GESO’s recent shift to a strategy centered on issues specific to the Yale Graduate School from one rooted in pro-unionization ideology follows the group’s historical pattern closely.
Since its founding in 1987, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization has operated cyclically — after first developing widespread support among graduate students by calling for issues-based reform, GESO routinely shifts course, pressing the Yale administration for union recognition, professors and students said.
GESO Chairwoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said that although the group’s leaders spent the summer drafting a platform that focuses on issues rooted in problems such as health care, GESO will not take the issue of recognition as a union “off the table.”
Matthew Glassman GRD ’06, a political science student who is not a member of GESO, said the organization alienates many once-supportive graduate students each time it shifts its focus to unionization movements rather than strictly pushing for reform on Yale-specific issues such as those related to working conditions.
“When I first got here [four years ago], GESO was trying to build support through issues,” Glassman said. “Two years ago, the leadership in GESO shifted gears and moved away from everyday Graduate School issues and shifted instead into kind of a left-wing union ideology — and I think they haven’t been able to recover from that.”
GESO leaders organized an election on April 30, the results of which they hoped would display majority support for unionization among graduate students and provide an impetus for the University administration to negotiate with GESO. But in what GESO leaders acknowledged was a “big blow” to the group, a narrow majority of about 1,400 graduate students dealt the organization an unexpected loss.
“There’s no question that there’s less momentum [now],” Seth said. “On the other hand, there’s a very clear sense among the people I’ve been talking to that there is a lot changing and that there is a new momentum building and there’s a new drive building.”
In a meeting last week, GESO members overwhelmingly endorsed the group’s first unified platform. The platform focuses on fighting for University support of seven top issues at the Graduate School, ranging from family support services to career counseling. GESO leaders hope the platform will expand the group’s support base.
Anthropology Director of Undergraduate Studies David Watts, who said he supports graduate student unionization but is skeptical of GESO’s current practices, said he thinks it is appropriate that GESO is shifting its focus to “nitty-gritty” issues that students face every day.
“[After the election, GESO] realized that they didn’t have as much support as they thought they did, so they now have to deal with the questions of, ‘Have we lost sight of what issues we should be focusing on to try to attract graduate students?'” Watts said.
Professor William Foltz, who will take over this spring as director of undergraduate studies of political science, said GESO was in its heyday years ago when it raised Yale-specific issues, but he said he thinks the group has lost support in recent years because of its focus on unionization.
Glassman said there is little discussion about GESO at the Graduate School this semester and he thinks the group has become a “joke.” He said the fervor and hope that existed last year within the group is gone for the “foreseeable future.”
“The vote last spring I think killed GESO as we know it,” Glassman said. “Last year, they thought they had the numbers and the other unions were getting ready for strike and it looked like an opportune moment for GESO to achieve its goal and then they didn’t. It’s over.”
Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said the “word on the street” is that GESO has lost momentum, but he said he does not think the group is “doomed.”
“I certainly agree that there have been periods of more interest, tentative or conditional sympathy among the graduate students and periods where [GESO has] been less at the forefront and it wouldn’t be shocking if it has a cyclical nature,” Kagan said.
GESO leaders said they are crafting strategies to implement the group’s new platform and will soon form subcommittees to address each issue with the University.
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