I am withdrawing from today’s Graduate Student Assembly Open Forum. I waited until the last moment because I had hoped that the GSA would succeed in bringing together representatives from several points of view, including graduate teachers at Yale and elsewhere, Yale ladder faculty, administrators and unionized Yale employees.
This was the panel envisioned in the GSA’s initial invitation to me; however, this panel has not been realized. The GSA has not been able to come to an agreement with Graduate Employees and Students Organization regarding the forum’s format, and no representative of unionized Yale employees was invited. Provost Alison Richard, I was told in an e-mail from a GSA representative, indicated that the presence of a Local 34/35 delegate would make it impossible for her to serve on the panel. The GSA accepted the employer’s condition. As things stand, I am the only pro-unionization voice on the panel: The Forum has failed.
Two issues face the Yale community regarding graduate teacher unionization. The first is the question of which union, if any, should represent graduate teachers. In the end, this is a question for graduate teachers themselves, though there is a long democratic tradition of solidarity in which people trying to form a union have called for support from other employees in the same workplace, in the same industry and in the same community.
Defending their decision to exclude a representative of Local 34 or 35 from the panel, GSA representatives have argued to me that the forum is about graduate students (though by this logic, neither faculty members nor administrators ought to be on the panel). In saying this, they implicitly adopt a 19th-century vision of craft unionism (uniting only people doing the same job). But the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, which includes GESO, builds on modern traditions of democratic industrial unionism, bringing together all workers in an industry, across the segregations of the labor market.
As a member of the yet-ununionized Yale faculty, I have not only watched the long and difficult organizing drive by the graduate teachers in GESO over the last decade with admiration and solidarity, but I have been impressed by the great contributions the Yale unions have made to the quality of life at Yale and in New Haven.
The second issue is the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike. These are fundamental human rights, enshrined in a variety of international agreements and protected under U.S. law.
Teachers have these rights as much as any other worker, and they make up one of the major groups of union workers in the United States. Indeed, 44 percent of college teachers are union members, a rate that is much higher than that of many occupations. Graduate teacher unions have existed for the last quarter-century and are an ordinary part of the landscape of higher education. Here, everyone at Yale — and particularly the administration — has the obligation to see that these rights are not violated, either in letter or in spirit.
We have high standards for free speech, a free press and academic freedom at Yale; we should have an equally high standard for the right to organize. The Yale administration should declare its neutrality on unionization, and I hope that will be the substance of Richard’s remarks at the Forum.
Too often, we think of “labor relations” simply as a private market transaction, which concerns only the employer and the employee. But the difficult, exhausting and often demoralizing attempt of people to organize and mobilize at their place of work has been one of the fundamental driving forces of modern democracy. Unions, like other institutions, have their flaws, but they remain the most democratic institution of civil society, voluntary associations where leaders are elected in contested elections, where oppositions can organize, where ordinary people represent themselves.
Yet 100 million Americans working for a living do not have the democratic protections of a union. No democratization of civil society will be accomplished without their achieving the right to organize; no change in our dramatic inequalities of wealth and income will come without that organization. The right to organize remains the fundamental democratic issue of our time.
Michael Denning is a professor in the American Studies Department.