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")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.