At a recent open forum, GESO Chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said the debate over whether to have a graduate student union was irrelevant. Instead, Seth contended, there had been a graduate student union — even without recognition — at Yale for over 10 years.
While they do not all agree with Seth’s statement, administrators, faculty members and graduate students have acknowledged the powerful impact the presence of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and the debate over unionization has had on graduate school life.
GESO members say the group has empowered graduate students to express themselves, bettered their living conditions, and generated a sense of community.
But many administrators, graduate students and professors say the debate over unionization has also polarized the student body and strained relationships between faculty members and graduate students.
In the 12 years since GESO formed and began pushing for unionization, the life of a Yale graduate student has changed considerably.
In that time, GESO has changed as well, from a fledgling group advocating changes in teaching assistant pay schedules to one that takes credit for getting graduate students health care coverage and pushing Yale to release the patent on an AIDS drug.
GESO members say their group’s activism has contributed to vast changes in graduate student conditions, which now include a $15,000 stipend next year, full medical benefits, teacher training and the creation of a graduate student center.
Administrators have long denied that GESO has provided the impetus for any such changes, instead attributing increases in stipends to competition from rival schools and an increased commitment to graduate education.
Longtime TA Ray Lurie, who founded the precursor to GESO, a graduate student activist group called TA Solidarity, credits GESO with advances in graduate student life.
“In nearly all circumstances I think the TA system as it exists now is a significant improvement in what it had been, in large measure because the University, as a result of agitation by GESO, is paying administrative attention to the TA system,” Lurie said.
Getting a life
To many graduate students, GESO represents a social group as well as a movement, a close-knit community within the graduate school.
“There is an amazing sense of community,” Seth said. “That’s something the union has definitely helped bring about.”
Shafali Lal GRD ’02 said she joined GESO on her first day of graduate school, after receiving a brochure about the group. She recalled turning to the GESO community for support when her parents’ house burned down while she was taking her oral exams.
“The Graduate School has changed a lot, I think, in response to all the things GESO has done to create a community here,” Lal said.
Others called GESO a social scene, not just a union movement.
“As long as you’re going along with them, you have an instant group of friends, and in your first year, that’s wonderful,” said a former graduate student who graduated in 2001 and who asked to remain anonymous.
But “the union is a powerful thing,” the former graduate student said. “In the community of graduate students, students who don’t agree with the unions get blacklisted. It’s nothing overt, but the collegial relations can get very cold.”
When Chris Baker GRD ’02 came to Yale, he joined GESO because he agreed with many of the group’s ideals. Baker soon became an organizer for the group, trying to recruit new members by talking to fellow graduate students about their concerns, and advocating GESO as a way to address problems.
Though he expressed concern about visiting students at home or in their labs, he said that leaders told him soliciting students was the only way to get members.
“Although you may make some people really mad, the people that don’t get really mad might wind up signing a card,” Baker said, recalling the group’s philosophy.
Baker said he became increasingly disillusioned with their methods, believing GESO had become too focused on recruiting new members. Eventually, Baker decided to quit the group.
Other graduate students said they were also turned off by GESO’s recruiting methods.
Rachel Anderson GRD ’05 said GESO organizers repeatedly visited her at home and in her lab, sometimes when she was busy working with radioactive materials. Anderson said she repeatedly told them she appreciated their efforts but did not agree with the group before they finally stopped approaching her in her lab.
“Their little mantra is democracy, not intimidation, but I feel like their recruitment methods are full of intimidation, which is kind of ironic,” Anderson said.
In response to criticism of recruitment tactics, Lal said, “We do what we can. We’re just a group of graduate students who try to talk to people.”
Other graduate students who were repeatedly visited by GESO organizers said they signed union cards as a way to stop the visits from organizers.
Emily Osterweil GRD ’05 said that when she entered the Graduate School, GESO organizers frequently came to her lab and approached her on the street to discuss unionization. Osterweil said she was initially curious and liked some of the group’s ideas, so she agreed to attend some meetings to decide whether to sign a union card.
Though she was still undecided after a few meetings, Osterweil said, she decided to sign a card because she wanted to stop GESO organizers from approaching her.
“If you’re constantly harassed by people and want them to go away, it’s like telemarketers,” Osterweil said. “‘What do I have to do to get you to stop?'”
Osterweil eventually decided she disagreed with unionization and asked for her signed card back. But she said she suspects there are many other graduate students who joined for similar reasons who are not as assertive and have not requested their cards back.
“If people are a little bit hesitant, GESO takes advantage of it to try to get their name on a card,” Osterweil said.
The former graduate student said the group’s dominant presence on campus made expressing dissenting views difficult.
“I didn’t have anyone to go to when GESO intimidated me,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to complain to about it. I had no recourse.”
But Seth defended GESO’s organizing methods, and said the administration was responsible for creating an atmosphere in which students talking to other students could be perceived as threatening.
“Under what circumstances would a student find it uncomfortable for me to come to their lab?” Seth said. “The atmosphere on campus makes it seem threatening for one graduate student to talk to another about the future or the department.”
Seth said that what some graduate students call harassment by GESO organizers should not be compared with what GESO members call harassment from administrators.
In recent years, GESO leaders have called for University leaders to agree to a card-count neutrality agreement, under which the University would agree not to take a public stand on unionization and to recognize a union if a majority of graduate students sign union cards.
GESO leaders say a neutrality agreement is necessary in order to have a fair debate.
“Everyone on this campus feels like their relationship with the administration will be damaged by an openly pro-union position,” Seth added.
Justin Ruben FES ’02, a GESO organizer, said encounters with professors critical of GESO are intimidating.
“I’ve had faculty say, ‘What is this really about? This doesn’t seem right; you folks aren’t coal miners,'” Ruben said. “I’ve felt like, ‘Do I want to contradict my professor?’ There’s always a power dynamic with professors who are grading you.”
One incident frequently mentioned in discussions of faculty intimidation is a December 2000 e-mail sent on behalf of professor Paul Kennedy to graduate students saying he would not teach a course requiring TAs until he could be assured his graduate students would not take “industrial actions” — a reference to a 1996 grade strike by GESO members.
The grade strike, in which GESO members refused to turn in grades until University leaders agreed to negotiate a contract with them, was later ruled unprotected by the National Labor Relations Board. Yet Kennedy’s e-mail struck a nerve for GESO members who felt personally attacked by Kennedy’s remarks.
GESO filed an unfair labor practice charge against Kennedy’s statement in the e-mail. The charge was dismissed by the NLRB last fall, as was an appeal by GESO this winter.
But some professors said they were hesitant to discuss unionization with graduate students for fear of legal reprisal by GESO members, especially in light of the charge against Kennedy.
One professor, Economics Department Director of Graduate Studies Truman Bewley, said he refuses to speak to students about GESO because of legal concerns.
Seth herself said she did not think faculty members were influencing graduate students intentionally.
“I think by and large our faculty would never intimidate or coerce on purpose,” Seth said. “I don’t think they think of what they’re doing as threatening. I think most faculty once it’s pointed out how it could be scary recognize it as well.”
But with professors holding an inherently powerful role over their students, Anthropology Director of Graduate Studies David Watts said faculty members need to be mindful of how their comments to graduate students could be perceived.
“Especially now that I’ve become the director of graduate studies, it’s not my responsibility to sway any opinions or even initiate conversations. I try to distinguish my own ideas and whatever positions I have from my role as a professor.”