The future of GESO and its place in the upcoming labor negotiations remains unclear, but last week’s contract agreement for New York University’s teaching assistant union again brings the debate about graduate student unionization to the fore.
From a legal perspective, recognized unions Local 34 and Local 35 cannot force the University to discuss the status of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization during contract negotiations next week. But leaders of the established unions have said they will remain loyal to GESO, which joins locals 34 and 35 as a part of the Federation of Hospital and University Employees alliance, and will support its quest for recognition as a union.
For more than a decade, people at Yale have argued about whether graduate student TAs are employees or students and whether a union would save or destroy higher education. Yale’s administration has repeatedly opposed a TA union, while GESO has fought long and hard to create one.
But with last week’s approval of a TA union contract at NYU — the first ever at a private university in this country– GESO and the University finally have a concrete model for how such a union might function. The contract provides a surprisingly plausible separation of employment and academic concerns.
The contract is far from perfect, however. Good elements like the standardization of TA appointments sit alongside more questionable points like rigid TA-administration procedures.
We’re still not convinced that unionization is the right answer at Yale, especially when benefits here without a contract are comparable to benefits at NYU despite a higher cost of living and a brand new union contract. But if the debate about graduate student unionization at Yale is to continue — and it certainly should — the discussion must move past the emphasis that GESO has placed on card-count neutrality agreements.
Such an agreement would oblige the University’s administration and faculty to remove their voices from the debate and would require Yale to recognize GESO as an official union if it received signed union cards from more than 50 percent of a potential bargaining unit.
A neutrality agreement runs counter to the spirit of free debate championed by Yale and has no place on a university campus.
Proponents of neutrality say it will protect pro-union TAs from harassment, but such harassment already is illegal and should stop if in fact it is occurring. But professors, who work very closely with graduate students, should be able to voice their opinions in the debate.
The other potential route to unionization, and the path taken by NYU’s TA union, is a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored election — a far more democratic option. Only with a secret-ballot election in which the individual TA makes his decision free of any pressure from the administration or GESO can Yale graduate students truly decide whether they want to take the dramatic step of forming a union.