As winter winds down, filling the streets of New Haven with bitter winds and cold pre-spring showers, the streets of New Haven are also filled with striking Yale employees. The reactions which the strike evokes in Yale students are varied. Some, unable to look beyond themselves, are angry at the inconveniences created by the strike and feel little but antipathy towards the striking workers. Others, focusing on the disparity between the wealth of the University and the conditions which it imposes on its employees, are willing to put up with the inconveniences caused by the strike and wholeheartedly support the striking employees in their struggle for respect and a living wage. There are also some students who support the strike by locals 34 and 35, but are ambivalent about supporting the striking graduate assistants. My conversations with Yale students and alumni suggest that this ambivalence has two primary bases: (1) a belief that graduate assistants are relatively privileged and therefore do not need to engage in disruptive working class tactics to improve their conditions; and, (2) a sense that graduate assistants are primarily students and not employees, that it is not appropriate for students to engage in collective bargaining with the University, and that such bargaining may actually pose a threat to the University.
Unions of graduate assistants have existed at public universities like the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the University of California and Rutgers, in some cases for decades. Assistants at these universities have been found to be employees and allowed to unionize under applicable state labor laws. While private universities, like Yale and Columbia, argue that allowing assistants to unionize would threaten academic freedom and undermine the mentor-mentee relationships at the core of graduate education, this has not been the experience at public universities with graduate assistant unions. In fact, it is worth noting that the American Association of University Professors, the largest professional organization of professors in the country, is on record as supporting the right of graduate assistants to unionize. The AAUP believes, contrary to the claims of university administrators, that unionization actually serves to protect academic freedom.
In 1999, in a case involving graduate assistants at New York University, the National Labor Relations Board found that graduate assistants at NYU were employees entitled to the protections of federal labor law. I was one of the lawyers representing the assistants at NYU. “New York University” was not a difficult case. Under the applicable common law test of employee status NYU graduate assistants were found to be employees because they provide service to NYU, under NYU’s direction and control, and they are compensated for providing these services. Under this generally applicable test the graduate assistants at Yale and elsewhere are employees. This is true whether or not the anti-labor Bush-appointed majority at the NLRB decides to overturn the “New York University” decision and strip graduate assistants of their legal protections.
Still, even if we accept the premise that assistants are employees and reject the claims raised by the University that the unionization of the assistants will threaten the integrity of the institution, the question remains: Do the striking graduate assistants at Yale deserve our sympathy and support? Many students who are comfortable supporting the demands of locals 34 and 35, unions seen as representing the interests of relatively poor working class Yale employees, hesitate to support GESO. This may be due to a perception that the members of GESO are relatively privileged and should not be disrupting the lives of students in an effort to further improve their conditions. The problem is that this perception is inaccurate.
The truth is that most graduate assistants cannot afford to live on the salaries paid to them by the University. Despite the extensive services which they provide to the University, often working full-time hours while they also attempt to meet the academic obligations of their programs, assistants must take out loans simply to pay their rents and put food on the table. Further, while in the past most of these assistants could look forward to obtaining secure academic positions, and paying off their loans, after graduation, this is no longer the case. Ever more corporate in their outlook, universities, including Yale, have focused increasingly on their bottom line. This has meant an increased reliance on graduate assistants, adjunct faculty and other nontenured faculty to provide instructional labor. These are usually low-paying positions with no job security. Tenure track positions are increasingly rare. Thus, many graduate assistants, faced with economic hardship now, will face more of the same after graduation.
Graduate assistants generate substantial income for the University but their compensation is meager. They deserve better. They deserve both adequate compensation and respect. Furthermore, supporting the demands of the graduate assistants will have a beneficial effect on the quality of undergraduate education at Yale. Graduate assistants, faced with unmanageable work loads, must often choose between adequately fulfilling their own academic obligations and adequately fulfilling their work obligations. It is often not possible to do both. Some are even forced to take on additional paid employment in order to pay their bills. Decreasing the work loads of graduate assistants and improving their compensation will enable them to meet their obligations to undergraduates more effectively.
Finally, students should understand that the greater the size of the unionized work force at Yale and the greater the solidarity between different groups of workers, the more clout all of the workers ultimately have. Thus, by supporting the graduate assistants, deserving of support in their own right, students are also supporting Yale’s clerical, service and maintenance employees. The workers of Yale are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, at personal risk, in order to improve their lives. They all deserve our support.
Carl Levine graduated from the Law School in 1997 and is currently working at Levy, Ratner & Behroozi in New York. He has represented NYU and Columbia graduate assistants before the NLRB.