While the Graduate Employees and Students Organization claimed victory from its five-day job-action, doubt remains as to whether a strike far less extensive than others in recent memory made headway in altering Yale’s long-standing position against graduate student unionization.
GESO’s aim of garnering national attention for its cause was met with some success as news outlets across the country provided coverage of the strike at Yale and Columbia, which was billed as the first multi-campus strike in the Ivy League. But what GESO claimed on the fourth day of the strike as its key victory of the week — securing a meeting with Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 — was erased on Friday when Betts issued a statement denying that he had agreed to such a meeting.
The striking teaching assistants, who followed a daily itinerary of events — from picketing for a few hours each day to noontime street rallies attended by a few hundred people at most — caused comparatively little disruption on a campus that had endured a three-week strike in 2003 by the University’s service, maintenance and clerical workers, which routinely drew thousands of people to rallies and demonstrations of civil disobedience.
Still, GESO leaders said they remain optimistic about their prospects for continuing to push the administration to recognize the group as a union, and said the strike was effective in highlighting issues of concern to graduate students. Another strike next fall is a possibility, leaders said.
“It seems to me that we had amazing participation in this strike,” GESO chair Mary Reynolds GRD ’07 said. “It seems to me that graduate teachers need to have a union on this campus. There are real issues at stake for graduate teachers on campus, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes. I think we’ll have to come together with the membership next year and decide what we want to do next.”
GESO spokeswoman Rachel Sulkes GRD ’01 said GESO will carefully watch contract negotiations between New York University and its graduate student union. The union’s current contract expires this August and the university has indicated that renewal is unlikely.
“We’re committed to doing whatever it is teachers at NYU ask us to do, because we’re very committed to moving forward and not backwards,” she said. “Nothing is ruled out, but also nothing is stenciled in.”
Throughout the Yale strike, GESO leaders claimed that as many as 250 TAs refused to hold classes and sections, affecting a total of about 450 classes and sections. But Yale administrators contend that the strike had little impact on undergraduate education, and have continued their refusal to meet with GESO members.
But with Yale President Richard Levin’s reaffirmation of the University’s strong stance against graduate student unionization and its support of a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling denying graduate students employee status, GESO’s immediate prospects for recognition appear dim.
“[The strike] caused minimal disruption to the academic progress of our students, and it was essentially a media event,” Levin said. “We would be very unlikely to recognize the union, even if the majority supported it.”
Reynolds said attracting media attention was one of GESO’s goals, although not its primary one.
“We had set out from the beginning with some clear objectives,” Reynolds said. “We wanted to get graduate student issues out there in the media. I thought we were very successful in getting the issues out there.”
Yale officials contend the strike was not supported by a majority of graduate students, and have maintained that the strike was not as disruptive as GESO members claimed. Associate Yale College Dean Judith Hackman said the Dean’s Office asked all departments and programs throughout the week to provide information about any classes or sections that were not meeting due to the strike.
University officials received no reports of courses not being taught due to the strike, Hackman said, and only 10 courses reported that sections were either cancelled, postponed or taught by substitutes.
But Sulkes said she thinks claims that campus life was uninterrupted are calculated.
“There’s a real investment to say that the union is not disrupting anything,” Sulkes said. “The truth is, if teachers didn’t make a difference leading sections, there wouldn’t be sections. In some cases, sections were cancelled outright. I think it became pretty obvious that it wasn’t business as usual, that the work we perform is important.”
GESO organizer Daniel Gilbert GRD ’07, a TA for the popular lecture course “Foundations of Modern American Culture,” said he thinks the strike was “tremendously successful,” in communicating GESO’s concerns and objectives to members of the Yale community.
“It was a week of escalating actions,” Gilbert said. “We started the week with issues specific to Yale, and by Friday, solidarity actions were happening all over the world. Our strike inaugurated a national movement of teachers and researchers and scholars at universities in the Ivy League and all over the country.”
But Matthew Glassman GRD ’06 said he thinks the strike will ultimately work against advancing GESO’s aims. GESO was “much more powerful,” Glassman said, when he first came to Yale four years ago, but the group’s strikes held since then have weakened GESO’s appeal to graduate students.
“I kind of think [strikes] backfire,” Glassman said. “They’re very adversarial. GESO will never be successful if they can’t at the bare minimum encourage a majority of graduate students to join, and people who may consider it I think are turned off by GESO putting on this veil of being a working-class kind of movement, working for the oppressed. It just doesn’t resonate well.”
GESO members said they will continue conversations among the membership and graduate students to determine what steps the group should take next.
“People feel very clearly that obviously this isn’t over,” Sulkes said. “It’s now up to the membership to decide what course we’re going to take. Right now, we’ll be going out to people, trying to brainstorm about what we want to do next.”
* This article has been corrected. In the original version, the article misstated the University’s assertion about the number of graduate students supporting the strike.