Every year, “Flat-Earth” fanatics from around the world gather to celebrate and discuss the “non-spherical nature of the Earth.” For this bizarre coterie of Biblical literalists and conspiracy theorists, the commonly held view of our planet as a sphere is but a myth. As a “Flat-Earther” Web site unflinchingly proclaims, “the Earth is, in fact, flat and has five sides.” Confronted with incontrovertible evidence otherwise — satellite images, gravitational laws and common sense — the Flat-Earthers remain staunch in their defense of, well, a flat earth.
Even at Yale, a professed bastion of reason and sanity, we have our own merry group of Flat-Earthers — people who, despite the reality proved to them by overwhelming evidence, persist in adhering to their absurd notions. Our lovable but deluded Flat-Earthers are the members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the self-proclaimed representatives of graduate students.
GESO’s unremarkable history is marred by failure and distinct feelings of apathy and even opposition from many graduate students — both realities the organization continues to deny. Never mind the fact that the Yale administration has always refused to consider it a legitimate interest group, or that over the summer the National Labor Relations Board unequivocally struck down any right for students to organize as employees at private universities, or that GESO just might be the only group in history to lose its own rigged election, as it did in April 2003.
For those who weren’t at Yale for the 2003 “election” or for those who have since banished that embarrassing venture in democracy from memory, let’s refresh: GESO devised a plan to guarantee its own legitimacy as a union through a hastily assembled, poorly advertised vote on whether or not to unionize the group. Behind a curtain of anonymity, the GESO elites devised an ambiguous definition of voting eligibility based on the “mentoring of undergraduates.” The arbitrary definition excluded many science and medical graduate students, most of whom oppose unionization. Even with the election rendered farcical by GESO’s efforts to exclude its opponents, those eligible still voted 694 to 651 to oppose unionization. In the aftermath of the “election,” GESO seemed to fade into oblivion — no great loss for most, as evidenced by their votes.
Fast forward to one month ago when, at GESO’s fall membership meeting on Dec. 14, an impressive lineup of local politicians, union leaders and GESO members jubilantly trumpeted the organization’s newfound legitimacy as a result of a “card count” vote. No strangers to flawed electoral politics, GESO organizers had once again set up a vote involving a small population of graduate students in favor of unionization. To be fair, this time GESO had learned from past mistakes: If it was going to commit egregious crimes against the democratic process by self-selecting voters and disenfranchising opponents, the group might as well do it properly to ensure victory.
And indeed, a 12-week process of soliciting names from a predetermined list of eligible “voters” had finally created the results GESO organizers long desired. Sixty percent of 521 eligible TAs in the humanities, social science and language departments voted in favor of unionization. In a crude attempt to lend at least a veneer of legality to the sham of an election, GESO solicited the help of Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz to certify the “vote.”
What Bysiewicz and giddy GESO supporters failed to mention at the Dec. 14 meeting was that the card count was hardly representative of the whole graduate student body. In an effort to exclude departments predominately opposed to unionization — most notably those in the natural sciences — GESO changed the eligibility requirements, denying the right to vote to hundreds who differed with the group’s agenda. When asked about the exclusion of TAs in the natural sciences, GESO publicity contact Rachel Sulkes told me that those up on Science Hill had simply “defined themselves as outside our interests” — a well-crafted PR term meaning that they disagreed with GESO and were therefore excluded.
Furthermore, the method of a “card count,” a process in which GESO representatives solicited support for unionization by approaching eligible TAs, is hardly a fair way of gauging the graduate community’s interest in unionization. The card count allowed for the possibility of intimidation and coercion — both well-worn GESO tactics according to some graduate students. Many with whom I spoke told me that the GESO movement had successfully created a “cult-like” environment of intimidation in departments where support for unionization was high. GESO’s brazen recruiting techniques and persistent calls, which often violated a “no-contact” list, stopped “barely short of harassment” in the words of one graduate student who wished to remain anonymous.
For an organization that claims to represent graduate students, it seems that in reality, GESO represents an underwhelming few. GESO has become increasingly involved with locals 34 and 35 on issues that are at best tangentially related to graduate student organization. This involvement — the result of some students’ leftist political leanings and GESO’s implicit grouping of students with blue-collar workers as dual victims of the big, bad Yale Corporation and the miserly Dick Levin — has alienated many in the graduate community who believe the organization should remain apolitical.
But then again, maybe GESO’s political posturing has paid off. Duped by that word “union” and the “Norma Rae” fantasies of some Yale graduate students — or more likely, attracted to the opportunity of political allies in the fight against the Yale administration — members of the real unions locals 34 and 35 attended the December meeting, dutifully holding up signs and chanting in support of the new “union” of graduate students.
It has long been obvious that the Yale administration has no intentions of negotiating with its graduate students as employees. What is less obvious and drowned out by the shrill voices of a noisy few, however, is that most graduate students have either never cared about GESO or become so disillusioned with the group’s tactics and politicization that they no longer consider GESO a voice of Yale’s graduate student body. If GESO members must resort to a mockery of an “election” to garner support, then we know whom they truly stand for: themselves.
Keith Urbahn is a junior in Saybrook College.