Members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization issued an ultimatum to Yale President Richard Levin on Wednesday to grant the group union recognition within one week or face a five-day strike by hundreds of graduate teaching assistants beginning on April 18.
The group’s members will vote on whether to strike at a membership meeting next Wednesday barring a shift in University policy, GESO co-chair Melissa Mason GRD ’08 announced at a press conference yesterday morning in front of the Hall of Graduate Studies. If the vote receives majority support among GESO members, the strike will occur the following week, from April 18 to April 22 — the final week of classes for undergraduates.
GESO’s threat to strike coincided with the release of a petition advertisement in yesterday’s Yale Daily News that was signed by some 300 humanities and social sciences TAs, representing about 60 percent of the University’s 500 humanities and social science TAs, Mason said. An additional 400 non-teaching graduate students in those departments are supporting the group in its quest for unionization, she said.
“President Levin: you have one week — recognize our union,” Mason said at the press conference, which was attended by about 30 GESO members and organizers.
But University officials said they will not alter Yale’s long-standing position against graduate student unionization. The administration has continued to uphold a National Labor Relations Board ruling in 2004 that denied employee status to graduate students working as TAs at private institutions.
“They’ve had strikes several times before, and they really haven’t advanced their cause or broadened their base of support,” Levin said. “[A strike] wins more enemies than friends among the faculty and undergrads.”
Graduate student organizers at Columbia also are moving forward with plans to strike, GESO co-chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said. Graduate TAs at Columbia will vote whether to strike on April 11 and 12, and organizers at both Columbia and Yale are planning to strike the same week. The strike will be the first multi-campus strike in the Ivy League if approved, GESO organizers said.
Reynolds said she expects “hundreds and hundreds” of graduate students to attend GESO’s April 13 membership meeting, at which all TAs in the humanities and social sciences will vote by secret ballot. Non-teaching graduate students also will be allowed to vote to demonstrate their support for a strike, she said.
“The membership will decide what we will do,” Reynolds said, adding that organizers at universities throughout the country are planning “a series of actions” to show their support for unionization the week of the strike.
In recent months, GESO members have been speaking with graduate students in many departments to garner support for a possible strike, Reynolds said. Last December, GESO organized a card-count vote of graduate TAs for the fall semester in the humanities and social sciences that showed that about 60 percent of these TAs support unionization.
But some GESO members said they were skeptical about the level of support for a strike both among TAs at large, and even among GESO’s own membership ranks. Some members pointed to an April 2003 vote in which a majority of graduate students said they did not support GESO. The vote, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, was open to all graduate students.
One GESO member who asked not to be named said that “not even half” of the TAs in the humanities and social sciences have indicated their support for a strike.
“I don’t think they’re going to get the majority of TAs supporting a strike,” said the member, who will not vote to support a strike. “It would be different if I could feel that 80 percent of my peers support this, then I would be supporting them, but I don’t.”
Still, she said she supports many of GESO’s aims.
“There’s a lot of things wrong with the way the University deals with grad students, especially TAs,” she said.
GESO organizers have cited the shortage of tenured female and minority faculty, unequal pay for graduate students who teach undergraduates, and insufficient childcare among other graduate student concerns that they say the University has failed to address.
“I feel that in the Political Science Department, diversity is definitely an issue,” GESO member Gahodery Rodriguez GRD ’06 said. “We don’t have any tenured faculty of color in the department.”
Conroy defended the University’s treatment of its graduate students. All Ph.D. candidates at the Graduate School receive free health care and students in their first five years receive a minimum stipend of $17,000, an amount that is slated to increase to $18,000 next fall.
“The fact is that Yale is able to attract the most promising scholars in the world to its graduate program because of the superb educational opportunities it offers, coupled with the very generous financial aid and support that is provided to students,” Conroy said.
GESO organizers have planned a labor rally in New York City on April 20 if members vote in favor of a strike, Reynolds said.
Members of Yale’s unions will demonstrate their support for GESO if a strike occurs, said Bob Proto, president of Local 35 and the Greater New Haven Labor Council.
“We’re going to give them every bit of support because their fight is the right fight, and we’re going to do everything within the law to get them recognized,” Proto said. “We’re going to march with them; we’re going to join them on the picket lines; we’re going to organize people to support them in any way.”
GESO, which has gone on strike several times during the last 15 years to win recognition from Yale as a union, most recently joined locals 34 and 35 during a five-day strike in March 2003 and a three-and-a-half week strike that September.