Yale’s graduate students have spoken: We want a union. Every year for nearly a decade now, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) — the union of graduate teachers on campus — has attained majority membership, calling upon the University to honor our majority and negotiate a contract with us. And every year, the administration has ignored the voices of its graduate teachers in the languages, humanities and social sciences. This year, we declare majority status once more, with the hope that two new political realities will alter the playing field: the Obama presidency and the collapse of the economy.
In 2004, President Bush’s National Labor Relations Board stripped graduate students at private universities of labor organizing protections. But GESO is the first graduate employees’ union at a private institution to declare a majority under the Obama administration. Obama’s NLRB is slated to broadly restore workers’ rights, undoing the previous NLRB’s relentlessly anti-worker agenda. GESO members have good reason to hope that the Obama NLRB will restore our labor protections under federal law.
Graduate students everywhere are grappling with the potentially dire personal and professional consequences of the economic downturn. The academic job market has been tight for many years, but the ongoing crisis has made it unforgiving. Universities across the country have frozen faculty searches and slashed departmental budgets. To meet their basic educational obligations, many institutions have instead turned to low-paid, insecure, no-benefit adjunct and post-doctoral positions to compensate for teaching shortfalls. Given this economic reality, advanced graduate students looking for work in higher education face myriad obstacles to career advancement.
The Yale administration is in a unique position to offer positive solutions in these difficult times. Relative to other universities suffering major financial setbacks, Yale will weather the economic storm, granting it the power to exert significant influence for the better. As President Levin observed in his Dec. 16 letter to faculty and staff, “Despite the downturn in the economy, it is important to keep in perspective that the University is much stronger than it was a decade ago.” Though in his most recent budget update (Feb. 24) Levin expects it will take longer than initially projected for the endowment to return to pre-recession growth, he also affirms that the University “will continue to pursue [its] most important priorities.” Supporting graduate students currently on the job market and creating secure, tenure-track teaching jobs must be among those priorities.
In the near term, the administration needs to extend registration and guaranteed teaching to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-year graduate students without exception. This would offer an invaluable safety net to graduate students who come up empty on the job market in these difficult economic times. This safety net would ensure that graduate students would not lose their health care or have to face crushing student loan payments if they are unable to find employment.
In the longer term, Yale must strive to create hundreds, if not thousands, of secure, well paying jobs. The recently passed stimulus bill recognizes the role institutions like Yale must play in job creation by increasing the budgets of the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health by billions of dollars. Yale must answer this call.
In this moment of both volatility and promise, Yale has not only the obligation to recognize the democratic will of its workers, but also an opportunity to show bold leadership to a weary nation eager for signs of renewal. The demand for many goods and services decreases in a recession, but the demand for education does not. Instead, the search for new ideas and the need for innovation place universities at the front of efforts to put the nation back to work. Now is the time for Yale to recognize graduate teachers’ demand for union representation, and to begin a massive and sustained investment in creating good jobs to help fuel our national economic recovery.
Ariana Paulson is a Ph.D. candidate in the American Studies Department and is the chair of GESO.