Paulson: Graduate students want a union

Yale’s graduate students have spoken: We want a union. Every year for nearly a decade now, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) — the union of graduate teachers on campus — has attained majority membership, calling upon the University to honor our majority and negotiate a contract with us. And every year, the administration has ignored the voices of its graduate teachers in the languages, humanities and social sciences. This year, we declare majority status once more, with the hope that two new political realities will alter the playing field: the Obama presidency and the collapse of the economy.

In 2004, President Bush’s National Labor Relations Board stripped graduate students at private universities of labor organizing protections. But GESO is the first graduate employees’ union at a private institution to declare a majority under the Obama administration. Obama’s NLRB is slated to broadly restore workers’ rights, undoing the previous NLRB’s relentlessly anti-worker agenda. GESO members have good reason to hope that the Obama NLRB will restore our labor protections under federal law.

Graduate students everywhere are grappling with the potentially dire personal and professional consequences of the economic downturn. The academic job market has been tight for many years, but the ongoing crisis has made it unforgiving. Universities across the country have frozen faculty searches and slashed departmental budgets. To meet their basic educational obligations, many institutions have instead turned to low-paid, insecure, no-benefit adjunct and post-doctoral positions to compensate for teaching shortfalls. Given this economic reality, advanced graduate students looking for work in higher education face myriad obstacles to career advancement.

The Yale administration is in a unique position to offer positive solutions in these difficult times. Relative to other universities suffering major financial setbacks, Yale will weather the economic storm, granting it the power to exert significant influence for the better. As President Levin observed in his Dec. 16 letter to faculty and staff, “Despite the downturn in the economy, it is important to keep in perspective that the University is much stronger than it was a decade ago.” Though in his most recent budget update (Feb. 24) Levin expects it will take longer than initially projected for the endowment to return to pre-recession growth, he also affirms that the University “will continue to pursue [its] most important priorities.” Supporting graduate students currently on the job market and creating secure, tenure-track teaching jobs must be among those priorities.

In the near term, the administration needs to extend registration and guaranteed teaching to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-year graduate students without exception. This would offer an invaluable safety net to graduate students who come up empty on the job market in these difficult economic times. This safety net would ensure that graduate students would not lose their health care or have to face crushing student loan payments if they are unable to find employment.

In the longer term, Yale must strive to create hundreds, if not thousands, of secure, well paying jobs. The recently passed stimulus bill recognizes the role institutions like Yale must play in job creation by increasing the budgets of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health by billions of dollars. Yale must answer this call.

In this moment of both volatility and promise, Yale has not only the obligation to recognize the democratic will of its workers, but also an opportunity to show bold leadership to a weary nation eager for signs of renewal. The demand for many goods and services decreases in a recession, but the demand for education does not. Instead, the search for new ideas and the need for innovation place universities at the front of efforts to put the nation back to work. Now is the time for Yale to recognize graduate teachers’ demand for union representation, and to begin a massive and sustained investment in creating good jobs to help fuel our national economic recovery.

Ariana Paulson is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies Department and is the chair of GESO.


  • Anonymous

    Unions have long since outlived any semblance of usefulness to society. Now they mostly serve to keep their members' salaries inflated at the price of the other non-union workers who get left in the cold when the high employee overhead leads to layoffs. I could give you a dozen reasons why this will only lead to trouble, but, inevitably, there will be a reason why every one of them is wrong. At this point, I really don't care what you people do, just be willing to realize you only have yourself to blame when you kill the golden goose. More unions will mean higher cost and lower long-term standards of living.

  • Anonymous

    Yale's mission is to educate its students. Period. Hence I fundamentally disagree with the statement that "…Yale must strive to create hundreds, if not thousands, of secure, well paying jobs."

    GESO members need to answer this question: Which is more important, your studies and your role as a graduate student, or your teaching and your role as an employee?

    It seems to me that most GESO members consider themselves employees first, and I think they have it backwards.

    One should not go to school (or stay in school) to make money. You are there to earn a degree. In addition, all doctoral candidates receive a full tuition stipend. That alone is worth more than $30,000 per year. You are then paid to teach on top of that. I don't know what graduate students earn, but New Haven is not an expensive city (compared to NYC or Boston, for instance) and even if the teaching salary doesn't cover your costs, so what? As I've mentioned several times, the degree should be the goal, and the financial aspects of teaching should be a distant second in terms of importance.

    If GESO members spent more time studying and less time complaining about their salaries perhaps they would graduate faster and be in a better position to earn more money with their PhD's.

  • GSAS alum

    I was an MA student and a teaching fellow at Yale for three years. Early on, I was approached by the GESO rep in my department. As soon as they found out I was an MA student, instead of a PhD, they ignored me. Same goes for the rest of the students in my program. Why isn't GESO concerned about the welfare of ALL graduate students, just not their exact peers? I'd like to see a bit more effort on their part than ensuring that MA students have "faculty advisors and access to quality coursework (Ph.D. courses)." Really? That's it?! No one has higher costs at Yale than MA students and fewer acccess to resources. GESO, please gather into your fold all of Yale's graduate and professional students. We're not all here for the same amount of time, but we can certainly all enjoy the benefits of being both teachers and students, if even for just a semester. You'll have to give up a few bites of your extra-wide slice of privilege pie, but we'll all get a taste of the valuable teaching experience that only an institution like Yale can provide and a few extra thousand dollars less of student loans.

  • GRD

    Dear Ms. Paulson:

    Such an embarrassment--to yourself, to Yale, and to all earnest and hard-working graduate students.

    Does GESO simply wait until enough time passes, feeling safe that the rational world has forgotten GESO's self-proof of immateriality, insignificance, and humiliation?

    GESO was roundly defeated in its own rigged election back in 2003 where, despite restricting votership to partisans in a fully secret ballot supported by the League of Women voters, Yale's graduate students unequivocally denied GESO representation.

    GESO was defeated despite goon-squad coercion, despite the outside (and generous) monies expended on campus, despite (false) cries of oppression, overwork, and underpay.

    You see: the majority of us just want to "get on with it."

    You willingly accepted Yale's offer of admission. You willingly accepted the tuition waivers, generous stipends, OJT and the promise of the prize: a Yale degree.

    Now that you are here, coddled on a Left-leaning campus and in the throes of infatuation with a Left-leaning U.S. president, you suddenly think that mediocrity can rise again (or, well, rise at last)?

    Get over yourself.

    You and GESO most decidedly do NOT represent any conceivable majority of students. Most of us are proud to be here, unafraid of competition, grateful for the immense support and freedom offered by the Yale administration (imagine: being paid and rewarded to do what one loves!).

    I am sorry that your love is organizing and that Yale offers no degree in that field. But you knew that when you signed on.

    If you have real concerns, why not bring them to the Graduate Student Assembly, the legitimate representative body for ALL graduate students?

    Some references:

  • GSAS Alum

    I went to Yale, worked by butt off, got my PhD, and am now working as an adjunct making $5K a class (a relatively high salary in the world of non-tenure-track teaching). GESO, like the AAUP and the scores of recognized unions around the country, represents the hope of an academy in which good jobs get created, not cut, as the 21st century unfolds. For those who are opposed to organizing teachers into unions to collectively bargain for their interests, what alternatives do you offer? Do you simply reject the notion that the academy is in serious trouble? That seems like a difficult position to defend -- try reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed once in a while. Things are DIRE, folks. We need real, substantive change. GESO is an important part of making that change.

  • Ha!

    Hey, is Anita Seth (former GESO Dear Leader) still around? I note that this relic (class of 05) is still ABD…

    Too busy org'nizin' to WORK?!

    Will Paulson go the same route? Suck Yale's teat for years n years n years, then b*tch that the milk ain't sweet enough?

    Lissen up: if PhD'ing is a job, then it is, at best, a temp position. That PhD candidates align themselves with Yale's union workers is an insult, as the candidates' prospects, post oppressive period of being paid to do what supposedly they would do for free, far exceed anything that most dining hall workers could ever dream of (no offense; jus' sayin').

    What a joke! Poor MA candidates have to PAY for the privilege of "working" at Yale, but PhD wussies (who can, viz. Seth, long outstay their welcome) can't handle the load?

    For shame; for shame!

  • GSA

    To paraphrase Obama, GSA to GESO: "You lost."

  • alum

    Agree, GRD - GESO is a crock, and should be disbanded.

  • Anonymous

    Let me say first that if I were a graduate student at Yale, I would be opposed to unionization.

    Let me also say that in the early 80s, Yale created a situation ripe for these kinds of demands. When I was a student at Yale, a graduate student was just that, a student, not a student/teaching assistant. Now, it appears that graduate students are hired to allow the university to avoid hiring full time faculty. Yale College students today get a far poorer education for it.

    If I were a Yale College student, I would be screaming in opposition to unionization. I would also be screaming about the sheer quantity of courses being taught by degree candidates.

    R. Schneider, Ph.D., 82

  • Saybrook Alum '85

    If a vote is taken then be sure to include the science and engineering graduate students! Last time this vote was taken in 2003 it was intentionally held away from Science Hill with the full knowledge that the vast majority of science and engineering grad students opposed a union.

  • GRD

    @#%: "For those who are opposed to organizing teachers into unions to collectively bargain for their interests, what alternatives do you offer?"

    Never said I was against "teachers" organizing, but I am certainly against graduate students *claiming* that they are teacher/employees and demanding recognition as such.

    @#9: Agreed, but easily remedied by avoiding those classes taught mainly by TAs (who are often nigh on worthless in any case). But remember: sections are OJT, enriching the TA while, as you note, at the expense of the poor undergrad!

    BTW: more rich fodder (albeit a bit dusty) against GESO, including funding "irregularities" (or "regularities," depending on our POV); educate yourselves:

    The Yalie view:

    Some independent perspectives:

    The National Labor Relations Board has upheld Brown University’s argument on appeal that graduate teaching assistants are students – not statutory employees – and are therefore not an appropriate unit for collective bargaining. Today's current GESO crop hopes that, under Obama, all their Leftist dreams may at last come true.

  • science grad student

    only #10 is dead on. Very few in the sciences want a union. We work our butts off in lab to build better machines and cure cancer, and we are happy with our free tuition and generous stipend. The humanities students, on the other hand, sit around talking up the presentation of the self in post-colonial feminist societies and want a raise. What a joke.

  • Yale Undergrad

    Yale's mission is to teach, the student's job is to learn. As an undergrad, I can think of few propositions more stupid or wantonly self-centered than a population of teachers hired because they could find no other job, and hired with money that could have been spent on scholarships or merit-worthy faculty to boot.

    Couldn't the author at least pretend like hiring more teachers would improve the Yale education? Instead all she can come up with is this crock about becoming an engine of the economy? Little wonder she worries about getting a job.

  • Anonymous

    If GESO has attained majority membership at Yale, then Yale is admitting gullible idiots for graduate students, and they're teaching too many of our courses. The solution isn't a union. The solution is to admit only the ones worth educating here.

  • Eek!

    Class warfare! Oh the hu-MAN-ities!

    Funny, though, how it is indeed the, uh, less…useful? employable? necessary? parts of GRD that need the "safety" and "guarantees" of a union.

    The squishies, having hired Obama to ruin the economy, suddenly fear what they have done.

    Hey, come on: your Yalies, right? You hermeneutical antiheteronormatives are JUST as smart as those cancer researchers! All you have to do is switch fields to prove it!

    Food fight!

  • Grad Student

    I am offended that GESO pretends to speak for me. We are called graduate STUDENTS for a reason. Suck it up and get back to work.

    The idea that we should give 8th year grad students guaranteed teaching positions (and thus funds) is laughable. Any student who has chosen to screw around for that long (perhaps by spending their time complaining about the school they chose to come to) and whose work is so useless that they cannot secure funds from an outside source should just be kicked out onto the curb.

    #9: The only reason you don't hear larger protests against these morons is that no one takes them seriously enough to think unionization would ever happen.

  • Gaius Lucilius ('10)

    Confidential to "science grad student" (#12): My five closest friends are science grad students at Yale, and I respect and honor the work that scientists do in seeking new cures and technology to meet pressing global needs. Although I am one of but two humanists in our gaggle of friends, all actively appreciate the value of the humanities, seeking out concerts at Sprague, lectures, and readings. I, in turn, subscribe to a scientific journal and in my limited free time peruse RSS feeds on various topics, and just this afternoon ventured to an engineering meeting in Becton. Your disparagement of "post-colonial" and "feminist" concerns reveals vast ignorance, though, and it is distressing to realize that among my brethren is a Yale-trained scientist, who has presumably spent years learning to think independently and skeptically, parrots warmed-over culture-wars rhetoric served up by conservative pundits years and discredited before most undergraduates were born. Social attitudes do influence the path of science and what is considered a proper object of study, and that is just one of the reason why the humanities are needed. Perhaps you pine to return to the era when it was fine for Beddoe to use nonsensical "phrenology" to defend the colonization of Ireland or for doctors to neglect concern for women's status, diagnosing female ailments as "hysteria." Most of us would prefer not to.
    By the way, much of science does not directly address practical concerns. We have enough human capital to test the oncogenic potential of ABCG2, with plenty left over to attempt less immediately "practical" things as examining the merger of spiral galaxies or explicate parodic turns in the work of Jonathan Swift (who had a little skepticism about empiricism himself). To think all need to work on the same project, with such a great pool of contrasting talents at our disposal, is to suggest a false choice. Think big!
    I know I have a lot to learn, but you don't even realize that your education is unfinished.
    [By the way, I am not a member of GESO, but recognize the validity of their concerns, and arguments like yours make me pause. At the same time, I recognize what unusual privileges we enjoy at this university.]

  • Science Guy

    Hey Gaius, let me put it to you in practical terms.

    I have to choose among three job opportunities: two major pharma R&D jobs and one biotech startup.



    And I do see the points others are making here about the questionable quality of education that is passed to undergraduates when inexperienced instructors run the classes. This is disputable. Sometimes graduate students are not inexperienced, especially those returning to advanced degrees after years working in the field. In some disciplines, "fresh" thinkers are a lifeblood of sorts… think of how many classes are offered by tenured, experienced, out-of-touch professors who haven't picked up a politics tome since Vietnam. I have had many courses taught by relatively inexperienced yet still knowledgeable great educators, some of whom were graduate students at the time. I would think this would be true in the arts especially. On the other hand, if I were learning surgery, I would surely want someone with far more experience. This depends on the class and the discipline.

    Please remember, student employment at Yale is not ALL teaching, and these other jobs are often the province of the professional students and undergraduates who cannot teach a class. There are library positions, research assistants, Teaching Assistant jobs that aren't actually teaching but "professor's assistant" who sends emails and xerox, even odd jobs like bartending for conferences and childcare. Many of us professional students do not have nice financing to live comfortably and are struggling hard to earn our Yale educations. Yes we signed up for it and we know what we are getting into, and we got into it wanting to work hard to stay here. Those of us who are supplementing our financial aid by working for Yale do deserve the right to unionize, and we are putting no undergraduate educations in jeopardy!

  • @ Science Guy

    Well, those sound like intolerably boring jobs to me, but if they make you happy then that's lovely.

    I will admit that I have only two standing job offers myself, all at a decent salary. I am not a Ph.D but am in the humanities.

  • Gaius Lucilius ('10)

    Science Guy--I'm happy that you have some exciting job opportunities, especially in this economic climate. Congratulations! The surge of interest in the biotech sector can only benefit our nation. (The job search is still to come for me--see my grad year.)
    Your objection raises a valid question. Students and their families invest much in Yale, and graduates need to emerge with marketable skills. As the article points out, though, humanities folk who have made the grade have many options open to them, depending on their individual predilections: the law, politics and government, consulting, non-profits, product design, the arts, and academia, to name just the ones that come most readily to mind, in addition to the routes with which they are usually associated, including publishing and journalism. Thinking in practical terms is necessary, but the truth is we need attentive journalists, savvy lawyers, and judicious policy-makers to guide the workings of our country--say, reporters to monitor misleading ad campaigns for new drugs such as Gardasil, lawyers to manage litigation involving Phenergan's off-label use and the question of federal pre-emption, and policy specialists to help ascertain whether FDA regulation of homeopathic treatments are appropriate; just as much as we need pharmaceutical companies to develop products for the regulation of our bodies, investors to finance the company, and doctors to prescribe and/or administer the product to the patient. Since we're fortunate enough to live in a nation not in subsistence mode (yet!), there's room enough and time for attending to our wants as well as our needs, too--there's a vast market for the products of those working in the arts. A life where the chief means of pleasure is enabled by a pharmaceutical therapy--<a^ la Huxley's Soma--would be a barren one indeed. Bring on the sonatas and bad pop songs, the short stories and blog entries, that sweeten our hours.
    One of the best Classics students I ever met is entering law school; another, who majored in creative writing and squeezed in all but a couple of premed courses over the summer, is finishing up at Harvard med. Then there are my two physicist-major classmates who graduated with honors and became poets, and the premed who became an actress… The world's big enough for all of us, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
    I wish you much satisfaction in the job you ultimately choose. The world needs service and ideas from you and from everyone who can contribute in their individual way.

  • HGS

    I think I am choking on pomposity:

    "among my brethren is a Yale-trained scientist, who has presumably spent years learning to think independently and skeptically, parrots warmed-over culture-wars rhetoric served up by conservative pundits and discredited before most undergraduates were born.

    Care to share?

    Interesting how those in science and engineering (those areas that, arguably, require more brainpower than so-called "humanist" pursuits) often tend toward conservatism.

    I would simply love to hear some of the views you claim to have been discredited.

  • Gaius Lucilius ('10)

    *administers Heimlich maneuver to HGS*
    Actually, peer-reviewed studies have shown that, among academics in in the hard science/math, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans tends to be high, although not as high as among humanities folk; and although the liberal bias and pressure shown in a way that influences classroom situations has been shown to be less than thought. See this link, for instance, to a study involving an array of scholars in progressive and conservative areas in California:
    In this study, the ratio for academics in the hard science/math was 6:3 Democrats for every Republication. (N=1635)
    If you have any data to indicate that "those in science and engineering… often tend toward conservatism" let me know.
    One problematic factor in such studies could be the presence of less traceable bias in academia's study of itself, or insufficient acknowledgement of a spectrum between moderate and extremist for each affiliation. Also, "Democrat" does not always mean "liberal," and "Republican" sure doesn't always mean "conservative."
    If you find data on liberal/conservative affiliation, as opposed to D/R, let me know. I would also be interested in data about the political affiliation of engineers working in industry. I did find some data suggesting that petroleum geologists were pretty evenly divided b/t D and R.
    By and large, with regard to the tenets held by each affiliation, as particularly evidenced by the last few decades, it seems that scientists would not tend towards conservatism, at least American-style. Views such as
    *intelligent design is credible
    *domestic drilling will solve our oil problem ("drill baby drill")
    *abstinence-only education is the best program for controlling teen pregnancy rates
    are staples of the recent conservative platform, although they have been thoroughly debunked by scientists. I can't imagine that most scientists (not all, though, I am sure there are exceptions) were too happy with the "compassionate conservative" Bush administration's decisions to gut EPA regulations based on faulty science, or to stymie stem-cell research, or not to fund the NIH to keep pace with inflation. See here for a sample Columbia University-produced account, in which a self-described "moderate conservative" expresses indignation at the supposedly conservative Bush administration's interference in science:
    Conservatives, the witness claims, have not been acting in accordance with their bedrock principles.

    As for the views, I was simply referring to the assumption that post-colonial and feminist perspectives don't matter, (there's more, but that's the subject of another essay). Even if such perspectives are resisted by many a recalcitrant pundit today, these concerns are now acknowledged, even in the form of opponents' voiced resistance to them, which is a great change. These perspectives may be disparaged in Rush's neck of the woods, sure. Sometimes proponents of these views get wacky, sure. But they're here to stay, and it's a good thing, too, for consideration of a wider array of views only enriches the public sphere.

  • Gaius Lucilius ('10)

    Oops--above, it should read, "6.3 Democrats for every Republican." Bush 43 must've taken over my spellcheck function!
    Also--another of your statements is highly questionable, too: the claim that math and science are "those areas that, arguably, require more brainpower than so-called 'humanist' pursuits." "Arguably" was the favorite crutch-word of a guy in my section who had trouble supporting his half-baked views. How are you defining "brainpower" here? I.Q.? S.A.T. scores? Where's the data? There are multiple kinds of intelligence. And all the brainpower in the world won't get a person anywhere if one lacks initiative (see the section in Malcolm Gladwell's book about the genius who has made no effort to use his smarts in the world.)