — an overrepresented demographic in academia and university classrooms. Better family and childcare policies could counteract the exodus of women from academia. Graduate student unions are invaluable in bringing racial justice onto campuses: they hold administrations to account for their lack of commitment to diversity; they call for faculty hiring to be transparent; and they push against policies hiring adjunct faculty and casual labour that disproportionately affects communities of color in academia. They ensure the invaluable work of making academia a more diverse space is justly compensated, bucking the trend of people of color doing the unpaid labor of education and diversity efforts all by themselves at universities. In recent times, student unions have also demonstrated themselves to be allies in the fight against sexual assault on campuses. At the University of Connecticut, the graduate student union rallied behind a member who had been a victim of sexual harassment, filed complaints on her behalf, and ensured justice for the student in the end.

Yale’s own union highlights their struggle for diversity in faculty, and better mental health support, a key issue the union will fight for if it sits at the table with the administration.

Student activism is often decried these days as frivolous, run by spoiled millennials who think that eating sushi an act of cultural appropriation. Yet, higher education has always been a powerful space historically in encouraging protests that influence nationwide conversation, and push for meaningful action to address human rights abuses and violations. Consider the impact of student protests against apartheid South Africa, which played a key role in international pressure that caused the regime to buckle. Or the anti-Vietnam war student protests across the country that pushed national conversation to be critical of the war. Mobilization of graduate students to resist the conservative, neoliberal university with its tendency to embrace power, capitalism, and the status quo is a powerful redistribution of power away from the elites to the people.

Higher education has become a vastly contentious space over the past few years. Debates about diversity on campus, safe spaces, diversity among faculty, staff, and students and sexual assault on campus have been heated, as the university is increasingly seen as an intellectual battleground for the left and right alike. Student unions play a hugely important role in this conversation, and strive to take power away from administrators and bureaucrats, and put it instead in the hands of those whose labor makes the university a meaningful and radical space. Student unions could play a key part in expanding diversity in faculty, in ensuring higher education isn’t coopted by the interests of corporatism, in making the university a protected space for all its members, and in ensuring the right people are at the helm of decision-making processes. Following the massive rise in support for labor we saw this May Day, we should stand behind the striking students at Yale, and support the precarious rise of graduate student unions throughout the country.

Header image via Local 33-Unite Here & ABC News.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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