Unionization and its discontents?

I’ve always found large crowds of people chanting in unison somewhat frightening. It’s just a bit too “Triumph of the Will.” Protesting is not my weekend plan of choice, and getting arrested will never be my idea of a great time.

As Justin Zaremby ’03 rightly pointed out earlier this week (“You’re a Yalie, they’re unions: Stay out of it,” 2/18), undergraduates are here to study and to learn, and strikes threaten to disrupt the learning process. It now seems almost certain that there will be a strike at Yale in less than two weeks. No longer do you have to be a member of the Social Justice Network or the child of ’60s radicals to care about whether or not Yale is able to settle contracts with its unions. We’re all going to care when our dining halls close and our masters’ and deans’ assistants are no longer around.

Yesterday, the members of GESO, Yale’s grad student union, voted overwhelmingly in support of a strike. My father once calculated that every hour of class costs $32.75, so I’m not looking forward to my sections being cancelled. I live on campus because I appreciate the convenience and comfort of the Pierson dining hall. The food may not always be great, but I’m used to it being there when I meet my friends for dinner at six.

When the strike happens, we’re all going to look for someone to blame for the mess. The Yale administration has long been blaming the unions for stalled negotiations. We’ve received several letters from President Levin stating as much, and he’s not entirely wrong. The Yale slavery report released by the union-affiliated Connecticut Center for New Economy surely broke the “atmosphere of trust and respect,” and, in retrospect, I’m no longer sure civil disobedience was the right way to start off the year.

The Yale administration insists that it cares about its workers, but the record suggests otherwise. Before negotiations began, Yale hired Proskauer Rose, a law firm with a reputation for union-busting. Since the start of contract negotiations in February 2002, the University has threatened to subcontract the newly-renovated Timothy Dwight and the new Congress Avenue building. It also arrested union organizers attempting to talk to members of their unions. Most recently, Yale refused the request of locals 34 and 35 to resolve these remaining contract disputes through binding arbitration. Had the University taken the unions up on this offer, strike plans would already be off the table.

President Levin wants us to believe that the grad students are holding our workers hostage, but this version of the story distorts what’s happened in negotiations. For one thing, the recognized Yale unions have serious economic and noneconomic issues that remain unresolved. The unions’ proposals for pensions, job training and in-house promotions have yet to be seriously addressed by the Yale negotiation team. Second, GESO’s sole demand is to sit down and discuss the possibility of an election. It’s not a radical demand. Yale as we know it would not disappear if this happened — I promise.

Despite the fact that American labor law recognizes the right of graduate students to form unions, Yale continues to refuse GESO’s demand for a union election. Unions aren’t just for “poor people.” Baseball players, actors and even grad students have a legal right to unionize. The administration thinks unionization is a bad idea, and as people who care about Yale, they have the right to that opinion. They can explain themselves to the public, to undergraduates and to graduate students. But they cannot continue to deny graduate students the right to decide for themselves whether or not to form a union.

“But unions aren’t my issue and rallies aren’t my thing.” I understand. There’s a lot of things to be worried about these days. Terrorism, AIDS, education, health care — the list goes on and on. But in our desire to be good world citizens, we must not forget our local responsibilities.

As Yale undergrads, this campus is our community for four years. We may be here to learn, but our learning is dependent on the work of Yale’s unions. Our seminar rooms, lecture halls and laboratories are cleaned by members of Local 35. Our libraries and department offices are staffed by members of Local 34. Our papers and problem sets are graded by members of GESO. Zaremby argued that students should stay out of this fight, but the truth is we can’t. As undergrads, we’re bound up in it.

Once strikes start, the luxury of not having an opinion will no longer exist. We’re all going to have to decide what picket lines we’re willing to cross — or if we’re willing to cross them. But that’s a decision we shouldn’t be forced to make, and Yale must accept responsibility for this situation. At 12:20 p.m. today, I’m going to Beinecke Plaza to “Reclaim My Campus.” I want Yale to be a place where people take responsibility for one another. And if you agree with that, whether you like rallies or not, I hope I’ll see you there.



Erin Scharff is a junior in Pierson College.


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