During my office hours the other week, one of my students asked me why GESO had called a strike vote. I explained to him that next year, despite two years’ teaching experience, I would be making $16,600 to teach — $1,400 less than my colleagues who will be teaching for the first time. Interestingly enough, my student assumed that I was being paid this much each semester. When I informed him that these were my annual wages, he could not understand how I got by on so little. It was obvious to my student that the teaching I do here is in fact work and that I deserved decent pay for my efforts. This should also be obvious to the Yale administration.
Yale’s policies towards its graduate teaching workforce assume a typical graduate student that simply does not exist. After four years here, I have accumulated $13,000 in credit card debt, representing the shortfall between what I make here and what I need to live. As only the second person in my family to finish college, I promised my family I would not forget them once I got to Yale. My father, a retired truck driver, had his first heart attack last summer and I send him money each month for his medication. If being paid less the longer I am here forces me to choose between being a good son and a good scholar, I must choose the former and will have to quit. I do not want to make that choice, so instead I will strike in order to make myself visible as both a son and scholar.
Can Yale University afford pay equity? Certainly. The 72 students that one TA with two full sections teaches over the course of an academic year pay a total of $268,380 for that class. The stipend of this TA, if in his or her third and fourth year, represents 6.7 percent of this total. For those getting paid at the reduced wages paid to upper years, this represents a mere 6.2 percent. One half of 1 percent of the revenue from tuition paid for each class would satisfy our demand for pay equity.
The current situation is only possible because President Levin has been willfully blind to the work I do as a teacher. Despite the recent NLRB ruling, teaching assistants at a world-class institution like Yale are in fact highly skilled workers, who require at least six years of post-secondary training. The labor we perform in section is the foundation of the work of the University. Without his 12 TAs this semester, a brilliant scholar like professor Jonathan Spence would not be able to both fill his lectures on Modern China and publish the books that make Yale’s reputation.
Levin is not just blind to the existence of my family; he is also blind to the existence of the approximately 150 parents who are enrolled in the Graduate School. Last week, GESO held a rally to highlight the number of Yale parents who have their children on HUSKY, a public assistance program that provides healthcare for low-income Connecticut residents. A recent GESO survey of Whitehall residents found that three in four families with American-born children use HUSKY. Foreign-born children are ineligible for the program, and their parents pay anywhere between $3,000 and $6,000 to put their kids on the Yale Health Plan. The steep price Yale charges guarantees these children often remain uninsured. These parents should not have to choose between being good mothers and fathers and being dedicated scholars.
I support the strike and will be on the picket line with my fellow TAs. Deaf to the concerns of his community and blind to the realities of the work we do as TAs, Levin has forced yet another strike on Yale’s campus. If only he would open his eyes, he could avoid this turmoil by recognizing us and recognizing our union. We are left no other choice. We are striking to make visible what we do and who we are. We are striking for our families. We are striking for democracy.
Jay Driskell is a fourth-year graduate student in the History Department.