I wish I didn’t have to respond to professor Jon Butler’s editorial about GESO, because I deeply respect him. Nevertheless, I strongly disagreed with his essay. I understand his concerns, but I believe they stem from misunderstandings of GESO’s intentions regarding neutrality, the history of Yale’s labor relations, and the existing relationships between students and faculty across the University.
According to Butler, neutrality agreements forbid management from expressing any opinions about unionization.ÊActually, American labor law carries no provisions about the scope of neutrality agreements.ÊThey do not involve the National Labor Relations Board, the federal oversight agency for labor disputes.ÊBecause they are negotiated settlements, it’s up to us — Yale’s workers and administration — to decide together what a neutrality agreement should look like.
What do members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization think a neutrality agreement should look like?ÊTo understand our position, we must examine the history of Yale’s labor relations.ÊButler tells some nasty stories about GESO’s conduct during the “grade strike” of 1996.ÊBut the episodes he relates turned out very differently, and the docket of misconduct is incomparably worse on the administration’s side.Ê
Some Yale professors threatened to destroy the careers of graduate students who joined the union or engaged in a job action.ÊIn response, the NLRB brought the Yale administration up on federal charges, and in 1999 Yale — with its multimillion dollar union-busting law firm Proskauer Rose on retainer — elected to settle rather than go to court.ÊWe should remember GESO members went on strike in 1996 because the administration would not recognize the results of a secret ballot election on unionization. Accusing GESO of now robbing students of this right seems inconsistent, to say the least.
Still, that’s all behind us.ÊIf the Yale administration distanced itself from its track record of intimidation, there would be no need for a neutrality agreement.ÊAlas, this is not the case.ÊAs a GESO organizer, I constantly hear stories of “captive audience” meetings (where faculty propound anti-union rhetoric before prostrate students), one-on-one meetings where students are strongly discouraged from joining, and meetings where known GESO members are forced to justify themselves before all the faculty in their departments.ÊI have spoken to many graduate students across the University who fear mentioning the union to their advisers.ÊDoes this sound like the exercise of free speech?
It’s important to remember that free speech does not exist unless power over that speech is shared equally.ÊProfessors wield a great deal of power over their students, through grades and recommendations, and in 1996 some of them did not shirk from misusing this power.ÊGESO’s advocacy of a neutrality agreement is a response to this situation.Ê
It’s an attempt to level the playing field by recognizing the power professors have over students.ÊBecause neutrality agreements are negotiated, I cannot predict what one will look like.ÊNeither can Butler.ÊBut I can say GESO members would push for a prohibition of captive audience meetings, public declarations from faculty and administrators that they would not consider union membership in writing recommendations and in performing the other duties of a mentor, and that ultimately students would be free to choose whether to join the union.ÊThat’s really not asking for much. Indeed, in the History Department, this situation already exists.
Butler, of all people, would have nothing to fear from a neutrality agreement.ÊEvery history graduate student I know has expressed the highest admiration for his integrity and generosity.
None of us harbor the slightest idea he might misuse his power as some have in the past.ÊI hope he doesn’t believe GESO members advocated neutrality because they feared him; nothing could be further from the truth.ÊThe point is that not every member of the faculty has shown such integrity. The history of labor relations at Yale makes the need for neutrality inescapable.ÊGESO’s advocacy of neutrality, however, merely proposes the whole University strive to create the mutually respectful environment that already exists in the History Department. If we do that, we can talk about graduate student unionization sensibly, without fear of intimidation.
Michael Jo ’98 GRD ’05 is a doctoral student in the Department of History.