30 years ago last Friday, after a 15-year war that culminated in a ten-week battle, thousands of Yale workers, most of them women, embraced one another and their loved ones in relief and victory. That day, Yale officially recognized Local 34, the union of technical and clerical workers. The movement was lauded as a huge victory for workers and for women in general. They were recognized as breadwinners, as opposed to housewives seeking pocket money.
The Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which is affiliated with Local 34, has been fighting for formal Yale recognition of a graduate student union for a quarter of a century.
They are still waiting.
“In the early days, I used to look at Local 34 and think that if it took them 15 years, it would also take the graduate students around 15. We are now a full decade past that,” said Michael Denning, an American Studies professor and supporter of GESO.
By last spring, GESO’s patience was wearing thin.
On a rain-drenched day at the end of April, hundreds of umbrellas clustered together, damp GESO flyers littered the mass. Hundreds of graduate student union supporters gathered to present a petition to the Yale administration asking for official recognition. One of the main tenets of their proposal was increased “fairness and transparency in graduate employment” — something that GESO President Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said Yale has already followed through on.
After the submission of GESO’s proposal, for instance, Yale launched a new website that helps graduate students find teaching positions in different departments. It’s a small gesture, but it means something. Yale may not officially recognize the union, but at least they hear the complaints.
The number of signatures on the petition — over 1,000 — represents a majority of graduate student employees (in other words, graduate students who are paid to teach). Greenberg called this majority “consensus.”
But it isn’t a consensus.
Steven Reilly GRD ’15, for instance, isn’t part of Greenberg’s consensus. He doesn’t think a Yale graduate student union is necessary. He points to the pay grad students receive here: Yale graduate student employee wages are among the highest in the nation.
“Would all graduate students say they’re being underpaid? Yes. Would [Yale students] say that they’re being paid more than other peer institutions? Also yes,” he said.
There are reasons other than satisfaction with the status quo behind some graduate students’ choice not to be a part of the GESO. One graduate student in the humanities, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, felt “harangued, and then ostracized” when she didn’t want to sign GESO’s petition. She said she knew people who signed not because they particularly cared, but just to avoid harassment from GESO members.
Greenberg said if the administration recognized GESO, “We would be able to sit across the table as equals.”
But at a demonstration on Old Campus last week celebrating Local 34’s 30th birthday, Greenberg was asked if he would try to speak to University President Peter Salovey, who was shaking hands at the event.
“They know what we want,” Greenberg said.
But Reilly noted that GPSS and the Graduate Student Assembly already work with a very receptive Yale administration to improve graduate student life.
It’s worth mentioning the current head of the Yale Health Member Advisory Committee, a committee composed of Local 34 members, Yale Health Staff, faculty members, undergraduates and graduate students, is a graduate student.
“We’re at the table,” Reilly said. “Not only that, but the person who’s the head of the table is a graduate student.”
He also cited the administration’s response to a complaint about New Haven housing that GPSS and GSA made together. Yale took them seriously: The administration confronted New Haven landlords with the concerns, and “things changed immediately.”
In another instance of cooperation, several years ago, graduate students decided that they wanted dental and vision plans. While GESO was advocating for benefits from the outside, GPSS and GSA were able to bring the issue directly to administrators, who responded. Now a plan is available to students who opt for it.
“Certainly in terms of pay, benefits and quality of life, Yale is average or good compared to other universities,” said Reilly. “It’s hard to tell where [GESO] wants to go from there.”
Much of what GESO advocates for, though, has nothing to do with wages or the concerns addressed by the GPSS or the GSA.
Robin Canavan, a third-year Geology and Geophysics grad student, believes women are highly underrepresented in the sciences. She wants to drum up support for women in the sciences, among other things, and that’s why she’s in GESO. Charles Decker, a fourth-year in the political science department, cited his belief that Yale needs to recruit and grant tenure to more academics of color. That’s why he’s in GESO.
With many disparate reasons for membership, a question arises: How much control would a single union wield over these issues, which exists across the nation and not simply at Yale? Whether or not to acknowledge graduate student unions itself is a national issue. Although there are many graduate student unions in public universities around the country, private institutions are a different story.
Any graduate student union at a private institution would fall under the National Labor Relations Board, which revoked the collective bargaining rights of graduate employees after an incident at Brown. Simply put, the board holds that teaching on the part of grad students is more education than vocation.
According to JoVonne Lane, a public affairs specialist with the NLRB, there are currently no cases regarding graduate student unionization before the board.
Allowing them to unionize, by the telling of the NLRB Brown ruling, would negatively impact the educational process. Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley is inclined to agree. “It does not make sense to me to consider students as employees,” she said.
To students — and eventually administrators too — at New York University, it did make sense. NYU made history last December when it became the first private institution to officially recognize the results of an elected graduate student union. 98.4 percent of NYU student employees voted in favor of forming a union, and collective bargaining began this spring.
Before collective bargaining, “there was a condition in which no graduate employee had any voice in anything that happened to them in terms of their employment,” said Brady Fletcher, a member of NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee. “Having a union has absolutely changed the balance of power between graduate employees and the university … We now have the ability to sit down as equals with the administration.”
For GESO and advocates of graduate student unions at private universities, this was a major breakthrough.
But Reilly pointed out that NYU graduate employees had essentially no voice before collective bargaining. At Yale, students do have avenues to access the administration and effect change. For many, like Reilly, these avenues are enough.
GESO targets graduate students who dedicate a lot of time and energy to teaching undergraduates as “teaching fellows.” In some departments, TF’s lead a discussion section once a week and grade assignments. In others, they lead class up to four or five times a week, and are responsible for both grading and crafting assignments.
Much of GESO’s platform, then, aims to improve conditions for the undergraduate classroom.
Allison Hadley GRD ’18, a third-year graduate student in the Italian department, said that she teaches five days a week and that the classroom is entirely under her jurisdiction. She joined GESO so she could communicate with administrators to improve the quality of her classroom.
“Yale’s teaching policies can be un-transparent, extremely unpredictable and sometimes very unfair,” Abbey Agresta GRD ’17, said. She described showing up to the second lecture of a course for which she’d been a teaching fellow, and being abruptly sent to teach a different course in a different department, with little to no time to master the material. She also said that she considered teaching to be the most important work she did at Yale.
Denning said that graduate students do most of the teaching and most of the research at the modern university, so they deserve to be treated not as people passing through but as “a permanent and vital sector of the university, even if their faces change.”
He added that GESO’s solidarity with other Yale unions, and its solidarity across different departments, has led to a greater sense of cohesion on campus and in New Haven.
As higher education continues to evolve, many believe it is important to remain on the cutting edge. Denning believes that graduate student unions are the way to get there.
“Yale looks like a dinosaur on its way to extinction,” he said. “Unions of graduate teachers know that’s the world that they’re facing, and they know what the consequences of that world will be for teachers and for students.”
For others, a graduate student union remains an unnecessary force.
“We’d be out there in picket lines if we thought there were big things that need addressing,” said Reilly. “If we were in a time of dire need, I’d be all for it.”
It doesn’t look like the Yale administration will need to formally recognize GESO anytime soon. As long as they can communicate with other channels — like GPSS and GSA — they don’t need to directly confront a major home of discontent. There will be no dramatic, ten-week strike that will ride a national wave like the women’s movement. GESO is not another Local 34.
Still, GESO has survived for a quarter of a century without recognition. GESO has withstood constant pressure from the Yale administration to disappear. GESO has not changed its primary goal. Amidst changes at the University and across the higher education landscape at large, one thing is clear: GESO will continue to pressure Yale.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misattributed quotations to Steven Harris that should have been attributed to Steven Reilly.