Picket lines mark first day of strike

Members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization launched their five-day strike Monday, taking to the streets to make their case for unionization to the Yale community, but administrators said the job action caused little disruption to the University’s affairs.

About 250 teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences are striking this week, roughly half of the TAs in those disciplines this semester, according to preliminary estimates Monday afternoon by GESO organizers. The group’s leaders said by week’s end the job action will have affected about 450 undergraduate classes.

The strikers comprise about 22 percent of the 1,124 enrolled doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences this year, and do not include TAs from the sciences. Yale administrators said they are not fazed by the strike thus far and pledged to continue the University’s decades-long position against graduate student unionization.

Yale officials said the strike has had a minimal effect on undergraduate education and did not disrupt Bulldog Days activities. Although some GESO members considered targeting large lecture courses in the humanities and social sciences, organizers decided not to target classes yesterday and do not plan to do so for the remainder of the week, GESO spokeswoman Rachel Sulkes GRD ’01 said.

At the morning picket lines, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz ’83 cheered on striking TAs on High Street, and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro spoke at a noontime rally on the corner of Elm and York streets. Yesterday’s events, during which picketers donned signs, beat drums and chanted jingles, drew as many as 500 participants, Sulkes said.

“I thought the picket lines were really energetic and creative,” GESO Chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said. “It’s always wonderful to look out in the crowd and see undergraduates, and faculty, and locals 34 and 35 members — it feels as though there’s a real community here in New Haven fighting for social justice.”

Yale President Richard Levin said the University will not be able to fully gauge the impact of the strike until later in the week, when most sections for lecture courses convene.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said a “great majority” of graduate students did not strike, instead choosing to attend classes, work on their dissertations and continue their lab work.

“Only 30 percent of graduate students have teaching responsibilities per semester, and GESO said that students should go to class,” Conroy said. “GESO said it wasn’t encouraging faculty to move classes. GESO said it wasn’t encouraging students not to cross picket lines. It’s certainly not a feeling on the part of the administration that the educational process was disrupted.”

Picketers convened at several sites on campus yesterday, including Wall, York, High and Prospect streets. Around 11:30 a.m., approximately 100 picketers stood in front of Sterling Memorial Library, chanting lyrics to the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Sulkes said she thought the picketing was “very effective.”

“The point of doing picketing is for people to understand that there’s something that’s not business as usual going on, and to highlight the support that we have,” she said.

This was the second strike Melissa Stuckey GRD ’06 has participated in during her time at Yale, and her first as a TA. Stuckey said she will not teach sections this week for the popular lecture course “Foundations of Modern American Culture.”

“I thought it was an incredible experience,” Stuckey said. “It was really empowering to see so many people out supporting us. I was really excited about the turnout.”

The administration’s primary concern this week is to mitigate the impact of the strike on undergraduate education, Conroy said. Yale officials anticipated the strike would have the largest effect on language courses, many of which are taught by TAs. But all of the 59 classes yesterday that were primarily taught by TAs did meet, Conroy said.

“It seemed like a smooth day, when you consider that all those classes led by the part-time acting instructors all met in one way or the other, and that it seemed that the picketing and rallies were more orderly,” he said. “The Yale Police reported no problems, and it didn’t seem like very large crowds. It appears that there was no significant affect on undergraduate education.”

So far, Walker Frahm ’08 said the job action has been a “non-issue” for him and most of his friends. Frahm said one of his TAs is striking, but that section is being rescheduled for next week. He said his encounter with a group of about 20 picketers on his way to class this morning was not disruptive.

“They looked like they were having a lot of fun, just kind of singing and walking in a circle,” Frahm said. “I was in one lecture class, and I guess they must have been marching by and chanting, and that was annoying for a couple of minutes.”

But Catherine Frieman ’05 said she thinks picketing is an effective means of disseminating information about GESO’s cause. During the noontime rally, Frieman said passengers in cars beeped their horns to signal their support for GESO, and hundreds were present to listen to remarks by DeLauro, Local 34 president Laura Smith, City University of New York professor Joshua Freeman and New England Carpenters Executive Committee member Chuck Appleby.

“There were definitely people reacting,” Frieman said. “I know it definitely caught the view of the New Haven community, which is just as important.”

Forty-three members of Congress, including DeLauro, sent a letter to Levin, Columbia President Lee Bollinger and the president of New York University April 14 urging them to grant union recognition to graduate students to promote better lives for students and their families. DeLauro referenced the letter yesterday.

“We are urging these great universities … simply to sit down and negotiate,” DeLauro said. “We ask only to engage in a dialogue about these issues that are important to you and your families: compensation and health care.”

A representative for U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 also spoke at the rally to read from a letter affirming the former presidential candidate’s support for GESO’s efforts to unionize.

Throughout the day, picketers targeted students visiting campus for Bulldog Days by handing them flowers made of tissue paper — an homage to the peace movement of the 1960s and 70s — which contained invitations to the rally, as well as informational leaflets, Sulkes said.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said all Bulldog Days activities proceeded normally, and he said he received no complaints from parents or visiting students about the strike.

“People were coming to me about free expression policies on campus, and appreciating that Yale is a very tolerant environment that allows and even encourages people with diverse points of view to express them in an unfettered way,” Salovey said.

Although reactions to the strike were mixed among visiting students, it did not appear to have significantly impacted their perceptions of Yale. TJ George, a senior from Atlanta, said the strike actually improved his perceptions of the University.

“It made me realize that this school is normal,” George said. “Like any other school, this school has problems too. It’s not just a privileged, rich school.”

But Joanne Cyganowski, a senior from Shelton, Conn., said she found GESO’s demonstrations to be “really annoying and loud.”

“Most of the pre-frosh were like, ‘What the hell is this?’” Cyganowski said. “But it didn’t really change anything.”

Both Cyganowski and George said they had already decided to come to Yale.

Visiting freshmen can expect more GESO demonstrations today. Picketing will resume at 8:30 a.m., and GESO strikers will be joined by UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm ’67. At 10:45 a.m., there will be a “classrooms in the street” demonstration on College Street in which graduate students, teachers and undergraduates will discuss the history of the unionization movement to passersby, Sulkes said. Capping off the day of demonstrations, GESO will hold a noontime rally at the intersection of Elm and College streets featuring Wilhelm, New Haven Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez, Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Roger Vann and local labor leader the Rev. Scott Marks.

— Staff reporter Yassmin Sadeghi contributed to this report.

The Rev. Scott Marks and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 cheer on GESO at a rally Monday as the graduate students kicked off the first day of their strike.
Alexander L.White
The Rev. Scott Marks and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 cheer on GESO at a rally Monday as the graduate students kicked off the first day of their strike.

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