This week graduate teachers at Yale and Columbia are on strike in the first multi-campus strike in the Ivy League.
We are striking because American universities, like Yale, are run more and more like corporations, with less control by those who do the teaching and research and more focus on the bottom line. We are striking because our university administrations look to shift their teaching and research to people like us — graduate teachers, postdoctoral fellows, adjunct instructors — who are a cheap and flexible source of labor. We are striking because with lots of us and with fewer full-time, tenure-track jobs, it has become difficult to make a career as a professor. And as academic work is offloaded onto graduate teachers, postdocs and adjuncts, the values that drew many of us to the academy are threatened: academic freedom, respect for teaching and support for research of all kinds.
In response, graduate employees, postdocs and faculty members both on and off the tenure track have organized; 40,000 graduate employees already belong to recognized unions. GESO at Yale and GSEU at Columbia are part of this movement by academic workers. With a recognized voice in the governance of the university, we could limit the creation of insecure academic jobs and transform the existing ones into good jobs with living wages, benefits and security.
In spite of repeated majority petitions, strikes and countless public calls to recognize GESO from beyond Yale — from numerous academic professional associations such as the Modern Language Association, the American Association of University Professors, members of Congress and other graduate employee and faculty unions — the Yale administration has refused to recognize GESO, or even to discuss a process for gauging support for a union among graduate teachers.
In their silence, President Levin and President Bollinger of Columbia have chosen to hide behind a partisan 2003 decision by the Bush administration’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that put graduate teachers outside the protections of federal labor law. We agree with the dissenting members of the NLRB, who lamented that the ruling was “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality” and that continued labor unrest on campus “does American universities no favors.”
We have tried to avoid a strike while still insisting on respect for the work that we do. Last spring, hundreds of graduate teachers submitted grievances to the University about the huge inequities of pay between graduate teachers and the lack of initiatives to promote diversity and equal rights in the Graduate School. The administration dismissed both without a hearing. In December, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz certified that 60 percent of the graduate teachers on Yale’s central campus supported a union. President Levin refused to talk with us, telling a forum of undergraduates that he preferred to have a strike. Finally, last week we published a petition from 300 of the 500 current TAs and from 700 of 1,300 graduate students on central campus, asking President Levin to recognize our union. He has not responded.
Left with no alternative, hundreds of GESO members are on strike this week because we refuse to accept the University as it is, and insist on making Yale the University it can be. We refuse to accept Yale’s policy of penalizing the most experienced graduate teachers by cutting their pay. We refuse to accept that graduate teachers’ salaries are so low and Yale’s cost of family health care is so high, that most graduate teachers with families are forced to rely on HUSKY, the state program for uninsured children. We refuse to accept that the University refuses to implement something as basic as an impartial grievance procedure, which would create a fair process for resolving issues such as discrimination in the workplace.
We are prepared to sit down and talk with the administration at any time. But we insist on respect for our work, the compensation and benefits we need in order to live with dignity, basic fairness and equality in the workplace, and a university governed not by corporate imperatives but by academic values. We are proud to be part of a nationwide movement of academic workers to regain control of our universities and preserve the values of our profession.
Mary Reynolds, the chair of GESO, is a fourth-year graduate student in American Studies.