YDN Staff Reporters
Staring down at a daunting heap of still ungraded undergraduate problem sets while sitting at a table in the Blue Dog Cafe, Sarah Bickman GRD ’06 looked like the archetypical overworked grad student.
Taking a break from her work, though, the first-year physics student described herself as “pretty neutral” on the burning question of graduate student unionization. Nor could she easily discern where the mass of her peers stand on the issue.
“I’ve heard everything,” Bickman said. “I’ve heard people say they should be unionized, I’ve heard people say that GESO is the worst thing to happen to Yale.”
The latest round of propaganda in the graduate student unionization debate went up this week, with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and anti-unionization mock group GASO waging another war of words by plastering posters across the campus.
But amid the dogmatic statements by administrators and leaders of GESO and GASO, the average graduate student often does not know exactly what to think.
“I’ve had a very mixed impression because there are so many people who publically either praise or deprecate [GESO],” said Zachariah Victor GRD ’06, a first-year student in the music department’s doctoral program.
Largely because the GESO declines to release its membership totals, it often is difficult to gauge the actual support for the controversial effort to form a teaching assistant union.
Across the country, the graduate student unionization debate is producing tangible results. Temple University graduate students formed a union Wednesday, but on the same day a state labor board largely ruled against TAs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Despite these events and New York University’s recent recognition of the first TA union at a private university in this country, GESO’s 10-year quest to form a TA union at Yale has yet to inspire much in terms of movement toward or away from a recognized union other than passionate rhetoric on both sides.
At the same time, a potentially vast middle ground of students remains silent.
Not a hint of righteous anger could be heard in the soft tones of Elisa Mader GRD ’03 as she sipped coffee and discussed her work as an organizer for GESO.
A fourth-year student in the French doctoral program, Mader sees GESO as far more than a forum for graduate student gripes. She suggested that GESO could serve as a voice for the advancement of social justice issues and the general quality of education on campus.
She joined the organization upon her arrival at Yale, years before she taught her first class.
“I felt invested in the other people around me” as a member of GESO, she said. “I basically know people in a way I never would have.”
First-year economics student Panle Jia GRD ’06 is another member and also has high praise for GESO.
“This is the group that is struggling for the interests of the student,” Jia said. “I haven’t met anybody who is strongly against [GESO].”
But there is a striking diversity of opinion, even among students who express support for GESO.
“My feeling is that people don’t feel very strongly in favor of GESO, even among the ones who support it,” said Jennifer Arzt GRD ’01, who is herself a member.
Victor, the music doctoral student, says that although he “tends to support what GESO publicly stands for,” he remains unsure whether to join.
“I think the biggest reservation is [the fear of] misrepresentation,” he said. “[You might sign up and] it turns out there are other things your individual status is being used for.”
To figure out what GESO really stands for, Victor said he plans to go to the proto-union’s membership meeting on April 20.
“I’m actually not really looking for anything in particular,” he said. “I want to see what their procedures are and get a feel for the rhetoric.”
Although GESO’s posters decry the condition of graduate student life at Yale, many avowed GESO supporters express something less than complete dissatisfaction with the University.
Victor said he is generally happy with his treatment at Yale.
“I just don’t think we’re going to hell in a handbasket,” Victor said.
And some supporters of GESO’s current activities are even unconvinced of the benefits of actual unionization.
“The existence of GESO has substantially increased the quality of life for graduate students by serving as a watchdog for their interests,” said a GESO-affiliated TA in the English Department who requested anonyomity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
But she added that supporting GESO in its current form “is different from having a union, and a union that’s not just made up of graduate students but propped up by other laborers who don’t share the same concerns.”
Stuart Zoble GRD ’06 might be a GESO recruiter’s worst nightmare.
Zoble is adamantly opposed to unionization.
“I find it just amazing that these grad students can dupe themselves [into identifying with blue collar workers],” Zoble said.
The self-described “maverick” and “lone wolf” is a first-year economics student working on his second doctorate, having already received a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley, where graduate students recently negotiated a contract after a prolonged confrontation.
Although Zoble finds GESO organizers more palatable than their Berkeley counterparts — he describes Berkeley posters as “Soviet-style propaganda” — he said GESO supporters get the look of “religious zealots” when they talk about unionization.
But he said that he did not have a problem with GESO recruiting tactics, which some graduate students in the past have described as aggressive, although organizers did come to his apartment and speak with him for over an hour.
“They wanted me to spell out as many possible arguments against unionization as I would lay out,” he said.
Zoble said that he thinks his views on unionization might not curry favor among graduate students.
“I think there’s a sense among grad students that taking the position I take is an unpopular one,” Zoble said. “My feeling is that definitely a majority of grad students support this type of crap.”
Other students opposed to unionization declined to give their names, saying they did not want to wish to argue with GESO members who would see their names in print.
“I think they should give up and stop pretending we’re exploited labor,” a second-year student in the International Relations master’s program said while pointing to the McDougal Graduate Student Center, which features ornate wood paneling and stained-glass windows. “It’s hardly like being in a factory or being a worker in the kitchens.”
English TA Lena Hill ’04 said “the issues don’t seem compelling enough to take the radical step” of unionization.
“I generally feel that many of the things that GESO wanted have been accomplished,” she said.
Hill expressed concerns that a graduate student union would create a closed-shop environment, in which all TAs would be members subject to the decisions of union leaders.
Amid the disparate viewpoints, uncertainties remain about what life under a graduate student union would look like.
Bickman and several others noted that humanities students have a much worse time of it than science students, and thus might have greater cause for supporting GESO. Humanities and social science students receive a fixed stipend, while science stipends are set by department and may depend on grant money. This disparity, where science students often may teach for fewer hours and still get more money, raises questions about what form any eventual union would take.
At New York University, where the first TA union at a private university will work to negotiate a contract, several science students were excluded from the bargaining group because they receive different types of funding, and a similar scenario potentially could play out at Yale.
It also is unclear how GESO’s relationship with other local unions will affect its plans.
More fundamentally, graduate students are still guessing as to how much support the proto-union acutally has and whether it might be close to gaining union status.
“”I wish I knew,” said Victor, who still is considering joining the union. “I think a lot of people wish they knew.”
A group of United Auto Workers-affiliated organizers at Columbia University Wednesday announced that they will attempt to hold a National Labor Relations Board-sponosored union election this spring, a pivotal event in Columbia’s young organizing effort.
But here at Yale, the story is a little different, as students continue to play the waiting game.
“I’m waiting for pivotal events every day,” GESO organizer Mader said.