TAs draw on national labor movement

Although an academic may not be readily associated with an auto mechanic, graduate student groups who are trying to unionize often rely on ties with major unions, such as the United Auto Workers, to acquire needed experience and financial resources.

The Graduate Employees and Students Organization is affiliated with the national union UNITE-HERE, the parent of locals 34 and 35, which represent Yale’s service, maintenance, clerical and technical workers. Antony Dugdale, a senior research analyst with UNITE-HERE in New Haven, said the three groups — locals 34 and 35 and GESO — benefit from sharing information through the New Haven-based Federation of Hospital and University Employees. National labor leaders are also expected to be involved in rallies and picketing during strikes by teaching assistants at Yale and Columbia next week.

GESO spokeswoman Rachel Sulkes GRD ’01 said decisions about how to pursue the group’s goal of unionization are made only by graduate students, although the group benefits from the experience of UNITE-HERE.

“If you look at the climate in which organizing is happening, all graduate unions are organizing with national unions,” Sulkes said. “All of the coordinators, the highest decision-makers, are grad students at Yale … Our members are the only people who can decide whether to strike, whether to sign a contract.”

A major component of the partnership between GESO and its parent unions is monetary support. Most of GESO’s funding comes from the national union in the form of an annual stipend, Dugdale said. The funding from UNITE-HERE covers rent for the space GESO shares with locals 34 and 35 and printing costs for signs and posters, among other expenses.

Filings with the U.S. Labor Department show that GESO has received between about $40,000 and $80,000 from UNITE-HERE annually in recent years.

“The three unions have coordinating meetings to kind of keep up with each other in terms of what’s going on,” he said. “We work together on a weekly basis, we share office space, we talk frequently.”

Cornell University professor Ronald Ehrenberg, who studies academic labor markets, said a national union can provide resources, including financing, to student groups seeking to unionize both before and after a union is formed. When graduate students tried to unionize at Cornell in 2002, they chose to affiliate with the UAW. The university allowed research assistants and teaching assistants to vote on unionization in October 2002, but the vote failed.

“The UAW paid for several staff people to be involved,” he said. “If you do win the election, you are connected with people with some expertise in negotiating and with enforcing contract provisions.”

But the support of national unions would be unlikely to persuade the University to recognize GESO as a union, Ehrenberg said. Because of a 2004 decision by the National Labor Relations Board involving Brown University, private universities do not have to recognize graduate students as employees.

“Absent a change in the NLRB ruling, the university can just stonewall [unionization],” he said.

Following the NLRB ruling, national labor unions have flocked to the sides of graduate student organizing groups at universities across the country, proclaiming that graduate teaching assistants are primarily employees. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pledged his union’s support for groups like GESO which are fighting to gain union recognition.

“No flawed labor board decision can erase the fact that the freedom to form unions is a fundamental human right,” Sweeney said in a statement following the 2004 ruling. “When the government takes away federally sanctioned avenues to form unions, America’s workers will organize nonetheless. The 13 million members of the AFL-CIO stand ready to help graduate employees realize their basic human right to have a union and bargain collectively.”

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the link between UNITE-HERE and GESO does not affect the University’s relationship with either group.

“GESO has always been aligned with HERE, and HERE has given substantial financial support to GESO over the years,” Conroy said. “Among the things that it has done at times is pay salaries for GESO organizers … The reality is, locals 34 and 35 are going to be supportive of GESO.”

Still, during periods of negotiation and strikes, graduate student unions often support their parent unions with sympathy strikes, and vice versa. When locals 34 and 35 went on strike at Yale in fall 2003, GESO members joined them in striking. Members of UAW Local 2110, which represents administrative and support staff at Columbia as well as GSEU, went on sympathy strikes in 2002 and 2004.

“The workers are immensely supportive of TAs and RAs as fellow employees on the campus,” said Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110.

Bob Proto, the president of Local 35 and the Greater New Haven Labor Council, said his union will support GESO if they strike next week with members joining GESO strikers on the picket line, but they will not engage in a sympathy strike.

“We support them 100 percent in their fight for recognition,” he said. “They supported us during our strike, and now they want a seat at the table.”

The UAW and the American Federation of Teachers, a branch of the AFL-CIO, are the national unions who are most connected to graduate student unionization, Dugdale said. The AFT supports unionization efforts at the University of Pennsylvania and includes the graduate student union at the University of Michigan. The UAW represents the recognized union at New York University and is affiliated with the Graduate Student Employees United at Columbia University.

“Those are the two main players,” Dugdale said. “UNITE-HERE is only in it for Yale because we represent the other Yale workers.”

Conroy said GESO’s decision to affiliate with UNITE-HERE instead of the AFL-CIO or UAW is not important to its negotiations with the University.

“The University in principle is opposed to a grad student union, and that principle would be unaffected by which union is trying to organize,” he said.

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