Strike vote stirs doubt among TAs

With less than a week to go until members of the Graduate Students and Employees Organization vote on whether to stage a five-day strike beginning April 18, there is dissension within the GESO ranks about what course the organization should follow to secure its aims.

GESO organizers announced Wednesday that they will vote on whether to strike at an April 13 membership meeting if Yale President Richard Levin continues to uphold the University’s long-standing position against unionization. And although many GESO members said they think there is significant opposition to a strike within the membership, they said they think a strike is inevitable.

At the press conference Wednesday, GESO co-chair Melissa Mason GRD ’08 said she thinks there is widespread support for a strike among graduate teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences.

“There’s overwhelming support for a union here on central campus,” Mason said. “An overwhelming majority of our TAs want a union, so it’s up to our membership to decide if we should strike.”

But other GESO members said they think there is less than majority support for a strike among TAs this semester.

“I think there are people who probably think that this is happening too soon, and there isn’t the right kind of external support,” Jessica Wrobleski GRD ’08 said. “I think that a recent debate that has emerged is the fact that, of the TAs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences overall, we have less than a majority of TAs who have endorsed a strike at this point. I think some people question whether or not it’s wise to go forward with that level of support.”

Still, some graduate students said they think a strike will occur even if the measure does not receive majority support at the membership meeting.

“What I understand right now is they’re planning on doing a minority strike,” a former GESO member said. “They’re going to go ahead with it no matter what. I’m sure a lot of people who are early in the program or late in the program will support it, but my sense is, a lot of people who are actually teaching are not planning on going on strike.”

But GESO Chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 stressed that the decision to strike remains with the membership.

“If the membership of GESO decides not to strike, then we won’t strike,” Reynolds said. “But I do think that the GESO membership will ultimately decide to strike.”

A GESO member who wished to remain anonymous said there is a prevailing notion among GESO members that a strike was pre-determined by the membership through its communications with organizers at Columbia University, who are planning a strike to coincide with Yale’s.

“They already told outside people, different unions, that they would go on strike this time,” the GESO member said. “What is democracy anyway?”

Some professional school students have also voiced their support of a strike. Professional school students do 20 percent of the teaching at Yale, GESO member Jennifer Seaich DIV ’06 said, but because of their status as professional school students, they often receive less money than their peers and, unlike graduate school students, they do not receive free health care.

“There is support for a union in almost all of these schools,” Seaich said.

Other GESO members, however, said they have become alienated from the organization because of its tactics. The former GESO member said organizers have been pressuring members to back a possible strike, often visiting members during sections and making house calls.

“It’s very hard to argue with the people who are organizing you, because they’re having these conversations all the time, so their arguments are incredibly well-honed, so there’s this combative feeling to begin with,” he said. “There were a lot of people who said, ‘well, I just sort of go along and try to find the path of least resistance. I’ll do this so as to avoid the argument, avoid the further harassments.’”

In response to allegations of coercive tactics, Reynolds said that “democracy is contentious by its nature.”

Some GESO members are opposed to a strike but said they will support a strike if it received majority support. Joshua Burson GRD ’08, who said he recently joined GESO because he is concerned by the lack of professionalism of the teaching force, said he does not think a week-long strike will bring about a change in the administration’s stance on unionization.

“I really feel that a program of protests, without the strike, would be just as effective,” Burson wrote in an e-mail. “As such, I’ll be voting against the strike next Wednesday. But I have a great deal of respect for the importance of the strike as an institution, and so if there is a strike, I’m not going to be crossing any picket lines, however symbolic.”

But another GESO member who asked not to be named said she will not strike, because she does not want to inconvenience undergraduates.

“I should respect my identity as a TA,” she said. “It’s almost the last week of class, I don’t want to bring trouble to my students. That would be irresponsible. A lot of people I’ve talked to who are TAs don’t like the idea of strike.”

GESO members will vote on whether to strike at a 90-minute membership meeting next Wednesday. Both TAs and non-TAs will be asked to vote on separate ballots. If approved, the strike will last for five days.

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