As Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization readies for what may be its sixth strike in 15 years, the organization once again will be pushing a goal that for more than a decade has been at the nexus of student activism at the Graduate School — recognition as a union.
Graduate students serving as teaching assistants began to organize forming a union in 1987 — first as an activist group called TA Solidarity and later forming GESO — and since then have had little success in gaining recognition from the University, which has a long-standing position against graduate student unionization. The administration historically has altered graduate student policy on an issue-by-issue basis, but has refused to negotiate with GESO.
From the onset, organizers in TA Solidarity had considered unionization, but largely as a vehicle to remedy a system for TAs that they felt was “falling through the cracks,” said longtime TA and original founding member Ray Lurie ’80 GRD ’85. The group’s members debated amongst themselves, he said, as to whether the group would be better served by unionizing or simply threatening to form a union.
“Many felt that the moment that we had a union that would inevitably mean a strike,” Lurie said. “The process of unionization itself seemed to be yielding far more results. The more carrots they [the administration] threw at us, the less likely we would be to unionize. There have been enormous gains that have been made largely as a result of the administration trying to bribe graduate students not to form a union.”
Although GESO over the years has served as a positive instrument of change for graduate students, history professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said, it has likely neared a point of diminishing returns.
“I think that the changes which are very positive over the last 15 years wouldn’t have come about as quickly as they did without GESO action,” Smith said. “I think they’ve gotten pretty well to the point where there’s not much in the way of improvement in the way of working conditions that they can aspire to.”
When Eve Weinbaum ’85 GRD ’97, a founding GESO member and associate professor at the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, returned to campus as a graduate student in 1989, she said she thought that TA Solidarity was seeking an “institutional voice” to accomplish a broader range of initiatives — a role she said was fulfilled by the transformation of TA Solidarity into GESO.
“They were really in the process of making a transition and broadening of issues so that it wasn’t just TA issues,” Weinbaum said. “They changed the name to GESO to try to encompass more grad student concerns.”
The nature of GESO tactics and the administration’s response to them are reflections of a long history of Yale’s resistance to the organizing of workers, said American studies and history professor Michael Denning, a GESO supporter.
“The University loves to yell ‘intimidation’ and things like that,” Denning said. “It’s nonsense. This place has a history of having resisted every attempt by every group of members to organize themselves to have a union for over half a century.”
After a tumultuous strike in 2003, the University and its unions — locals 34 and 35, representing Yale’s service, maintenance and clerical workers — signed a settlement that both union and administrative officials said they agreed with. Both sides have said work on “best practices,” mandated by the new contract, has improved the relationship between management and labor at Yale.
Still, the relationship between Yale and GESO has not changed.
Since its founding days, Weinbaum said, GESO has selected a few issues its leaders feel are “most pressing” among TAs, including fair treatment, comparable wages to those at peer institutions, health care provisions and tuition waivers for TAs.
Weinbaum said the intention for unionizing, has been to settle disputes by negotiating with the administration. But without official recognition as a union, GESO has resorted to occasional strikes to get its voice across, she said.
“Strikes are very unusual in most of the country … [but] in New Haven, they’re totally normal,” she said. “[Regarding] the issues, no one has too much disagreement with. It was always the tactics that people had a problem with.”
GESO’s membership will vote on Wednesday whether to begin a five-day TA strike beginning April 18, the group’s first strike since a three-week strike with locals 34 and 35 in September 2003.