A Thursday afternoon exchange between a Graduate Employees and Students Organization member and the Yale Corporation’s senior fellow highlighted the gulf which remains between the sides, a divide so deep that they are unable to even agree on the particulars of a single conversation.
A day after GESO spokeswoman Rachel Sulkes GRD ’01 said Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 had agreed to meet with GESO members, Betts issued a statement emphatically denying that he would formally sit down with the graduate student group, saying that GESO mistook his interest in meeting with an individual graduate student as a prelude to formal negotiations. Betts said he was so disturbed by GESO’s misrepresentation of his private conversation, that he is now refusing to meet in any way with graduate students who may be affiliated with the organization.
This reaction, following what GESO members touted as a victory in their push for recognition, has led some GESO members to question if divisions exist within the administration on how to approach the issue of graduate student unionization and if this publicly aired friction between the administration and GESO will hinder further efforts for unionization.
Under National Labor Relations Board regulations, a labor organization can be granted de facto union recognition if it meets repeatedly with an institution. Yale President Richard Levin said he and other University officials have made it a practice not to meet with GESO because they are conscious of the legal ramifications such encounters might have.
The difference of opinion is centered around an exchange during a protest on Thursday afternoon outside Sheffield-Sterling-Strachoma Hall. Local 34 President Laura Smith, who works in Yale’s development office, said she approached Betts as he was leaving a meeting in the building and introduced him to GESO organizer Wendi Walsh. According to Walsh, Betts told her to call his office in New York City to make an appointment for him to speak privately with GESO members.
In the public statement released Friday, Betts denied he was ever prepared to meet with GESO.
“GESO has attempted to construe this brief exchange as an invitation to a meeting with a union, and even some sort of prelude to a negotiation,” Betts said in the statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Smith and GESO members said they were convinced Betts was willing to meet with them on Thursday afternoon. They said they think he suddenly changed his position because Levin spoke with Betts and advised him against meeting with GESO.
“My sense, based on what happened, is that he agreed to meet because it seemed obvious that there was clearly something going on on campus, and he genuinely thought he could make a difference,” Sulkes said. “And then, Rick Levin asked him not to do it.”
Levin said it has been his own decision not to recognize GESO, but Corporation fellows are unanimously opposed to graduate student unionization and he did not need to step in and convince Betts not to meet with GESO.
“All I can say is that Mr. Betts was offended by the immediate publicity attached to his conversation and he saw how badly misinterpreted his comments were, and for that reason, decided not to meet,” Levin said.
GESO members said they may now begin lobbying Corporation fellows on an individual basis because they believe Betts’ comments reveal dissent among the upper echelons of the Yale administration on how to approach the organization’s demands for collective bargaining. Levin said members of locals 34 and 35 have already made a practice of appearing en masse outside the homes and workplaces of corporation members to “leaflet and make noise,” but that tactic has done little to influence Corporation members’ views. Any such efforts made by GESO would be “100 percent unproductive,” Levin said.
Smith said Betts’ sharp response to GESO’s insistence that he was willing to meet with them may increase the tension between the University and the wider labor movement. She said she thinks Betts’ response highlights the need for the University to broaden its dialogue to all workers on campus.
“We’re working very hard to build a new and better relationship with management on campus and I think you’ve got workers [GESO members] on our campus who don’t have the same seat at the table we do … so I think that creates some amount of friction in the process,” Smith said. “I don’t think that means the process ends in any way, but I do think that part of making that work will ultimately mean having a change in how the University treats everyone at Yale, not just those of us at locals 34 and 35.”
Levin said University officials are willing to have open discussions with laborers on campus, but only those primarily defined as Yale employees. Levin has consistently refused to meet with GESO members because he views graduate students’ teaching experience as part of their training to become professors.
“We don’t meet with GESO as an organization,” Levin said. “There’s no new development here.”
Yale history professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said it is nearly impossible to gauge any dissent within the Corporation regarding the University’s position on GESO because the fellows keeps their proceedings confidential, and members are loath to publicly air any disagreements they may have.
“I can’t think of a comparable situation,” Smith said. “The Corporation makes decisions, as a body, and so a resolution will pass, or maybe it doesn’t pass, but they don’t put their debates or disagreements out to the press.”
Betts could not be reached by the News for comment.