Supporters of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization gathered to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak yesterday, jubilant after what they said was a breakthough achieved at a protest earlier in the day.
GESO spokeswoman Rachel Sulkes GRD ’01 said the development she called the “biggest victory of the day” occurred at around 3 p.m. yesterday when GESO members, marching outside of the Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, confronted Yale Corporation members entering the building for a meeting. The strikers pointed to the University representatives and chanted “Shame on Yale.” According to Sulkes, when Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 emerged from the building after about half an hour, he agreed to meet with GESO members next week, a decision which Sulkes said has invigorated the GESO cause.
“We’re excited things are going so well,” Sulkes said. “We’re going to get a dialogue, which is what we have wanted all along.”
Yale officials did not return several calls Thursday evening to confirm that a meeting will be held. University officers have consistently refused to meet with GESO in the past.
Hours later, several hundred graduate students, undergraduates, teachers and other spectators gathered in front of Sterling Memorial Library at 5 p.m for the rally headlined by Jackson. Many showed their fervent support for GESO’s cause with signs reading, “Union Rights are Teachers’ Rights” and “Another Yale Undergrad for GESO,” but other signs, with slogans like “Stop Whining” spoke to the tension in the crowd.
GESO strikers made their entrance shortly after 5 p.m., marching across Cross Campus, chanting and waving signs as they approached Rose Walk, in front of the library. Although Jackson was delayed by traffic for over an hour, the crowd only thinned out slightly as various speakers took the podium.
The strikers greeted Jackson when he arrived at 6:10 p.m. with loud cheering and applause. From a stage erected near the library he led the crowd in chants such as “save the families, save the workers, we the people have the right to organize…” and encouraged them to “keep hope alive.”
In his speech, Jackson referenced several other protest movements, including the civil rights battles of the 1960s and last August’s march in Atlanta, Ga. in support of the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. He also encouraged the crowd to fight against the war in Iraq, for affirmative action and against sweatshops.
“I hope we can make the whole world better and more secure,” Jackson said. “Keep it alive, keep fighting back. Fight the hatred, the racism and the anti-Semitism.”
Sulkes said that Jackson’s presence on campus today and his recent appearances at NYU and Columbia confirmed the theme of the fourth day of the GESO strike — the rising level of national support for graduate student unionization.
“Whenever Rev. Jackson comes to campus, he is saying to the world, ‘This is something you should pay attention to,’” Sulkes said. “The fact that he refused to just come to Yale and [also] supported NYU and Columbia yesterday … it is a sign that this is something that is spreading all over the country. It’s taking on a life of its own.”
According to Sulkes, supporters at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst also staged a one-day walkout today to show solidarity with the movement.
“It has escalated all week,” said Dan Gilbert, a teaching assistant in the American Studies Department. “Our fight has spread across the country.”
Undergraduates also showed up to the evening rally in large numbers to voice their opinions on the strike — they gathered on Rose Walk, divided into two clusters, one loudly supporting GESO’s strike, the other making a mockery of it.
A group perched on the Women’s Table held their pro-GESO signs above the crowd and cheered loudly for the speakers.
Gloria Alday ’07 took the stage on behalf of GESO’s undergraduate supporters.
“The things GESO is fighting for are things that directly affect my education,” Alday said. “I sit in lecture but I learn in section … I’m here to let GESO know that Yale undergraduates support them and we will until they win.”
But another group of undergraduates including members of the Committee for Freedom, a group which has prominently opposed graduate student unionization in recent days, stood across from their pro-union peers and held anti-GESO signs.
“We don’t agree with GESO’s tactics,” Committee for Freedom President Andrew Olson ’08 said, adding that he does not think GESO should have planned to hold the strike during the last week of classes or during Bulldog Days, when prospective freshmen are deciding if they will matriculate.
Another freshman, who asked not to be named, criticized Jackson’s speech and his constant comparisons between GESO’s fight and other historical issues.
“He was trying to say that this is one of the great issues of our time,” the freshman said. “I think he is trying to give GESO borrowed legitimacy.”
Tension between GESO supporters and non-supporters appeared in various forms. A woman holding a GESO flag continuously placed it over an anti-GESO sign held by an undergraduate until the boy yelled and walked away.
Soon after, a professor from the University of Massachusetts tore a sign criticizing GESO’s actions, Olson said.
“She ripped the sign in half and threw it on the ground,” he said.
A third group of undergraduates mocked the protest with signs such as “Vote for Pedro,” “Get our troops out of Vietnam” and “Harvard Sucks.”
Speakers at the rally prior to Jackson included the presidents of locals 34 and 35, GESO lead orgaizer Wendy Walsh, Alday and other graduate students and GESO members.