As United Students At Yale, the newly renamed student union, works to define itself as a new inclusive advocacy group unlike previous attempts at activism, members point to one defining characteristic: labor unions.
While many students point to the union involvement as the defining point that distinguishes the group, even the key to its success, others believe, however, that the union involvement is part of the group’s weakness. Those students say that union involvement compromises its relationships with other activist groups while sacrificing student support for what some fear are ulterior motives by powerful Yale unions.
For USAY organizers, the defining feature of their organization is the involvement with Yale labor unions, locals 34, 35 and 1199.
Though an unusual concept, organizers say the alliance with unions is a logical one.
“We are all trying to address the same problem here and that is the idea that our voices aren’t being heard,” said Abbey Hudson ’03, one of the group’s leaders. “What students are asking for is increased democracy, and a labor union is the most democratic institution in the U.S. right now.”
In following a union model for organizing undergraduates, group members say they are able to induce members of specific causes that may not have been active before to lobby for themselves.
“This is getting people who never thought about changing the way this place functions, and people who never considered themselves activists coming out and taking a stand and becoming pro-active in changing the community,” said Karen Weise ’02, a spokesperson for the group.
And group members said the inclusion of labor unions as a constituency in the University is key to their mission.
“Ultimately what we’re looking at is the power structure here at Yale and to understand how unions fit into that is essential,” Weise said. “If we were to ignore that, we ultimately wouldn’t be looking at the way this place functions.”
Yet some students are wary about the use of unions as the model for undergraduate involvement.
“Unions rely on employer–employee relationships, and undergraduates don’t work and don’t have that relationship with the University,” said Jacob Remes ’01, who was very involved in campus activism in the past.
Beyond that, some fear, the inclusion of Yale’s labor unions belie a deeper influence on the part of the labor unions, which some believe are the true instigating forces behind the student movement.
With the unions’ contracts up for renegotiation in January, some students say, they suspect the unions originally pushed the development of a student union as a way of marshalling student support for their own negotiating efforts. Many of students critical of USAY did not want to admit this publicly, because they work with USAY members on other causes.
But USAY members say the true focus of their group remains undergraduates.
“This is first and foremost an undergraduate coalition that is at the heart of all this,” Weise said. “The alliance with the unions is one aspect of it and will never be the central aspect of it.”
Regardless of their views of the unions’ motives, activists and USAY members alike privately acknowledge that the initial stages in development for USAY alienated many of Yale’s most vocal activists.
Among concerns cited were the nature of a union, in which all causes would be held of equal importance, and what some activists feared were the unions’ taking over activist organizations.
And yet, many students, both from the activist community and USAY, privately said bridges are beginning to be mended.
Many of the most active members of USAY, including those who have led some of the organizing meetings in residential colleges are freshmen. These students, including Alek Felstiner ’04, said they joined the group because it appears to have a cause and the ability to get things done.
With the new faces of would-be activists joining USAY, rather than other activist groups, many of those who once spurned the group say they now see it is an option for the future.
As USAY gains support, many of its former nay sayers said, they have decided to join forces with an organization that can affect change rather than bide their time on the sidelines.
The ability of the group to absorb people from many different causes, from unions to anti–sweatshop activists, from dancers to financial aid lobbyists, underscores the group’s strengths, Weise said.