The issue of graduate student unionization at Yale has grown increasingly volatile during the last several years. The debate has deteriorated into fractious rhetoric and name-calling on editorial pages and discussion boards, culminating in the possible filing of unfair labor practice charges against several members of the Yale faculty. These events undermine the atmosphere of collegiality and respect crucial to the quality of a graduate student’s professional life.
I will confine my arguments to the case of Graduate Employee Student Organization organizer Kristie Starr and Professor Mark Mooseker, the only parties mentioned by name in the Yale Daily News story “GESO says faculty broke law” on Dec. 6. Several students working with Mooseker have repeatedly made known their displeasure with GESO, a fact that GESO organizers apparently refuse to acknowledge (based on their ongoing attempts to contact these individuals). Mooseker, like most scientists, respects the opinions of his colleagues and students. Any attempt to coerce or threaten his employees based on their views would indeed be a violation of their rights. However, Mooseker is under no obligation to allow unauthorized outside personnel into his laboratory. Every lab has a placard outside the door noting which types of individuals are allowed entry (custodial staff, police, etc.). Admitting unsupervised or unwanted visitors is disruptive to the concentration of lab employees, and poses safety concerns when hazardous materials are in use. By Starr’s logic, union organizers should be able to enter operating rooms or emergency rooms to confront resident physicians about their own working conditions.
Graduate students do have legitimate professional concerns, which they should be free to discuss with each other in the proper venue. Students in the biological sciences, for example, seem most concerned with the quality of mentorship and career counseling they receive. The continuing failure of the GESO leadership to articulate a concrete list of such concerns suggests that GESO exists only to expand its own membership and win some sort of a grudge match with the Yale establishment. This attitude has led GESO to adopt relentless organizing tactics that include unannounced visits to student homes as well as telemarketer-like phone calls. These methods have led many students to sign union cards only to alleviate the harassment. Although GESO maintains that it does not want the membership of students who believe they were coerced, canceling one’s union card is often an arduous process that includes additional confrontations with GESO members.
The grievances of graduate students should be addressed in a collegial manner, not an adversarial one. Instead of the collective bargaining model exemplified by locals 34 and 35 and their bitter contract disputes with Yale, I suggest that students look to the recent victories of the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association. This group has resolved several important employment issues for postdoctoral fellows through lobbying efforts rather than collective bargaining. Increasing the influence of Yale’s own Graduate Student Assembly might be one approach to promote a constructive conversation between students and the administration. Faculty and administrators must contribute to this effort as well, by providing candid information about funding issues and the escalation in teaching requirements. In contrast, GESO’s organizing strategies and continuing attempts to vilify President Levin, Professor Mark Mooseker, and other faculty members seem to have alienated many of the graduate students that it purports to represent. Indeed, the acrimonious baggage accumulated by GESO in its greater than 10 years of existence have undermined its legitimacy as a movement that will successfully address the many concerns of graduate students at Yale.
Christopher Baker is currently a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. He is a recent Ph.D. graduate of the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Yale and a former member of GESO.