Annual graduate student stipend (2005-2006): $18,000
Health benefit to graduate students with two dependents: $2,796
Graduate student summer research fellowship: $3,500
Pretending you’re a real union: priceless
It’s a modern wonder how Yale graduate students find the inclination, never mind the time, to advocate for a union; there is just something unseemly about making demands of the people paying you to get a Ph.D. GESO members often wonder aloud why the vast majority of undergraduates harbor no sympathy for their cause; perhaps the fact that our tuition payments will rise by about $2,000 next year while graduate student stipends rise by $1,000 explains the disconnect.
That GESO will vote to go on strike this evening is a foregone conclusion because that is what the leadership, with Local 35 President Bob Proto and UNITE HERE co-president John Wilhelm whispering in its ear, wants. Over the years, GESO has systematically disenfranchised whole swaths of the graduate student community from its phony “elections” — now, it’s the scientists who are somehow ineligible to vote.
Perhaps the administration would be more open to a graduate student union if its leaders showed some regard for the truth, but GESO has perfected the art of deception. For example, the full-page advertisement in last week’s News contained the names of graduate students who signed a months-old petition believing that it simply called for recognition by the University. The advertisement — published the very day GESO issued a strike ultimatum — essentially portrayed every individual listed as supportive of a strike. Furthermore, several of the people listed are not even teaching assistants or are away from campus on semester and even yearlong research projects.
A GESO member has told me that the union will “target” large classes, like Jonathan Spence’s “History of China,” and language classes in order to impede the studies of the greatest possible number of undergraduates. Seeing how the National Labor Relations Board’s recent ruling against graduate student unions removes GESO’s legal remedies, the faux-union’s “strategy is to create as much bad publicity” for the University as possible. Thus, the frequent allegation of racism by GESO toward Yale — whether it be the spurious campaign to install racial quotas masked as a “diversity” campaign or the farce over anti-Chinese sentiment in Helen Hadley Hall.
Many of the graduate students I have spoken with support graduate student unionization in the abstract, but abhor GESO. A GESO member told me that any opponent of GESO’s predetermined agenda is summarily suspected of being a “racist, sexist, right winger, McCarthyite, etc.” and recounted a conversation in which his superior said that “the majority of people [in GESO] do not know what’s good for them.” Another GESO member who was shouted down after he dared express his opposition to the strike says that GESO propagates an ostensibly “democratic message that is undermined by an undemocratic process.”
GESO Chairman Mary Reynolds responds that “democracy is contentious,” but if GESO leaders truly believed in democracy, they would have agreed to co-sponsor last evening’s Yale Political Union debate on graduate student unionization and publicized it among their membership. If GESO truly believed in democracy, they would accept democratic election results.
And GESO’s “strike” next week will not be a real strike, because, after all, GESO is not a real union. For unlike actual workers, GESO members do not pay union dues. Who then, is funding the color posters plastered around campus and the full-page ads? When I asked Reynolds, she said UNITE-HERE, the umbrella union for locals 34 and 35. From 1998 to 2000, HERE contributed a total of $393,395 to GESO. This means that the real workers of Yale University — the dining hall workers, the janitors, the administrative assistants and their working-class colleagues across the country — are subsidizing everything related to GESO via union dues.
Furthermore, unlike real workers, who sacrifice paychecks and sometimes even their health benefits when walking the picket line, GESO members will not lose anything for refusing to teach sections or grade papers next week. One might expect GESO members to forfeit a week’s worth of stipend to the University as a symbolic act, or perhaps even donate it to the strike fund of 34 and 35 to thank them for the unwitting support of the locals’ rank-and-file members, but hypocrisy found its home at GESO headquarters long before the possibility of this “strike” was ever raised. That’s why GESO is so representative of our instant gratification culture: It’s all fun and excitement without any consequences.
The fact that GESO has existed for so long without ever coming close to University recognition indicates that it is serving an ulterior function. GESO is apparently quite useful to interests far removed from Yale: the national union bosses who find it appropriate to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of their members’ dues in an effort to bring the University to its knees. Ever since TA Solidarity was formed 18 years ago, graduate students have come and left. But the organizational infrastructure for GESO has remained firmly in place.
Every year thousands of people apply to join the community of scholars at the Graduate School; most end up at other graduate schools that offer far less in terms of stipends, tuition deferrals and academic prestige. Contrary to what GESO thinks, a Yale education is a privilege, not a right, and graduate students are made well aware of what will be expected of them long before they enroll. If GESO activists are so disappointed with Yale, if they actually believe all the nasty and vicious things they very publicly allege about the University administration, if they honestly believe that a union and the inherently adversarial relationship that would arise from its recognition is the only way to solve their problems, then they should pack their bags and go somewhere else. There’s a whole line of people waiting to take their place.
James Kirchick is a junior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.