ARUN RATH, HOST:
From NPR West in Culver City, California it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. Hundreds of graduate assistants at Yale University say they want to be allowed to decide whether to unionize. Grad students at two nearby universities recently formed unions after two very different types of organizing campaigns. One sailed by in a matter of weeks. The other took many years.
Diane Orson of member station WNPR reports from New Haven.
DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: Standing in the soaking rain outside Woodbridge Hall on Yale's campus, Ph.D. candidate Aaron Greenberg says work in academia today is different than it was 30 or 40 years ago.
AARON GREENBERG: Most academic work done in America now is not done by tenure track professors but done by adjuncts, done by graduate students, done by lecturers who don't have job security, who don't have benefits, who don't have sick days. I want to change that.
ORSON: Greenberg is chair of Yale's Graduate Employees and Students Organization.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
ORSON: He was among the more than 1,000 graduate assistants who recently signed a petition and marched to the office of Yale's president to deliver it. They're asking Yale to follow the lead of two neighboring universities where graduate students fought for a right to vote and formed unions.
In an email, Yale says its position on this is longstanding and the university will continue to work productively with faculty and students on the issues identified by the petition. North of Yale at the University of Connecticut, organizing moved quickly. That's due in part to the fact that Democratic state officials and the state's congressional delegation sent letters urging the university to allow a vote.
U.S. congressman Joe Courtney was part of that group. He says, Connecticut's leaders understand how much higher education today depends on graduate teaching and research assistance.
REPRESENTATIVE JOE COURTNEY: And making sure that they have some parody as far as being able to, you know, negotiate terms and conditions of their benefits, right, I think is really something that the delegation and folks in Hartford recognize has to happen.
ORSON: The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. UConn joins more than 50 public universities nationwide with unions. The story's somewhat different to the south. Private colleges and universities have long resisted organizing efforts. Recently, New York University agreed to allow a vote and is now the only private university in the country with a recognized graduate employee union. NYU grad assistant Lily Defriend came to Yale to lend her support.
LILY DEFRIEND GRAD ASSISTANT, NYU: After eight years fighting we really want to see Yale students, Yale graduate employees have the same opportunities that we have, to sit down and actually negotiate over the conditions of their work.
PAUL CHANDLER: Wait a minute. These are students.
ORSON: Paul Chandler is a senior economics major at Yale who does not believe that graduate students should form unions.
: For me, when I look at my role as a student and the role of a graduate student, I believe that you're fundamentally there for education. And, yes, there are ways that you contribute meaningfully to the university setting in terms of teaching classes. But fundamentally, the purpose of your being there is for the education.
ORSON: Union critics say colleges and universities admit students into graduate education programs, they don't hire them. And they worry that unions might try to negotiate over academic matters like grades or acceptance into grad school. Julie Kushner, director of United Auto Workers Region 9A, was involved in organizing at both NYU and UConn.
JULIE KUSHNER: That's not what these workers want. They want to bargain about the same things every other worker cares about; how much they're paid, what their health care is like, how their conditions at work.
ORSON: Yale graduate assistants say they'll continue to press the administration to allow them to decide whether to form a union. For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.