As a graduate teacher in Political Science at Yale, I study how activists, politicians, and philosophers in the world’s two largest democracies—India and the United States—have thought about democratic forms of government. I’m doing a PhD because I think that ideas matter: they move us to question the world we live in and imagine new ways of living together. It’s this spirit that I try to bring to the classrooms where I teach.
In the coming days, I will get to participate in a new kind of democracy for me. I’ll get to vote to certify my union Local 33–UNITE HERE, the union of graduate teachers at Yale University.
We’ve been waiting for this chance for a while. For over a decade, the government has classified my colleagues and me as students rather than employees, despite the work we do for the university. As a result, our rights to come together and form a union so that we can bargain collectively with our employer have not been guaranteed. That all changed last week when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a new ruling and recognized our work for what it is—work.
I am a teacher. Last fall, I taught for a popular class on Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Politics of Nonviolence. It was a critical moment on Yale’s campus: over the course of the semester, Yale undergraduates helped spark a movement that rippled across the country. Students at dozens of universities were speaking out against racism and marginalization, and the students in my classroom wanted to understand and alter the legacies of colonialism and racism. As their teacher I helped my students work through the relationship between political ideas and political action both in the past and in the present.
In the discussion sections I planned and led, students read King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and thought about which audiences he hoped to reach, considering the relationship between social change and the public at a moment when politically active Yale undergraduates were exposed to national scrutiny. They debated the ethics of Gandhi’s fasts as a form of persuasion, and thought about those arguments as they planned their own persuasive actions.
Watching these students use historical and theoretical texts to grapple with challenging real-world issues made it clear to me that courses like the one I taught are at the heart of Yale’s vibrant intellectual and political community. And the work of graduate teachers is what makes such classes possible.
For me, teaching is a joy. It’s a reminder that work doesn’t have to be onerous. But it’s still work: from planning discussion sections to helping students develop their ideas in writing to grading papers and exams, we do the important job of educating students at every level.
So I’m thrilled that this work is finally recognized as such by the federal government. With the NLRB’s new ruling, graduate employees at private universities are subject to the protections of federal labor law and we can finally make our union official.
Like other workers, graduate teachers need conditions that will allow us to do our work to the best of our abilities. We need access to physical and mental health care. We need to be able to rely on secure and equal pay for the teaching we do. Those of us with children need to have access to affordable childcare. Graduate teachers of all races and genders need institutional support and a commitment to equity on campus.
I hope to one day teach my own classes on race, ethnicity, migration, and the global South. But I worry about the lack of mentors for graduate teachers like me in light of Yale’s slow pace in hiring and tenuring faculty of color.
My colleagues and I in Local 33 – UNITE HERE have been fighting on these issues for years. Yale does itself a disservice by refusing to listen to the voices of its own teachers and by failing to adequately support us in our work. I want a union because collective bargaining will make it possible for us to advocate for our needs in a way that our employer can’t ignore.
On Monday, I joined hundreds of other graduate teachers at Yale in taking a historic step forward. We filed petitions with the NLRB asking them to oversee an election to certify Local 33–UNITE HERE as our union at last. We’ve been ready to vote for a long time — I can’t wait.
Hari Ramesh is a graduate student teacher at Yale University and a member of Local 33 UNITE HERE.