When the Graduate Employees and Students Organization announced this week that it had collected signed union cards from a majority of graduate students, reactions ran across the full spectrum. GESO organizers called it a “historical moment” and proclaimed that a watershed day for GESO appeared imminent. Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield, on the other hand, reiterated the administration’s position that organizing a union will take more than just signing cards.
For those without attachments to either side of the ongoing teaching assistant unionization debate, it’s simply hard to know what to think of GESO’s latest move. Gaining a majority of signed cards has been a major goal of GESO’s for years, and while organizers have claimed to have majority support in the past, actually holding the cards makes a big difference psychologically and politically. Beyond that, though, the fact that GESO has the cards doesn’t really mean much unless GESO does something concrete with them. The real question now is what GESO’s majority will do.
The first step was to send an expected, if pointless, letter asking the administration to meet and agree on a way to settle the unionization question. The administration will, of course, thank GESO for the letter but decline the invitation to meet.
Thus, the ball will return to GESO’s court — where it has been for most of the last decade — but now the powerful political chip of majority support accompanies it. If GESO really has a majority of cards, and if organizers did not coerce anyone into signing those cards, then there is no logical reason to think that GESO would not win a secret ballot election.
GESO leaders would counter that such an election would be fair only under a neutrality agreement, since professors would coerce many students into voting against the union. But now that GESO has declared a majority, it seems to have contradicted itself. After all, organizers managed to get a majority of signatures without a neutrality agreement.
GESO’s other long-running complaint has been that the University would appeal the results of the secret ballot election. GESO is probably right; fair or not, the University is likely to appeal. But if GESO has confidence in the precedent set by the National Labor Relations Board’s recent decision against New York University, that’s a chance it should be willing to take.
The TA unionization debate is complicated, but the procedural side of the question is really fairly simple. An NLRB secret ballot election and a denied University appeal is probably the only means through which a union will come about. The University doesn’t want a TA union, and regardless of what anyone thinks on the topic, Yale is entitled to that opinion. But procedures are in place to make sure that the law gives workers an honest chance to trump management with a fair majority vote, and that’s where GESO’s greatest strength lies.
The possibility of a graduate student union has been looming for years, and now that GESO says it has a majority, it suddenly seems a lot more realistic.
Calling for a secret ballot election is the only next step that can work. On that point, though, GESO’s new majority is silent.