Forgive us if we feel like we have been through this before. As Yale’s graduate students prepare to vote today on a potential strike, the University faces the prospect of a sixth teaching assistant work stoppage in 15 years — and the third in just over two years. Yet graduate student unionization appears almost as distant a possibility today as it was when the group TA Solidarity was founded in 1987. A strike next week would be just one more unsuccessful effort toward an end we find hard to justify.
In its fight for recognition, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization is attempting to fundamentally change the relationship between the University and its graduate students — and we think Yale would be the worse for it. GESO supporters point to the history of Yale’s clerical workers — another group that faced years of resistance from the University before finally earning recognition as a union — as a source of hope for their cause. But unlike the members of Local 34 or their counterparts in Local 35, graduate students come to Yale as students, not as workers, and while here, their services as workers, no matter how valuable, are still secondary to their role as students. According to University statistics, 70 percent of graduate students enrolled last fall were not teaching, and most teach no more than four semesters during their entire time at Yale. Yet GESO is pushing for an arrangement that would effectively define Ph.D. candidates as employees first, and students second — and for what?
In the abstract, it is difficult to argue with some of GESO’s priorities; we, too, would like to see a more diverse faculty and fewer classes taught by non-faculty instructors. But at a university where the College’s tuition will rise $2,000 next year, where undergraduate financial aid could still be better and where professional students invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their education, we wonder whether graduate students — who pay no tuition and earn $18,000 annual stipends — should be first in line to get more. At the same time, GESO raises grievances that its unionization could never solve, from the difficult job market for new Ph.D.s nationwide to the challenges women face in earning tenure. As GESO protests more and more loudly, it has left many graduate students throughout the University questioning whether they want the group negotiating with Yale on their behalf, and alienated itself from the large majority of science Ph.D. candidates.
But even if we supported GESO’s recognition, it would be hard to justify a strike next week. GESO itself acknowledges that it has no hope of earning recognition from the Yale administration in the near future, whether or not TAs stay on the job next week. What is left are only two potential outcomes, neither of which will reflect well on GESO. If the business of Yale goes on as usual, GESO’s tactics will only display the group’s irrelevance. And if, in the semester’s last week of classes, a TA strike’s only result is to inconvenience the undergraduates whose sections are canceled, then GESO will only have proven its disregard for the rest of us.