I support the real unions on this campus. And by that I mean, I support UNITE-HERE locals 34 and 35, SEIU Local 1199 at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and — with no less emphasis on real — the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), also affiliated with UNITE-HERE. I stand with my teaching assistants and graduate-school predecessors in support of both the national graduate-employee union movement, which includes some 20 percent of the United States’ graduate teachers in recognized unions, and the fight here at Yale. Why? Because I — like, I presume, the majority of undergraduates here — share an interest with my teachers in having the best classroom experience possible. Because I want to attend a University at which women and people of color are empowered as my teachers, fellow students and administrative leaders. And because I recognize and respect the work that my teachers do.
By the end of this semester, I will have taken a total of 18 courses at Yale. Twelve of these courses involved the substantial contributions of one or more TAs; certainly, my experience is not unusual. In eight classes, TAs taught sections that always included new approaches to the material covered in lecture, usually included new material not covered at all in lecture, and sometimes included the first intelligible approaches to material taught in lecture. Many of my peers in language courses rely on graduate teachers for instruction every day for two or more years. In all of the courses in which I’ve had TAs, those individuals have taught review sections, met with me about paper topics and other subjects, and graded the weekly work of, often, more than 30 students. To me and many of my fellow students, this work is in no way invisible. I and my classmates recognize it as a significant piece of the classroom education and academic mentorship of Yale College, and we respect our TAs’ commitment to the work of teaching.
But the University offers its TAs no office space in which to do their jobs. It offers insufficient English language and teacher training, with President Levin suggesting at the Feb. 22 open forum that English language training is a problem of departmental administration (Levin’s solution was something like “Complain to your department chair and we’ll remove the offending TA”) rather than an opportunity for improvement to both undergraduate education and teacher job-preparedness. And, incredibly, Yale couples this approach with the use of an English language SPEAK test that, according to admissions of Yale officials themselves, discriminates against speakers of East Asian languages. If indeed teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, then teaching and learning are sinking together in a mire of the University’s disrespect and non-recognition.
TAs who are enrolled in masters’ programs at Yale — and these students of forestry, music and art account for 20 percent of the University’s teaching assistants — receive no health care coverage from Yale, while they are, in fact, paying tuition. Like many of us undergraduates on financial aid, they will likely graduate with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of loans, only to enter non-remunerative fields. And Yale offers no affordable childcare options to any of its graduate teachers, such that the women who disproportionately take on the task of childcare are systematically prevented from advancing in the academy.
Fewer than 20 percent of the tenured faculty at this institution are women, while only one black woman has tenure. These numbers are not news — they’ve doubtless been on this page many times before — but the fact is that they’re still here because they haven’t changed. And the truth is that they could change — with grievance procedures, with pay equity, with affordable health care and childcare, with a commitment from the University to permanent teaching jobs. And they would change, and would, in fact, change the professional futures of many of us undergraduates, with a union contract that would provide grievance procedures, pay equity, health care and childcare, and good jobs in addition to resources for teaching and support for international scholars.
The work of teachers, along with that of secretaries, lab technicians, maintenance staff, dining hall employees and nurses, is what makes this University function. It is time for the University to recognize that work, to avert a possible strike by sitting down and talking to those whose work makes our education possible. It is time for Yale to respect its TAs, who have chosen GESO to represent them with a 60 percent majority. It is time for Yale to recognize its graduate teachers’ union.
Phoebe Rounds is a sophomore in Silliman College.