At first Yale President Richard Levin called them yo-yos.

At an open forum last spring, members of the group that would later be called United Students at Yale stood up each time a question that interested them was asked, prompting Levin’s less than complimentary description.

Nearly 75 of these yo-yos announced their new name, USAY, at a union march on the New Haven Green last April.

Ten months later, a USAY meeting consisted of only 11 people around a table in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, struggling to assert the organization’s relevance in the face of criticism and disinterest.

USAY often claims to be the voice of Yale. The coalition aims to have conversations with people from various communities to synthesize what undergraduates want.

Its members have advanced the movement to cancel classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, collaborated with the administration on financial aid reform proposals, and circulated a petition on undergraduate issues.

But not everyone agrees with USAY’s tactics. Critics say that USAY has a shady past and that it is divisive and manipulative. The organization’s strong ties to Yale’s unions cause some to question the group’s motives. And the apparent overlap between its mission and the Yale College Council’s leaves USAY with an uncertain role in representing undergraduate student interests.

A voice for students

Abbey Hudson ’03 seems to have been involved with the labor movement since birth. Born and raised in Battle Creek, Mich., Hudson walked her first picket line at around age 11 with her parents, who work in a cereal factory.

When she got to Yale, Hudson said, she got a union job at Durfee’s and was happy to see how good the union leadership was. In addition to being a member of Local 35, Hudson is an active member and former president of the Yale College Democrats and a Yale College Council representative.

Hudson and other USAY members said the motivations for starting the group were to give students a greater voice in Yale decision-making and to help give the administration a better picture of the student perspective.

“As much as [administrators] try, and I think they legitimately try, they’re never going to know as well as I do at this moment what it’s like to be a student on financial aid,” Hudson said.

Hudson said discussions about the formation of a student union began in May 2000, but the group did not formally get its name until the April 20, 2001, march.

Founding USAY member Abby Levine ’02 said the motivation for USAY came during the anti-sweatshop campaign, which culminated in a camp-out on Beinecke Plaza in the spring of 2000 — a campaign that ended in disappointment for many protesters. She said campus activists realized they were not going to win with a one-issue platform and needed to think more broadly.

“It’s really hard for people to continue to fight when they felt like they just couldn’t do it,” Levine said.

For the past two months, USAY members have sat outside dining halls, asking students to sign a petition that asserts that Yale should make an increased commitment to financial aid and faculty and student diversity. Hudson estimated that over 1,500 students have already signed.

In addition to advocating for a student voice, USAY is a firm supporter of local unions.

The petition also states that “Yale should be a more responsible employer and citizen both economically and environmentally, and Yale should make its decision-making process more accessible, transparent and inclusive.”

Conspicuously, the term USAY is nowhere to be found on the petition.

Hudson said this is so that students can sign the petition, supporting its issues, while not pledging any allegiance to USAY.

USAY members were also involved in the passing of the YCC resolution supporting the addition of the Rev. W. David Lee, a local minister, to the Yale Corporation ballot this fall.

After working on financial aid reform, USAY members spent most of the fall semester recruiting new members, Levine said.

USAY members traveled to Brown University in January to speak about financial aid reform. Hudson said she hopes that this will be the kickoff of a larger financial aid campaign. Last year, Yale raised its financial aid budget by $7.5 million.

Organizing, the union model and democracy

At a recent USAY meeting, Abbey Hudson drums on the table with her pencil and randomly bursts into song. Abby Krasner ’03 offers to make posters and swears the meetings are not always so disorganized. Abby Levine agrees to secure rooms in Dwight Hall for meetings and tries to get everyone to stop their side conversations.

Not everyone in USAY is named Abby.

None of the Abbys is the USAY president, because there is no USAY president. Nor is there a treasurer or a coordinator or a secretary. USAY is based on the union model, and members take turns conducting meetings and taking minutes.

Yet another Abi, Social Justice Network Coordinator Abigail Vladeck ’03, said that while she supports many of USAY’s causes, she does not believe the union model is appropriate for an undergraduate organization.

“I think students are in a very different position from employees,” Vladeck said. “I don’t think the union-style model that USAY was coaching people in is necessarily the most effective for this population.”

A senior who wished to remain anonymous said that while she is an active supporter of local labor movements, she does not support USAY.

“Fundamentally, USAY runs against labor theory,” she said. “Because we’re not workers, we’re consumers, and number two, we choose to be here.”

She also said she objects to labeling USAY an activist group when there are other worthwhile causes in New Haven.

“There are so many problems that affect kids, workers — very real problems,” she said. “To advocate for more organic food in dining halls, to put that under the genre of activism is not exactly the best way. I think it diminishes what activism or advocacy really means in a social justice sort of sense.”

Some students have said USAY is not really as democratic as it claims to be.

Many prominent Yale activists, people who fervently support the same causes as USAY members, have been put off by USAY’s tactics. Vladeck is one of these activists.

She has worked on financial aid reform and anti-sweatshop campaigns. She worked to have classes canceled on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and she supports local and national labor causes. But she said that she was told that USAY did not want her as a member if she was not willing to recruit others.

“The style of organizing is one-on-one, which for some people makes them feel like they’re backed against the wall,” Vladeck said.

“USAY’s tactics, the tactics of their organizers, struck a lot of people,” said an alumnus who was involved with several Dwight Hall member groups. “They thought these organizers would come and sit in on their meetings and continually try to steer their groups into a direction they didn’t necessarily want to go into.”

“One of the big criticisms was what they were theoretically pushing was student democracy, but their decision-making process was done by a clique of four, maybe five people,” he said.

But Levine disagreed.

“Certainly the people who are more involved have more of a say about what’s going on, but what we do is try to go out and talk to people,” Levine said. “We try to be as representative as possible. We’re certainly not there yet.”

The Union Connection

Some veteran activists have also questioned USAY’s motives.

A Yale senior who was involved in both political and activist circles and was part of the original organizing effort with USAY said the group was created as a forum for gathering student support for unions. She said it bothered her that there were no concrete goals, that USAY just had meetings and discussions.

“[USAY is] basically a very poor attempt in fooling people into being part of the labor movement without understanding why,” she said. “[It’s] more of a manipulative tool. At least in the beginning, the idea was to hook people in with their own self-interest and all of a sudden get them on board to union stuff.”

While USAY members often assert that student-related issues are their priority, Yale’s unions played a significant role in USAY’s founding.

“I know that in many ways the initial formulations of what USAY was going to be were discussed within the context of how the students could most affect the negotiations and the struggle for recognition for GESO and [District] 1199,” said Victor Corona ’03, who is not a USAY member. “The initial organizing was done with the [Federation of Hospital and University Employees] leadership.”

Laurie Kennington ’01, one of the founding members of USAY, was working both as Local 35 President Bob Proto’s assistant and a member of USAY last year. She is now employed by the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, an alliance between locals 34 and 35, Graduate Employees and Students Organization, and District 1199.

Hudson said that USAY was not founded for the principal purpose of supporting the unions.

“I think the unions and the community and the undergrads together all make up one movement that’s fighting for self-determination and a voice in the decisions that affect their lives,” Hudson said.

Vladeck also said USAY has been divisive, and attributed what she called the failure of the Student Labor Action Coalition to the creation of USAY.

“Local labor was talking to USAY and not SLAC,” Vladeck said. “The message that a lot of USAY folks were giving to SLAC folks was USAY was what the unions wanted students to be doing.”

Both Proto and Andrea Cole, the director of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, have said that students and union members have a natural alliance, and that Yale students have a history of being supportive of the unions.

Cole said USAY’s only involvement in the negotiations will be voluntary support, and the unions do meet with USAY representatives on a regular basis.

“We have people coming or a person coming to the community team, but that’s more so there’s an open channel of communication,” Cole said. “We have absolutely no control over what the students do or say. It’s purely a practical way for us to exchange information and communication.”

Dan Smokler ’01, one of the original organizers of USAY who now works for the federation, said that he has been impressed with the sheer numbers of students who show up for USAY rallies, and that the union model is necessary for an organization to get anything accomplished.

“I think if you look at the history of Yale in the last 20 years, consider who has made a real impact in changing how Yale works and democratizing — the only organizations we can point to are GESO and locals 34 and 35,” Smokler said. “Not just because they’re workers, that’s because those people are organized.”

USAY and the YCC

Four of USAY’s most active members — Hudson, Ted Wittenstein ’04, Howard H. Han ’05 and Sam Asher ’04 — are also YCC representatives.

They have pushed some of USAY’s concerns through the YCC, working on last week’s open forum on tenure and hiring practices, passing resolutions on card-count neutrality, and currently working on the campaign to get Lee on the Corporation.

YCC President Vidhya Prabhakaran ’03 said that while he appreciates USAY’s help on several issues, most of what USAY does overlaps with the YCC’s efforts.

“I don’t agree with the idea that when a YCC member goes in with a resolution in hand that the administration takes it as simply the wishes of that single YCC person or just the 24 members of the YCC,” Prabhakaran said. “However, on the other hand, having 2,000 signatures certainly helps an argument.”

Hudson said USAY is not trying to take the place of the YCC.

“I think the YCC does incredible things,” she said. “I’m a YCC rep, but I don’t think there’s a concerted effort to get student support behind what we do. If the YCC was to pass a resolution and was able to show massive student support for it, they’d be just as effective as any other group that could do the same. We’re hoping to work closely with YCC, taking our issues to YCC as resolutions.”

Hudson said she thinks USAY and the YCC have a good relationship and because people in both organizations are concerned with student issues, it is logical that several people are members of both.

“I think that one of the weaknesses of YCC is it has so many things that are going on, it’s hard to address all of the big issues and small issues and Spring Fling and Winter Ball,” Hudson said. “I see USAY as playing a role within the YCC in that we help to cultivate research and build student responses behind larger issues that I think YCC would address on their own if they had the time.”

USAY members are undeniably active. They have filled their Palm Pilots with dates to “dorm storm” and petition outside dining halls. They have a stack of petitions, with over 2,400 signatures, that they plan to deliver to Levin on Friday. They have organized events in most of the colleges bringing union members and administrators to present both sides of the labor struggle to students.

“Unions are fighting for greater democracy and for more people to have meaningful input into decision-making,” Levine said. “What links us all is that we’re all working toward a better democracy.”