TAs support union, according to GESO card count

About 60 percent of Yale’s graduate teaching assistants who are teaching this semester support graduate student unionization, according to a Graduate Employees and Student Organization membership card count, the results of which were released at GESO’s membership meeting Tuesday. The vote, however, did not sway University administrators, who said they would maintain a stance against graduate student unionization.

Although GESO officials would not release the vote totals from the 12-week membership card count Tuesday evening, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz ’83 confirmed the majority percentage at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at a press event at First and Summerfield Methodist Church. She was joined by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — all Democrats — and Greater New Haven Central Labor Council President Robert Proto at the GESO announcement.

Bysiewicz’s confirmation that a majority of graduate teaching assistants support unionization means that the University can opt to voluntarily recognize GESO as a union and begin bargaining with GESO over contract terms, GESO officials said.

But Yale President Richard Levin said a ruling last July by the National Labor Relations Board affirms the University’s belief that graduate students are principally students and not statutory employees, and therefore have no legal right to form unions.

“The typical grad student teaches three or four semesters over five years,” Levin said. “We regard their teaching experience as part of their training and education to pay professors.”

Despite the NLRB’s ruling that graduate student teaching assistants do not have employee status at private universities, graduate students and researchers at Columbia University joined Yale over the past 12 weeks in its efforts toward gaining union recognition through card count votes. Columbia’s graduate student union organizers have also reached a majority in support of unionization, a statement released Tuesday by Columbia graduate student Shannon Clark said.

In a second vote during GESO’s 90-minute, bi-annual membership meeting, which was closed to the press, all current GESO members were invited to vote on whether they should press Yale to receive voluntary recognition as a union. The results of the second vote will not be available until January, GESO spokeswoman Rachel Sulkes GRD ’01 said.

GESO asked Bysiewicz to count the votes in order to lend “real validity” to the results, GESO Co-Chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said.

“It gives real weight to the fact that GESO does represent a majority,” Reynolds said.

The membership cards that Bysiewicz counted were signed by those graduate teaching assistants who taught during the fall 2004 semester, Reynolds said. At the meeting, which she estimated was attended by more than 400 people, all GESO members, regardless of whether they are teaching this semester, were given the opportunity to sign membership cards, Reynolds said.

The number of graduate teaching assistants registered to teach for the fall 2004 semester was not available Tuesday evening. Only a limited number of the roughly 2,500 students who are currently enrolled in the Graduate School, including about 2,100 enrolled in the Ph.D. program, are teaching assistants, Yale Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said Tuesday.

While the time that students may serve as teaching assistants varies from program to program, Butler said, students in most of the humanities departments teach during their third or fourth year. Yale’s median time it takes students to attain Ph.D.s in humanities programs is 7.2 years, according to the school’s data.

In April 2003, GESO narrowly lost an election sponsored by the League of Women Voters to determine support for unionization in the Graduate School. Unlike GESO’s membership card count this fall which only included graduate students serving as teaching assistants this semester, the 2003 vote was open to all graduate students.

A number of New Haven residents attended Tuesday’s meeting, in addition to graduate students, newly-elected GESO Co-Chair Melissa Mason GRD ’08 said.

“When I walked into the room, I was totally impressed by the people coming out — Local 35, retirees, the New Haven community,” Mason said.

Reynolds said she hopes support from political figures such as DeStefano and DeLauro will induce the University to recognize GESO as a union. Both DeLauro and DeStefano said they supported GESO’s efforts to unionize.

“Between their studies and responsibilities as teaching assistants, many of them are working as much as 80 hours a week,” DeLauro said. “Many more will leave this institution incurring significant debt. They deserve the chance to be heard and treated with dignity and respect.”

Reynolds said GESO is awaiting contact from Levin to discuss the possibility of unionization in conjunction with the results of the card count. GESO will continue to work toward unionization if the University refuses to grant the organization official union recognition, she said.

“We will continue to reach out to the 40,000 other unionized grad students across the country,” Reynolds said. “We’re calling on the University to recognize the union, and we’re building a coalition with Columbia and UPenn.”

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