Placing a new spin on an old defeat, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization — a group that in its nearly 14 years of trying to unionize graduate students has honed intimidation into a science — is now claiming that the reason it narrowly lost a unionization vote last spring was not unpopularity, but in part because several professors threatened retaliation against students who voted in support of GESO. In statements publicized this week, GESO leaders said their grievances will be investigated by an ad hoc committee made up of labor lawyers and scholars. The findings are set to be released at a hearing later this month.
We were pleasantly surprised last semester when a majority of the graduate students who voted, voted against GESO — especially considering the dubious circumstances of April’s League of Women Voters-sponsored election, which included poor publicity of the vote; an incomplete, GESO-designed list of eligible voters; and hours and polling locations arguably intended to be inconvenient for students in departments traditionally less supportive of the unionization effort. Considering the last-minute mobilization of anti-GESO graduate students, we are inclined to believe the primary reason for GESO’s narrow loss is widespread opposition from the students it purports to represent.
Nevertheless, it is perfectly reasonable for GESO’s claims of illegal intimidation to be investigated. Members of GESO deserve to live and work in a harassment-free environment just as much as the students who don’t support the unionization effort and who find recruiters hovering around their labs, waiting at their doorsteps, and clustered around their tables at Koffee Too?. We believe the National Labor Relations Board would have been a better choice for addressing these complaints because it is unclear what authority this academic committee has and what will become of its findings. But the committee approached GESO, not the other way around. It is therefore not unreasonable that GESO obliged.
But GESO’s position in claiming intimidation is substantially weakened by the group’s recent history of using NLRB grievances as a vehicle to launch personal attacks against those who are not fully in support of the unionization effort. GESO filed five grievances just before the strike last spring against professors who had been steadfastly supportive of the group but who did not fully support the graduate student strike. In most of the cases, complaints were based on professors’ policies of holding graduate students accountable for classwork during the action.
It is unfortunate that the group’s defeat in its own vote last spring — not to mention recent efforts by the leaders of locals 34 and 35 to distance themselves from the graduate student unionization effort — have not made GESO’s leaders reconsider their tactics, in particular their use of NLRB grievances as a way of pressuring professors into full commitment to the group. It is unfortunate, too, if professors were indeed intimidating pro-GESO students into not voting, or voting against the union in April. But in the end, GESO cannot expect to have it both ways: after hearing enough cries of faculty intimidation, it becomes difficult for us to distinguish between legitimate complaints and strategic ones.