Yale’s Misleading Email on Graduate Employees Par for the Course

Tuesday was an exciting day. After months of waiting, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate teachers and researchers at Columbia University are employees of Columbia for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and therefore have a protected right to organize, unionize, and otherwise act together for mutual aid and benefit. As a former union member and union organizer, I was proud to see the government further ensure workers are protected when they organize to ensure safe and fair working conditions. As a supporter of both the Columbia graduate worker union, GWC-UAW, and the union of graduate teachers and researchers here at Yale, Local 33, I was overjoyed that my friends in both unions finally have their right to fight for better jobs and better campuses, which they have been doing for years, recognized by the federal government. And as a law student, I was struck by the Board’s compelling legal reasoning.

When President Salovey emailed the Yale community later that afternoon, however, my excitement gave way to frustration. The email was condescending and patronizing, but what I found most galling was his characterization of this landmark opinion as “the third time in sixteen years that the board [sic] has changed its position on the question of whether graduate students are primarily students.”

That characterization of the question before the NLRB is false. Dr. Salovey isn’t a lawyer, and can be forgiven for not knowing that, though his lack of legal knowledge might be reason for him to hesitate when asserting legal fact. However, Yale’s General Counsel, Alexander Dreier, almost certainly read this, and Mr. Dreier should have known better.

A quick reading of the Columbia decision, or even just its introduction, would have made it impossible to claim that the NLRB reversed itself on, or even much cared, whether “graduate students are primarily students.” Columbia overturned Brown University, which held that graduate workers aren’t protected as employees because they “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” As the Columbia opinion makes clear, however, this question has no bearing on whether graduate workers have the rights of employees. As the NLRB said Tuesday, “[s]tatutory coverage is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship that the Act does not reach.” The correct test, according to both the Columbia NLRB and the precedent that the Bush-era NLRB overturned, is whether graduate workers are in a common-law employment relationship with the university. The Brown decision by the Bush-era NLRB, based not in statute or substantial precedent but on a vague notion of the NLRA’s “fundamental premise,” simply missed the mark. The Columbia ruling sums it up nicely: “a graduate student may be both a student and an employee; a university may be both the student’s educator and employer.”

The administration’s inaccurate statement might normally be entitled to the benefit of the doubt. In this case, however, its mischaracterization is part and parcel of a broader campaign by university administrators to prevent any of us, graduate workers included, from having any of the power in our university community. An amicus brief Yale filed before the NLRB with several other universities (making arguments that the Board thoroughly rebutted in its decision) lays out the parade of horribles that could result from graduate workers being recognized as such. The administrations might (God forbid) be unable to unilaterally raise tuition or eliminate teaching positions! The brief implausibly argues that making such decisions together with its graduate employees would “irrevocably damage graduate education.”

Yale’s fear of not having total control over the lives of its employees would be laughable if not for the workers who suffer at the hands of that power. Yale and Columbia’s administrations are terrified of allowing anyone else, including those most impacted by their policies, to have any power in deciding how to set them and address problems, and they’ve fought long and hard to stop Yale’s workers, including graduate workers, from having any input.

President Salovey ends his email by noting that “we look forward to constructive and respectful discussions.” President Salovey ought to begin this discussion by apologizing for and fully correcting his misstatement. The question is not whether graduate students are “primarily students” but whether they can also be workers and employees of Yale. The answer to that question, the NLRB has ruled, is yes. Let us move on to the question of how Yale and its graduate employees can work together to make their workplaces safer and fairer.