Stop Disenfranchising My Friends, Yale

by Jeffrey Niedermaier

Last fall, I went to testify before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about the work that I do as a graduate teacher in the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department at Yale University. Teachers in my department wanted to form a union. Yale opposed us. Through their hours of questioning, Yale’s attorneys made it clear that they felt contempt for me and my work. But I was proud of my work and happy to stand up for it. Afterward, I was also happy to put those spiteful lawyers out of my mind. We had our union elections in February and the union won in eight departments, including mine.

But now those lawyers are back in my life. My department employs Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Teaching Fellows who are Master’s and professional students in other programs at Yale. Like the law students working as TFs in the Political Science Department, they were eligible to vote in February’s union elections, but their votes haven’t been officially counted. Now, Yale is trying to disenfranchise them.

Despite the fact that graduate teachers in my department voted yes to form a union, Yale has refused to negotiate with us, insisting on litigating two issues. First, the administration has asked the NLRB to review the decision that allowed us to vote in the first place, and is seeking to file at least one additional request for review of the same decision sometime in the future. Yale wants to overturn not just our rights, but the rights of tens of thousands of graduate employees across the country. Yale spokesperson Tom Conroy stated in the New Haven Independent that “The university has maintained a position for decades that it’s not in the best interest of the grad students [to unionize].”

The second issue is that of the “challenge ballots”—the graduate-teacher votes cast in Political Science and East Asian that still have not been officially counted. We want them tallied. Yale wants them thrown out. Virtually all of the challenged voters in my department came here from Asia. To have a line drawn between us and them is particularly bitter in this xenophobic political moment.

Yale can force us into unnecessary litigation to get the official count in these two departments because there are theoretically enough challenged ballots to change the result as a matter of legal technicality. But an overwhelming majority of the teachers whose ballots have not been opened have made clear what they think: they’ve announced publicly in a signed petition to Yale that they voted yes. They have asked Yale to cut the charade and allow the official tally. The union has won in these departments with or without the formal count.

Yale knows this. They know that litigation will not change the result: a majority of challenged voters voted for the union. Nothing Yale does can change that. Thus, no matter what, the result of the challenged-ballots hearing will be certification of the union in both departments. But Yale is insisting on protracted litigation. It has already tried to push the challenged-ballots hearing out to a later date and to extend its length. This way, Yale can drag out the process past this semester and achieve its real goal: to file a second, third, and perhaps fourth or fifth piecemeal request for review before the NLRB—this time of the decision ordering that the challenged ballots be officially counted. Those new requests would likely be filed when many of us are gone over the summer, and are more likely to be considered by an NLRB reconstituted with Donald Trump appointees.

Put simply, to have their case reviewed by Trump’s Board, Yale needs to slow things down. And it is cruelly trying to disenfranchise my friends and colleagues to do it.

There’s a simpler solution, since the outcome of these elections is not actually in doubt. We could just talk. Employers and unions negotiate all the time over who is to be included in the union. Yale could do what’s right and choose not to exploit the disaster down in Washington. But they won’t sit down and talk to us until all eight department bargaining units are certified.

We need the last two units certified now—during the semester. Those certifications will happen with or without the protracted litigation Yale seeks, so we have made a choice to drop our demand for an official vote tally. By doing this, we preserve our chance of surviving the Trump presidency.

Personally, I am devastated and sickened by this. My colleagues who are Master’s and professional students deserve an official tally. Many of them are footing huge tuition bills. They’re paying for health care. Their wages have been declining. They face fierce competition for jobs. They’re people like my friend Nozomi, who is as passionate about his students and coworkers as anyone I know. The union election in February was the first time he took part in an official democratic process. His ballot will be ignored.

I want to be clear: there is no reason this needs to happen except Yale’s legal machinations. The university is trying to create divisions among graduate teachers who have decided to band together.

I am confident Nozomi’s courage will be vindicated and he and other challenged voters will be in our union. Together, we’re going to have to persuade Yale, with our voices and our numbers, to respect our vote and sit down with us.

Yale: we reiterate our deadline of April 25th at 5:30 pm for you to negotiate. If you do not, I’ll see you in the streets alongside my friends and colleagues.