GESO ‘neutrality agreement’ not neutral at all

What on earth does GESO mean by “neutrality at Yale”? GESO petitions circulated in late December supporting a “neutrality agreement” between Yale and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization give clear answers, perhaps not always intentionally.

First, the petitions advocate a count of GESO membership cards, not a secret-ballot election.

Second, they provide a plan to silence Yale faculty in discussions about graduate student unionization.

The goal? To print GESO’s one-way ticket to union certification.

A petition from the “Yale Faculty Committee for a Neutrality Agreement” (YFCNA) cites a Human Rights Watch report, “Unfair Advantage” to support GESO’s “card-count” proposal.

But the Human Rights Watch report, which refers primarily to industrial disputes, often involving violence, still describes secret-ballot elections as “a standard method of determining workers’ choice.”

Why? Because “in American culture now and for the foreseeable future, fairly run secret-ballot elections still have a moral primacy. Workers, employers and the general public see their outcome as more legitimate.”

More important, in five pages the YFCNA provides no succinct definition of “neutrality” for Yale faculty. And by NLRB standards, Yale faculty members are no different than Yale administrators. We’re all “management,” according to NLRB rulings, whether we’re provosts, deans or professors.

In contrast, a far more specific petition from the “History Department Organizing Committee” defines GESO’s actual draconian view of “neutrality” for Yale faculty.

Free speech under GESO “neutrality” at Yale? Forget it.

The GESO/History petition would obligate “Yale,” necessarily meaning Yale faculty and administrators alike, to forswear “any activity, written or verbal, designed to interfere with employees’ free choice to join a union,” while leaving GESO free to advocate at will.

The GESO/History petition demands censorship for Yale faculty and administrators, who would “refrain from making any false or misleading statements designed to confuse or mislead employees,” but sets no standard for GESO activity.

The GESO/History petition requires that Yale “not retain the services of professional anti-union agencies or law firms,” but leaves GESO free to hire any lawyers it wants.

Indeed, as if to demonstrate its own freedom from restriction, the GESO/History petition claims that “The American History [sic, Historical] Association has endorsed graduate student unionization.”

But this claim is not true. The AHA has upheld the right of graduate students to attempt to organize teaching assistant unions. Yet the AHA has never “endorsed graduate student unionization” itself.

No one knows who would win an NLRB-supervised election certifying a teaching assistant union at Yale. But I suspect that most faculty believe, along with Human Rights Watch, that a secret-ballot election remains the best and fairest way to determine the matter.

And many Yale faculty members have strong worries about life with a certified teaching assistant union. These worries are not based on theory but on the actual experience of GESO’s disastrous 1995 Yale “grade strike,” which GESO has never disavowed.

Striking TAs — actually less than 50 percent overall — not only stopped grading papers and finals but, more importantly, refused to return already graded midterms, quizzes and papers to supervising faculty. Instead, the papers were sent to the GESO office, thus preventing faculty from submitting semester course grades.

The NLRB later ruled that GESO’s 1995 grade strike constituted “unprotected” labor activity, as well as theft of University property — the previously completed grades that striking GESO TAs refused to return.

Many faculty also are concerned about a return to the harassment and intimidation of non-striking graduate students that occurred in the 1995 Yale grade strike.

This involved vitriolic and highly personal GESO confrontations with non-striking TAs on and off the Yale campus, persistent abusive GESO telephone calls demanding that non-striking graduate students support the grade strike, and a viciously practiced “shunning” of graduate students, and even GESO members, who opposed the grade strike that continues to this day.

If GESO wins union certification at Yale, will it demand what New York University’s victorious teaching assistant union has demanded, specifically that all teaching assistants, “as a condition of retaining an assistantship, be compelled to join the union, pay dues, and be subject to union discipline”?

And what might happen when GESO exercises “union discipline” over all Yale TAs, including non members? Non-striking TAs learned what GESO “union discipline” meant in 1995. What would it mean in the future?

One can understand why GESO might hope to avoid these issues.

But more discussion, not less, is what is needed in a university.

GESO’s “neutrality” proposal is a canard that serves two purposes only: it avoids a secret ballot in favor of GESO membership cards gathered under many different conditions, and it frees GESO from criticism of its past and future actions.

I and almost all Yale faculty support the right of graduate student teaching assistants to petition the NLRB for union certification — as well as their right to oppose union certification.

Therefore, let the flowers bloom. Let advocates advocate and critics criticize — including advocates and critics on the Yale faculty.

But let’s not adopt a “neutrality agreement” that’s patently partisan.



Jon Butler is professor of American studies, history, and religious studies and chairman of the Department of History.

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