Questions linger after GESO’s vote

Although a convincing majority of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization’s membership voted Wednesday to launch a five-day strike, questions loom about the legitimacy of the vote, the projected magnitude of the teaching assistant job action and the strike’s effectiveness in swaying an administration that has staunchly opposed graduate student unionization for decades.

While GESO claims that 82 percent of its humanities and social sciences TAs who attended the membership meeting voted to strike, GESO’s leadership has refused to release the actual figures for the vote. That the group will not say how many TAs actually voted at the meeting has cast doubt among some on the depth of GESO’s support on the eve of a strike slated to begin Monday morning.

GESO chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 estimated that about 500 GESO members — including graduate students not currently teaching — cast their ballots Wednesday. But Reynolds would not release the number of current TAs who voted to strike when pressed to do so, dismissing the figure as not representative of the number of graduate students she expects to join picket lines next week.

“The strength of the strike will be determined Monday with how many people are in the picket lines and how many classes and sections are cancelled,” Reynolds said. “I would expect hundreds and hundreds [to strike].”

GESO’s goal next week is not to antagonize undergraduates and TAs who chose not to strike, GESO organizer David Huyssen GRD ’10 said, but to promote open dialogue — and negotiations –between the administration and GESO.

“The picket lines, as they’ve been envisioned, are not going to be hard and fast picket lines,” he said. “Our goal is certainly not to keep people out of the buildings.”

Members of Columbia University’s Graduate Students Employees United, which is holding a strike coordinated with the one at Yale, have laid out plans for a more extensive strike. GSEU has asked graduate students not to attend classes and faculty are being asked to move their lectures off campus, according to the group’s Web site.

At Yale, GESO has made no such requests. The group has not laid out a specific schedule for the job action, but Huyssen said state politicians are scheduled to visit campus on Monday, local labor leaders will speak on Tuesday and GESO members will go to New York City on Wednesday for a labor rally with Columbia’s striking TAs.

While GESO continues its planning for next week, some graduate students are questioning the validity of GESO’s claim that it has overwhelming support among graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. Justin Zaremby GRD ’09, who is not a GESO member, said he thinks there is “probably a majority mood” in support of a strike within GESO, but said it remains to be seen how many TAs will actually cancel sections and go on strike.

“I was a little bit disturbed by the fact that percentages were given, but there were no numbers given,” Zaremby said. “To me, that means I’ll have no way of actually knowing how many people will strike. I know some are going to, and there’s certainly not a sentiment among graduate students as a whole. I certainly would not be going on strike if I were TA-ing.”

A GESO member who wished to remain anonymous said she did not think the vote was democratic because the meeting’s time and location — at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the First and Summerfield Methodist Church, next door to union headquarters on College Street — were not widely advertised to graduate students.

“Normally when they have GESO membership meetings, you’ll see fliers telling you the time and place, but there were no fliers this time,” she said. “They wanted to make sure only the people that would vote in favor would come.”

The GESO membership meeting had been announced in the group’s newsletter.

But some other GESO members described the membership meeting as a demonstration of democracy in action. Christy Glass GRD ’05 said she thinks the atmosphere in the meeting was overwhelmingly in favor of striking.

“I think there was a lot of excitement before the meeting, and there was even more excitement after the meeting,” Glass said. “The meeting allowed us to see how much solidarity we have on campus, and that’s really exciting.”

Even though some GESO members said they do not expect the University to reverse its opinion on graduate student unionization after the five-day strike, Reynolds said she thinks the strike still will have an impact in pushing the administration to address some of the issues GESO has prioritized. In the past, GESO has won gains from its strikes, Reynolds said, including free health care for Ph.D. candidates after its 1995 grade strike.

“You can see concrete results from when graduate teachers have gone on strike,” Reynolds said. “I do think this five-day strike does allow us to highlight issues of importance to graduate students on a national scale.”

Nomi Lazar GRD ’05 said she thinks the strike may induce the Graduate Student Assembly — the Graduate School’s elected student representative body — to bring up issues with the administration that have topped GESO’s agenda.

“If GESO raises an issue, GSA tends to advocate for it,” she said. “The interests of graduate students are best served by having GESO make noise.”

GESO members said their foremost aim remains recognition as a union. They hope striking simultaneously with graduate TAs at Columbia will help sway the administration.

“Part of what we’re doing with this strike is giving an idea of how an action can escalate and the kind of allies we have,” Huyssen said. “I think it will be much more effective both at solidifying our relationship with the federation and the labor movement more broadly.”

Zaremby said he does not think a strike confined to five days will have the power to achieve much of anything. He said GESO’s decision to strike for just five days underscores the group’s questionable level of support among undergraduates and graduate students.

“If they were to go into finals week and attempted a grade strike, their popularity would be lower among undergrads,” he said. “They’re doing it to make a statement, but also so they don’t lose too much capital.”

But Huyssen said the five-day strike will make the action more inclusive for members of the Yale community.

“A five-day action around several different issues will enable many other members of the Yale community to rally around specific issues that they feel personally invested in, in a way that an indefinite strike wouldn’t do as well,” Huyssen said.

Yale officials have consistently said that a strike effort will have no effect on its stance with regard to GESO.

GESO members leave their April 13 meeting. Despite its leaders’ affirmations as to the legitimacy of the meeting, questions linger about the group’s support.
Eric Seymour
GESO members leave their April 13 meeting. Despite its leaders’ affirmations as to the legitimacy of the meeting, questions linger about the group’s support.

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