An overwhelming majority of graduate teaching assistants affiliated with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization voted yesterday to strike next week, promising to cease teaching for five straight days beginning next Monday.
About 82 percent of graduate TAs in GESO voted in favor of the strike at a GESO membership meeting Wednesday afternoon, while 91 percent of non-teaching graduate students in the group voted to support a strike effort, GESO chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said. GESO leaders would not provide actual figures for the vote, which was conducted by secret ballot, but Reynolds estimated that about 500 graduate students attended the meeting, which was closed to the press.
Only GESO members in the humanities and social sciences were included in the vote. This year, 1,124 doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences are enrolled at Yale, according to University statistics.
“I felt the meeting was amazing, to have graduate teachers coming together in order to talk about the issues that face graduate teachers,” Reynolds said. “The vote tonight shows overwhelming support for a graduate student union here at Yale.”
Reynolds said she expects hundreds of graduate TAs to strike next week unless Yale President Richard Levin reverses the University’s long-standing position against graduate student unionization and agrees to recognize GESO as an official union.
“I would be happy to take a call from President Levin at any moment and sit down and negotiate,” Reynolds said at a press conference following the meeting at the First and Summerfield Methodist Church on College Street.
But Yale officials said the administration does not believe that GESO represents a majority of graduate students, and officials questioned the results of the vote.
“I would say given the fact that GESO refuses to release the numbers participating in the election, one can only assume it is not representative of the graduate students,” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said. “By most estimates, only about a third of the graduates have ever supported GESO.”
GESO members who go on strike next week will be joined by members of Columbia University’s Graduate Student Employees United, a group that has been working with GESO organizers to coordinate a joint strike action next week. GSEU announced Wednesday evening that 82 percent of its graduate TAs also voted in favor of a strike.
Although Reynolds would not disclose the details of next week’s strike, she said GESO organizers will meet during the next several days to plan various strike actions, which include an April 20 labor rally in New York City. Antony Dugdale, a research analyst for the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, said Yale’s unions will cover printing expenses for GESO’s strike signs and posters, and will help cover the cost of buses to transport striking TAs to the New York rally.
Local 35 President Bob Proto, who spoke at GESO’s membership meeting, said his union, which represents the University’s maintenance and service workers, will “absolutely” join GESO in its strike next week.
“We’re very proud as locals that know sticking together moves you forward at Yale,” Proto said. “We’re very proud to be allied with this courageous group of teachers who are actually making history right now.”
Daniel Gilbert GRD ’07 said he voted in favor of a strike because he believes GESO should be granted union recognition and predicted that a majority of his fellow TAs in the American Studies Department will strike next week.
Although Olga Bezhanova GRD ’09 said she supports “all the issues” on the group’s platform, she said she voted against a strike because she thinks it is a poor tactic for GESO.
“I think disrupting the academic program at this moment, during the last week of classes, is bad,” Bezhanova said.
Tzvi Novick GRD ’09 said issues such as health care and child care influenced his vote in favor of a TA strike.
“The point is to enable graduate students to be able to do their work effectively, not having to choose between having a family and being able to succeed academically,” said Novick, who said he is married but does not have children.
Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said the issues GESO is focusing on have been discussed among administrators at various universities, including Yale, for some time, and that “great improvement” has been made.
“Yale and Columbia are the only institutions that currently pay 50 percent of the health premiums for married students and families, and in advance of demands from outside,” Butler said. “Yale departments have been working on diversity for considerable time in areas where there are limited numbers of minorities in faculty ranks.”
Butler said his office will continue discussions about the upcoming strike with department chairs and directors of graduate studies to ensure that course instruction continues for undergraduates. TAs who choose to strike next week will still receive their stipends in accordance with University policy.
“The Graduate School intends to handle this in a low-key, commonsensical fashion,” Butler said.
As GESO’s membership meeting drew to a close, about a dozen undergraduates who called themselves the Committee for Freedom gathered across the street from the church to hold up signs in protest of GESO’s strike and chant, “Hey hey, ho ho, GESO thugs have got to go.”
“They’re here as teaching assistants,” Philip Olson ’08 said. “They’re here to learn how to be teachers eventually. They’re still learning.”
Several members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee stood outside the church in support of the striking graduate students.
“GESO is standing up for my education and the values of my university,” UOC member Josh Eidelson ’06 said. “Undergraduates will be picketing with GESO.”
Next week’s strike will be GESO’s sixth in 15 years. The group last went on strike in September 2003, when they joined locals 34 and 35, the University’s two largest unions, in a three-and-a-half week action.