One problem with the current labor dispute is figuring out how to support locals 34 and 35 without supporting GESO. I’ve always detested GESO, but I’m sympathetic to the grievances of the other unions. Last week I decided to attend the GESO membership meeting and see if maybe, just maybe, they’ve changed enough to not make me uncomfortable about incidentally helping them while I support 34 and 35.
Well, that didn’t happen. I did, however, get some new data that can illuminate some old debates regarding graduate unionization.
Old Debate No. 1: Strikes will be [rare/common] in a graduate student union. For years GESO has maintained that strikes would be rare if graduate students unionized and would only take place after careful thought and debate. This seems almost laughable now.
At the membership meeting, GESO’s members authorized the strike without any internal resolution on the question of why they were striking. Some possibilities — for recognition, in sympathy with the other unions, as a show of strength — were suggested, but nothing was ever adjudicated. Nor did they define what result would end the strike — how can you if you don’t know why you are striking? Reasoned debate was replaced with emotional action. The alliance between GESO and the other unions is also unsettling — locals 34 and 35 have struck in eight of 11 recent negotiations, typically with good reason.
But this further highlights the problem. GESO may or may not have a good reason to strike, but they haven’t articulated any unified reason. If GESO is preparing such a poorly-thought-through strike before they are a union, is there any doubt that they will liberally resort to direct action in the future?
Old Debate No. 2: A graduate student union will focus on [benefits/ideological goals]. People have long wondered whether GESO was more interested in improved conditions for graduate students or promoting an ideological labor agenda. The last few weeks have confirmed my suspicions that it is the latter.
At the membership meeting, I didn’t hear a single reference to a tangible benefit that GESO would help graduate students achieve. I did hear “the need for a voice,” “the need for unity between unions,” and “the need to show strength” more times than I could count. Of course, gaining “a voice” is merely instrumental; it has little or no intrinsic value.
When I pressed some GESO members on what they would like to achieve with their voice, they answered with “solidarity across unions” and “a transformation of the academy,” two more intangible, instrumental benefits. After more prodding, one of them finally came up with a tangible goal. It was “dental.” Apparently the strike, in the end, is about securing cavity checkups.
Old Debate No. 3: GESO is a [unified majority/vocal minority] of graduate students at Yale. The membership meeting was helpful in this regard. The majority/minority question is debatable — 600 or so turned up at the meeting. Given the realities of organizing meetings, this might mean GESO has a majority of the 2,400 graduate students.
Unity, on the other hand, is not debatable. It doesn’t exist. More than a vocal minority at the meeting opposed the strike, to say nothing of those who didn’t attend. An insurgent authorization proposal was only narrowly defeated by the leadership’s proposal. GESO members in my department are vocally upset with the strike, and I heard more than a few whispers at the meeting from various members preparing to disregard or partially break the picket line.
Numerically, it’s not obvious that even a unified strike can do much: despite possibly having a majority, only 484 of 2,400 graduate students voted to strike. Of those 484, only those teaching have any leverage; the entire burden lies with them. Stopping work on your dissertation, no matter how rebellious, isn’t going to achieve anything.
So I’m still in the same bind. I’d like to support 34 and 35, but if it means supporting GESO, it can’t be done. Many of you are in the same troubling position. Do what you can; God knows 34 and 35 need the support. But be clear what you are doing — and why you believe what you do. At least then no one will mistake you for GESO.
Matthew Glassman is a third-year graduate student in the Political Science Department.