GESO focuses on identifying new priorities

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The 16-year-old Graduate Employees and Students Organization will focus on writing its first new platform since 2003 this semester, as the group tries to recruit new students to an effort that has already met many of its recent goals, but has failed to progress toward graduate student unionization, its stated purpose.

GESO representatives said discussions about the new platform will likely focus on issues raised by the Graduate School’s “2-to-4 Project,” which asks departments to evaluate their own programs, as well as issues raised by students in department-level discussions organized by GESO. But incoming graduate students expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of unionization, and several said the Graduate School today seems to do a good job catering to students’ concerns.

GESO spokesperson Evan Cobb GRD ’07 said the 2-to-4 Project gives the organization an opportunity to re-evaluate its priorities for future campaigns. Discussions about the new platform will include key issues identified by Graduate School Dean Jon Butler in his charge for the project, including the academic job market and the time it takes for students to complete a degree, Cobb said. He said the project’s mandate to include students in discussions about the graduate programs in different departments satisfies GESO’s calls for greater student influence on policy.

“That’s probably the most exciting offer you can make to a graduate student union,” he said.

Several of the issues GESO focused on last year have been resolved or seen considerable progress since the campaigns were launched, although the organization’s vote on graduate student unionization last semester fizzled. The University no longer holds stock in the Corrections Corporation of America — a private prison company criticized by GESO and several national activist groups for abusing prisoners’ rights — although a formal divestment was never made. Last year’s strike by graduate students at New York University, which drew GESO members to the picket lines to support their peers, ended during the summer.

Since GESO’s last platform was written, graduate stipends have continued to rise and health care for students and their families has expanded, and the University has begun to address GESO’s other major issues — including child care and international students’ concerns. GESO chair Melissa Mason GRD ’08 said the union is still working on child care, and it is currently circulating a petition on the issue.

GESO will also be on the watch for emerging conflicts and will work throughout the semester to expand its membership to a majority of graduate students, Mason said. Most first-year students contacted for this story said they have already received e-mails from GESO describing the group.

First-year history graduate student Zane Curtis-Olsen GRD ’12 said he joined GESO because of the group’s history of campaigning on issues he considers important, including divestment from CCA.

“I think you can see a clear relationship between the issue campaigns that GESO has had and the decisions the University has made,” he said.

But Mehmet Baykara GRD ’12, a first-year doctoral candidate in engineering who has not yet been approached by GESO about membership, said he does not feel a need to join the group. University administrators seem receptive to student concerns, he said, and he feels the current stipend levels are generous.

“You’re actually getting money to study,” he said.

David Lebow GRD ’12 said he has mixed feelings about GESO because while he generally supports unions, he thinks graduate students at Yale already receive a living wage and benefits. The relatively low cost of living in New Haven means that Yale’s stipend of $19,000 per academic year can stretch further than stipends at Columbia and Stanford universities, he said.

“I don’t see the unmet need that unionization would cater to,” he said. “I’m not in graduate school to make money or to have a cozy life. If I were, I could have been in law school.”

Another first-year student who asked not to be named said she was surprised by GESO’s low profile so far this year, since she heard the group has a reputation of being aggressive in seeking out new members. But she said she is not sure whether she will join the union because there are other forums available to express concerns about the Graduate School.

The mentoring relationships between students and their advisers are a natural outlet for students to express their concerns to the school, she said, and she believes the Graduate School has been very attentive to its students — perhaps because of the pressure GESO has exerted on the school in the past.

“In order to make sure that you don’t unionize, they’re going to try to fix some of those things that the union is pointing out as a weakness,” she said.

But Curtis-Olsen said it is still important for GESO to work for recognition as a union with negotiating rights.

“It would sort of open up the possibility for a new sort of student-employer-university relationship in the private sector,” he said.

GESO, which has been trying to win negotiation rights for more than a decade, most recently went on strike in 2005 to demand recognition as a union. The University has steadfastly refused to consider recognizing a graduate student union.

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