NEW YORK — More than 1,000 teaching assistants, graduate students, union members and supporters from across the country converged outside the gates of Columbia University Wednesday afternoon to call on Yale, Columbia and the National Labor Relations Board to grant graduate teachers union recognition.
Midway through their week-long TA strike, an estimated 300 members of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization piled onto eight buses yesterday en route to New York City where national labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, joined hundreds of labor supporters in a march for graduate union recognition.
Organizers of GESO and Columbia’s Graduate Student Employees United said they hope the demonstration of solidarity between students at the two Ivy League institutions and within the nation’s labor movement will pressure the administrations at Yale and Columbia to alter their long-standing positions against graduate student unionization.
“This is a historic occasion,” GESO chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said. “There’s real energy and a real sense of possibility. The academics could really take the academy back from corporate control.”
The energy was high yesterday afternoon among the throngs assembled on 116th and Broadway just off of Columbia’s campus, where picketers waved signs, beat drums and screamed slogans. The rally was a sea of patriotic colors, as men, women and children donned red union shirts and hung blue and white strike signs around their necks.
But the display of fervor did not faze administrators at Columbia and Yale. On the third day of a coordinated TA strike at both universities, officials said they will continue to uphold their positions against graduate student unionization.
“We estimate that less than 10 percent of research assistants and teaching assistants who GSEU claims to represent are striking,” Columbia spokeswoman Alissa Kaplan Michaels said. “The university’s position is quite clear. Our graduate students are valued, and the relationship between graduate students and faculty is collaborative and educational.”
It has been three days since TAs at Yale and Columbia launched the first-ever coordinated job action in the Ivy League, but the strike has not altered the universities’ opposition to graduate teacher unionization. Because organizers at both schools have said they devised a five-day strike largely as a means for bringing issues to the limelight, the administrations likely will not reach their breaking points by Friday and recognize the groups as unions.
“The strike had minimal effect on undergraduate education,” Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said. “And that’s really not the purpose of the strike. The thrust of this week is to attract attention to the unionization proposal, not to disrupt undergraduate education. If the overriding purpose was to disrupt undergraduate education, you wouldn’t need any rallies or demonstrations.”
Before a hooting and hollering crowd, UNITE HERE Hospitality Industry President John Wilhelm ’67 affirmed the national labor movement’s support for graduate student unionization and declared that the responsibilities of graduate TAs qualify them as workers.
“We will fight until there are unions in the wealthiest universities in the country,” Wilhelm said. “The labor movement needs graduate teachers and researchers. We need your energy. We need your ability to help the labor movement reach out across the globe.”
UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor blasted Yale for refusing to alter its position against unionization.
“I think Yale University is special in its arrogance, it’s special in its belief that because it’s rich, because it’s powerful, it can roll over people,” Raynor said.
Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said it is not surprising that Raynor and Wilhelm are supporting GESO.
“GESO is part of UNITE HERE, and always has been,” Conroy said. “So GESO’s affiliations are well-known, and that affiliation doesn’t have any affect on the University’s position or principle regarding graduate student unionization.”
Elizabeth Bund, secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, the national union supporting GSEU, challenged the recent NLRB ruling — which both Columbia and Yale have cited as a justification of their policies toward unionization — that denied graduate students employee status.
“The NLRB cannot take away the right that you have as workers, and neither can [Columbia President] Lee Bollinger, or — who the hell is the president of Yale? I don’t know,” Bund said, eliciting laughter from GESO strikers in the audience. “If you get a check because you provide a service, then you are a worker.”
Toward the end of the rally, New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller led four of his council colleagues in signing a petition declaring their support for graduate student unionization at Columbia.
“The NYC Council stands with you,” Miller said. “Workers at institutions of higher learning have the right to organize. Unions are what made this city great, and are what makes this country great.”
Although Columbia sophomore Jesse Imbriano said after the rally that he does not “have a problem” with unionization, he said he opposes the strike, which he views as detrimental to undergraduate education.
“I have several classes that are cancelled this week, and TAs who won’t meet with me to discuss final papers,” Imbriano said. “I’m getting pretty screwed over by it. They don’t lose their stipend by doing this … they’re only hurting other people.”
James Hare, a second-year graduate student working as a TA in Columbia’s Religious Studies Department, said during the rally that the stipend he receives for 25 to 30 hours of work each week is not adequate to meet his living expenses in New York.
“It’s hard work, and I don’t get enough for it, so I’m on strike this week,” Hare said. “[The strike] is going well. We have hundreds of TAs and RAs out on strike, classes aren’t meeting, sections aren’t meeting.”
Strikers from Yale who attended the rally echoed their counterparts at Columbia. GESO co-chair Melissa Mason GRD ’08, who is not teaching her political science sections this week, said she felt “really great” standing among the protesters in New York.
“Columbia and Yale are on strike together, and this is the peak,” Mason said. “We’ve been very clear about the issues that our members are fighting for. I do expect there to be some movement [from the administration].”
But Columbia sophomore Anjuli Upadhyay — a student who has not been affected by the strike since she is enrolled at the Engineering School, where GSEU membership is low — said she thinks the job action at Columbia will have little impact on the administration’s stance.
“It’s pointless to have a strike going on for one week,” Upadhyay said. “I doubt the administration is going to change anything.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former presidential candidate, will speak at both Columbia and Yale today. He will lead a rally at Yale at 5 p.m. near Sterling Memorial Library. GESO also will organize a noontime rally today featuring union members, faculty and graduate students from outside of Yale.