Last Friday’s Yale Daily News ran a story about the Graduate Employees and Students Organization leading a protest against Yale’s investment in a private prison corporation (“GESO blasts Yale holdings,” 10/07). It seems strange to me that GESO’s first newsworthy activity at Yale this year has nothing at all to do with graduate students, the people whose lives it claims to be trying to improve. As a nominal GESO member, I suppose I should feel offended that the organization’s Politburo (er, Organizing Committee) went ahead with this protest without seeking my input. Then again, GESO’s lack of democracy should hardly come as a surprise given its history of rigging elections and disenfranchising people who disagree with it.
These sins are well known and presumably have something to do with GESO’s ever-diminishing significance as an organization. The really striking thing about this most recent protest though was how irrelevant the issue behind it — Yale’s investment in a private prison corporation — is to the reasons why most graduate students would have any interest in joining a union. I joined GESO back in my first year of graduate school because I wanted better summer funding and dental insurance — and so that my organizer would stop harassing me to go to weekly indoctrination sessions.
Many of my friends seem to have joined GESO for similar reasons, and still others, who did not join on account of GESO’s reliance on intimidation as an organizing technique, nonetheless would like better funding, better insurance, more teaching opportunities, etc. If GESO would just stick to trying to improve the lives of graduate students and abandon some of its more obnoxious organizing techniques, it just might gain the support of people other than the handful of radical ideologues who currently make up its base.
As it stands, GESO is stuck in a vicious cycle. Having alienated just about everyone except the Bolshevik hardcore and lost interest in real, adversarial democratic procedures, GESO is free to engage in meaningless acts of political theater that gratify the anti-establishment instincts of its leadership but do nothing to either broaden its base or actually help graduate students.
I first noticed this trend a few years ago when some GESO researchers — with funding from Yale’s real unions, then engaged in contract talks with the University — produced a scurrilous report essentially charging Yale with racism for having named some of its undergraduate colleges after slaveholders. The report, which completely failed to place John C. Calhoun et al. in their proper historical context, was a crude slash job designed to create bad press for the University and increase the pressure to settle the contract dispute with the unions.
The report on Yale’s alleged racism began the process of my disillusionment with GESO. It convinced me that GESO was more interested in slinging mud at the university of which its members were a part than doing anything constructive to resolve the real problems facing graduate students. The leadership of GESO then, as now, suffers from the delusion that all graduate students would be bomb-slinging radicals if not for the fact that we are all too busy with qualifying exams and dissertations to plot a revolution.
It would probably come as a shock to most GESO leaders to realize that many of us are politically moderate, even conservative, and that we do not share their view of graduate students as an immiserated proletariat or of the Yale administration as a bunch of reactionary tyrants. Many of us probably do not give a fig whether Yale invests in private prison corporations, much less whether or not it sponsors prison education and arts programs — which the GESO protestors also demanded. Yale’s alleged investment in private prisons might truly offend some of us, but even if we care as individuals, GESO, as a body claiming to speak for graduate students collectively, has no business getting involved in such issues, especially without bothering to consult us.
We are not all the same politically or ideologically. What unites us is our shared experience as graduate students at this university. If GESO wants to check its ongoing slide into irrelevance, it should stick to issues that affect us as graduate students and drop both the cheap political theater and its efforts to embarrass the University. Lord knows Yale has enough other groups who do that sort of thing.
Jeff Mankoff is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in the History Department.