Grad student unions challenge academia

Ever since she helped found GESO, Eve Weinbaum ’84 GRD ’97 dreamed of being on a campus with a union for graduate students.

She finally ended up on such a campus — as management.

“It’s the strangest thing,” said Weinbaum, who teaches labor relations at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and, as graduate program director, negotiates with the university’s teaching assistant union. “They almost filed a grievance against me, which I never thought would happen.”

Even the threat of grievances, though, has not dampened Weinbaum’s enthusiasm for the union cause.

To advocates like Weinbaum, TA unionization represents a necessary step to protect graduate students at universities they see as having become too much like corporations.

But to its opponents, including university administrators, TA unionization represents a dangerous step toward compromising what they see as the unique nature of academia.

As efforts to unionize graduate students continue to grow nationwide, university officials, graduate students and union organizers have all staked claims in a struggle that pits the traditions of academia against what many see as the future of the labor movement.

As the University and its unions prepare for contract negotiations this winter, the 14-year organizing efforts of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization will likely be a major source of contention. Yale’s recognized unions, locals 34 and 35, have formed an alliance with GESO, underscoring an intersection of academia and the changing national labor movement.

The changing academy

Even as they disagree on TA unionization, administrators and union proponents alike offer similar explanations for the movement.

In recent decades, they said, the prospects for secure academic jobs declined as universities nationwide replaced tenure-track positions with part-time jobs.

“In my era you went to graduate school at a great school, and if you could get through the program, you knew you would get a tenure track job at a good institution and have a great career,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “That’s gotten harder.”

At the same time, graduate students have borne more of the teaching responsibilities at universities, GESO chairman J.T. Way ’05 said.

“We’re seeing more and more of the workload at the University shifted onto our shoulders at the expense of future jobs, and that’s very alarming,” Way said.

Though teaching has long been considered a form of apprenticeship for aspiring professors, the increased reliance on TAs has led union organizers to claim they should be considered employees, not students.

Instead of being students, Weinbaum said, TAs now represent a form of contingent labor, which includes part-time and contract employees, that universities, like companies around the world, have increasingly come to rely on.

Labor’s role

As the availability of secure jobs at universities changed, so did organized labor.

With manufacturing jobs disappearing and union membership on the decline, union leaders began to organize as many new workers as possible, said Gary Chaison, a professor at Clark University specializing in labor relations.

For union leaders, education represents one of the most appealing fields for organizing, since education workers are always needed.

When GESO was forming as the outgrowth of a group called TA Solidarity, organizers met with representatives from several unions. Though locals 34 and 35 did not have experience working with TAs, they convinced the GESO members that the important thing was to align with Yale’s other organized workers.

“[When] locals 34 and 35 talked to us, they said, ‘Here’s how we see it, this is how we see power on this campus,’” Weinbaum said. “‘It comes from sticking together in solidarity and different groups deciding to work together, and we have experience fighting Yale and dealing with this campus.’”

Since then, GESO has worked closely with locals 34 and 35, and leaders of locals 34 and 35 say getting the University to recognize GESO will be a major goal for the upcoming negotiations.

The National Labor Relations Board has reversed longstanding precedent and supported union elections for TAs at New York and Brown universities, paving the way for the first TA unions at private universities in America. But GESO leaders say they want to be recognized through a card-count neutrality agreement.

Under such an agreement, Yale would recognize a union if a majority of workers sign cards supporting GESO. In the meantime, the University, including faculty, would not be allowed to make any statements regarding unionization.

University officials oppose neutrality and TA unionization in general, saying the NLRB was not designed to deal with an academic setting.

Administrators added that it is difficult to gauge how widespread GESO’s support is, since the group does not release membership numbers. For all the group’s passionate supporters, some graduate students also strongly oppose the group, and many are skeptical of the movement.

An unclear future

Way said he thinks the formation of a graduate student union at Yale is inevitable.

“To a large extent, it’s already happened,” Way said.

Way attributed recent increases in stipend support to GESO’s organizing efforts, something Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield and other administrators dispute.

Levin said he thinks the NLRB’s 2000 NYU ruling, which for the first time declared TAs at a private university employees, will be overturned, either by the NLRB or in court.

But Levin said he is less certain about what will happen with the TA unionization movement overall.

“It’s hard to predict,” Levin said. “I don’t know. I don’t think it is inevitable.”

Weinbaum noted that as more former graduate student organizers become professors, the face of academia could change as well. But it will still be a battle.

“How we change academia — I hope we do, but it’s a little hard to see,” she said. “Yale has been this way for 300 years. It’s not about to change overnight.”

Teaching assistants like Ivan McDonald GRD '05 find themselves in the middle of a national campaign to unionize graduate students. After 14 years of unsuccessful organizing efforts by GESO, it remains to be seen how the movement will play out at Yale.
Eleanor Sokolow
Teaching assistants like Ivan McDonald GRD '05 find themselves in the middle of a national campaign to unionize graduate students. After 14 years of unsuccessful organizing efforts by GESO, it remains to be seen how the movement will play out at Yale.

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