Of the dozen staffers in the New York University graduate student labor movement’s office last night, fully half were Yale students. They were members of the Graduate Employee and Student Organization, a conglomerate of Yale graduate students fighting for the right to unionize in New Haven. They are scheduling classes in meeting spaces across the city for faculty members who do not want to cross the picket line to teach, sweet-talking members of the NYU trustee board and even doing jail time for their peers, NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee.
“No union has done more than GESO to help our cause,” GSOC organizer Michael Palm said.
And before the picket lines, before the mass arrests and ultimatums, it was Yale President Richard Levin who first brought Yale clout to the NYU fray, Palm said. At a town hall meeting last February, barraged by questions about his refusal to negotiate with the unions, NYU president John Sexton admitted he was under pressure from other private universities, including Yale.
Neither NYU’s nor Yale’s administration acknowledged the comment — as John Beckman, spokesman for President Sexton, put it, “one has to pose the common sense question to oneself, what pressure could another university bring to NYU?” But the quote has been shopped around by The Nation, among other national publications. Several GSOC members swear by it, citing it as evidence of a larger corporatisation conspiracy to permanently dismantle the sacred learning space they refer to as “the academy.”
Whatever the outcome of NYU’s winter of discontent, Yale will be watching closely. For GESO, NYU’s graduate students winning a second contract might be the best thing that has happened to academic organizing in half a decade; for Yale’s administration, NYU’s GSOC regaining its status as the only organized graduate labor movement at a private university would be among the worst.
In an era of unprecedented labor-management peace, Yale’s role in the NYU strike is one of several changes playing out beneath the picket-sensitive radar of most students that promise to reshape Yale’s labor unions — and its management — for years to come.
Talking about the GESO-GSOC labor union movement, of course, requires defining labor and defining union, historically points of contention in universities. Though graduate students at public universities are governed by state legislation — Connecticut’s legislature neither explicitly allows not explicitly bans organized labor among graduate students — private universities are governed by the National Labor Relations Board. In 2000, the NLRB voted to acknowledge GSOC as a bona fide union; in 2004, flush, as graduate student unionizers argue, with ideologically motivated Bush appointees, the NLRB reversed its decision, now leaving it to each university’s discretion whether or not to bargain with its graduate students. When GSOC’s contract expired in 2005 and Sexton did not offer a satisfactory replacement that included recognition for GSOC as a union, GSOC lost its union status alongside the legal omerta that guaranteed it.
So the GSOC movement, with help from GESO, turned out in full force. Picket lines were set up, classes taught by sympathetic faculty members moved off campus, and drums and chants became the background noise of the university. Galvanized by faculty support and a national outpouring of sympathy — the American Association of University Professors even signed a letter asking Sexton to listen to his students — GSOC kept the pressure up through November.
But right after Thanksgiving, President Sexton issued an ultimatum: Stop this nonsense and get back to work, or lose both your eligibility to teach and your stipend — the only way to cover living expenses in expensive New York City.
GSOC members say it’s not as bad as all that. As one op-ed in Washington Square News, the NYU student newspaper, pointed out, withholding pay from graduate students who refuse to teach means acknowledging that they are getting paid to teach, not study, contradicting the primary argument the university administrations have used against graduate students’ right to organize as employees.
GSOC spokesperson Susan Valentine is a medieval history TA who went from forgetting that she had signed her union membership card to spending so much time on the picket line that it reunited her with a high school acquaintance — from Yale, no less. She says that it’s impossible to know who’s on strike and who’s not with any level of certainty, so the question of moving from threat to reality remains open.
“I’m very visibly on strike, and I’m still getting paid,” Valentine said. “How could they drop the hammer in such a way that they would know it was hitting the right people?”
But the ultimatum was still harsh, and the future still uncertain. With undergraduates getting tuition refunds and final grades still not posted for some classes, NYU needs to find a way to end the conflict, and GESO members are trying to tip the scales in favor of the graduate students.
There are vital differences between the two movements. Most importantly, NYU students are striking to preserve the status quo. Half of NYU’s graduate students joined the University when GSOC’s contract, which included a provision recognizing them as a union, was in place, while Elis are fighting for recognition they have never had. NYU’s other unions have a “no-sympathy strike” clause in their contract, while Yale’s Locals 34 and 35 have been on the picket lines with GESO. According to Evan Cobb GRD ’07, a GESO spokesman, NYU’s faculty has been much more vocal in exerting control over what goes on in their university than Yale’s faculty members have ever been.
But most of the central debates over GESO have already been played out at NYU.
GSOC was recognized by the university after an NLRB-certified election established that a majority of graduate students wanted union status. GESO has never had an NLRB election — Levin once publicly declared he would “fight it all the way to the Supreme Court” if they did — but Connecticut’s secretary of state confirmed that they represented a majority of graduate students, former GESO chair Mary Reynolds ’07 said.
But Gagan Sood GRD ’06, a graduate student who is not a member of GESO, said the confirmation is in name only, and does not reflect the number of graduate students arm-twisted and guilt-tripped into paying their union dues. He said he has friends who would screen their calls and leave the campus on weekends to avoid GESO’s recruiting efforts, which included forcing them to meet with acquaintances in GESO for coffees and teas.
“There’s a passive majority who really couldn’t care less about what GESO does, but using friendships to peddle its views oversteps the bounds of decency and common courtesy,” Sood said. “If you’re not aggressive by temperament, running away is an easy option.”
Then there’s the issue of whether or not unions at private universities are even necessary. Yale officials have said the salary and benefits package at the University is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, significantly better than the ones at any public university, including those that are unionized. Public institutions are also subject to the whims of tight-fisted state legislatures, which can rescind such basic graduate student staples as tuition waivers whenever budgetary constraints dictate.
But Robert Vodicka, a member of the University of Kansas’ recognized union, said what matters are not the specific terms of unions’ contracts, but the principle of the thing.
“The point is that universities across the board have tried to claim that we are not employees,” Vodicka said. “And it is important to refute that claim, because it is false.”
Whatever happens in New York, New Haven will not be out of the limelight for long, Reynolds said.
“For cross-class, cross-race, cross-occupation organizing, New Haven is not just a model,” she said. “It is the model.”