While freshmen attempt to learn the nuances of Yale’s often complicated lexicon, they will rapidly learn that “democracy” is one of the most overused words on this campus. Most often paired with the term “democratic values,” it has become the catch-phrase of unionizing graduate students. Democracy, they argue, is the only force that can fight a tyrannical university administration that will not allow their voices to be heard.
At issue in the Graduate Employee and Student Organization debate is whether the University should acknowledge a handful of graduate students who, by virtue of their jobs as teaching assistants, have claimed the right to unionize and represent the graduate student body as a whole. Also at issue is whether GESO fairly characterizes itself as defending democracy at Yale.
Neither GESO nor its claims merit the support they receive.
Graduate students who support GESO are torn between two conflicting personae. On one hand, they wish to be viewed as faculty members-in-training, involved in the planning and execution of courses; they hope for ample time to teach and complete their own studies.
Contrarily, they seek recognition as employees, having already enacted a grade strike in 1996, withholding grades from graduating seniors until their demands were met. This harsh action poses a clear threat to the collegiality that is supposed to characterize the academic community.
GESO members wish to negotiate clear amounts of work that they can be assigned as well as the benefits that teaching should provide them.
While there is no doubt that graduate students have often been overburdened, a union is not the solution. Indeed, the baggage that collective bargaining carries — from threats to strikes to character attacks — is anathema to any university.
In a year when union negotiations are sure to take center stage and general strike threats from various unions, including hospital and dining hall workers, GESO has declared its intention to stand behind any strikes.
The right of a group of students to strike is considered a right by GESO; indeed when historian Paul Kennedy refused to offer a popular lecture course unless he knew that his teaching assistants would not engage in a strike, he was the source of numerous attacks from the graduate student community. GESO students filed a claim against the professor, declaring that their civil rights were violated.
Since when is striking a civil right of a group of students who, as a part of their curriculum, are required to teach?
In addition to demonizing faculty, GESO has recently made a point of demonizing the University as a whole. Its new approach is to accuse Yale of latent racism related to the naming of various residential colleges after slave owners. Three GESO leaders wrote the recent Amistad Committee’s report, which they dedicated to GESO, Local 34 and the Federation of Hospital Employees.
In the spirit of democracy and openness, the three researchers should disclose the motivation behind the report. Because the standard argument against Yale as a corporation was not particularly strong, perhaps they now hope to taint Yale’s image with cries of racism.
Yet when the University has made clear its intention to honor the “rights” of GESO, the union organization has failed to accept such a gift. When the Graduate Student Assembly attempted to convene an open forum last year, GESO refused to show, let alone speak. As many graduate students realize, GESO, like many unions, breeds isolation and conformity.
For an organization that supports the openness and conversation that characterizes democracy, the union will not concede to the existence of other methods of achieving their goals. An open forum with the administration was accepted by many students as a strong way to achieve their goals. GESO, though, is unwilling to compromise.
This past summer, Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman noted in The New York Times that “collective bargaining between a school and its graduate students is incompatible with the fundamental premise of their relationship: that the students are working to become individuals with distinctive views and voices, and that the school provides the means by which this goal may be pursued, further and more freely than in any other institutional setting.”
The tendency of GESO to silence opposing voices and demand conformity is contrary to the freedom of expression that should characterize a university setting.
GESO has created a hostile community at Yale, not merely between the administration and students. The precedent set by the establishment of graduate unions at schools around the nation turns the academy into a political battleground where political gains are more important than curricular advances.
The pressure and volubility of a union will not further Yale’s commitment to learning. Graduate students need to realize that in a university, where students learn from their elders and free expression is valued, GESO does little more than cause a tension antithetical to the spirit of the degrees they hope to receive.
Justin Zaremby is a junior in Calhoun College.