The skies held as hundreds of students, union workers and city and state representatives protested Tuesday evening demanding that Yale allow graduate students to unionize.
Blocking off College Street between Wall and Elm Streets, the rally was the culmination of a weeks-long campaign organized by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), a graduate student union not recognized by the University. After multiple GESO representatives, community leaders and Connecticut politicians, including Gov. Dannel Malloy, addressed the crowd, union leaders delivered a photo petition — binders filled with photos of over 2,000 GESO supporters — to Woodbridge Hall. The petition included photos of over 1,000 GESO members, or graduate employees on campus
GESO was joined by Locals 34 and 35, which collectively represent nearly 5,000 blue, pink and white-collar Yale employees.
GESO Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said that since GESO’s last rally in April — at which GESO leaders delivered a petition demanding the University recognize the results of an election to decide on the union question — both New York University (NYU) and the University of Connecticut (UC) negotiated their first contracts with their own graduate student unions. Greenberg said that these developments reignited GESO’s determination to secure the University’s recognition.
“Today, there are over 1,000 of you here,” Greenberg told the crowd. “Today, there are over 1,000 members of the unions joined by the city, the campus and the state saying, ‘We want Yale to negotiate.’”
Mayor Toni Harp, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Malloy, as well as many other state and local politicians, took the stage to offer their staunch support for GESO. On either end of the stage, banners with the photos of every petition signatory lined the west side of College Street.
DeLauro said that the rally was ultimately about respect and dignity for the graduate students employed by the University. Malloy echoed the sentiment.
“I believe it, the people of Connecticut believe it, and most importantly, you believe it and are acting on it,” Malloy said.
Joining the politicians on stage were some of GESO’s student representatives and other union leaders, including Local 35 President Bob Proto and Local 34 President Laurie Kennington. Both Proto and Kennington said that a decision by the University to negotiate with GESO would improve the quality of graduate student work on campus.
In early September, Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley said that she had no plans to meet with GESO leaders.
At least on Tuesday, the protest appeared to do little to shift the stance of the University administration, which has long opposed graduate student unionization.
University spokesman Tom Conroy said that most graduate students assist in teaching one course per term, and that there are outlets through which the University works with them.
“The Graduate School provides a wide array of academic support services and works directly with the Graduate Student Assembly, an elected body of graduate students representing all departments, to improve graduate students’ academic, social, and living experiences at Yale,” Conroy wrote in a statement to the News.
Conroy added that Yale has been one of the positive factors in the upward trend of New Haven’s job growth in the past ten years.
Abbey Agresta GRD ’16, a fifth year PhD candidate in the history department who spoke at the rally, said that teaching is the most important thing she does as a Yale student.
But she said that despite her love for the classroom, the conditions under which she has had to teach have made her job difficult.
“The way Yale handles teaching assignments can be extremely unpredictable and makes it hard for graduate teachers to be the best teachers we can be,” Agresta said.
Allison Hadley GRD ’18, a third year PhD candidate in the Italian department, took to the stage to express her concerns about the shrinking numbers of graduate teachers in her department. She said that as Yale College prepares to take on 800 new students in the fall of 2017, it will become increasingly difficult for teachers like her to give those in introductory language classes the attention they deserve. Hadley said that a dialogue with Yale would help improve the classroom experience for both teachers and students alike.
Evan Pease GRD ’17, a fourth year PhD candidate in the Physics Department, said that much of his research depends on federal funding. Pease said that as he sees that funding decrease year by year across the sciences, there needs to be a platform from which student researchers can negotiate with the University.
“The graduate researchers — they’re the ones working on these projects when the funds aren’t being renewed,” Pease said. “A union would basically be an indication from the administration that they’re there to protect all types of scientific research, not just the ones currently in favor with funding agencies.”
Scott Marks, one of the founders of New Haven Rising — which is aligned with the unions — said that his organization’s support of GESO was rooted in the fact that Yale must set an example as one of the city’s largest employers. During the rally on College Street, Marks led dozens of NHR members in chants and later started a rendition of “We Shall Overcome” outside Beineke Plaza.
Marks said that so many NHR members came to the rally because his organization works for increased job access for New Haven residents, as well as communication between employers and their workers.
Silliman chef Stuart Comen — who authored a public letter in September decrying changes in Yale Dining — said that he came to the rally with his wife and sister-in-law, both of whom are members of Local 34, to speak up on behalf of the student teachers and to remind the administration that union workers should not be underestimated.
“We’re louder and stronger than ever,” Comen said. “We’re not here to disrupt the students’ lives, but we’re going to fight for what we believe in.”
Eve Houghton ’17 said that even as an undergrad, the GESO campaign resonated with her because the teachers’ labor conditions directly affect students’ learning conditions.
Connecticut State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield said that it was important for politicians to physically come to the GESO protest rather than just make statements from behind a desk.
“We’re always going to come out and support [the workers] in the way we say we do in our campaigns,” Holder-Winfield said.
After the speeches, GESO organizers and politicians in attendance led a march down College Street and up Wall Street to Beinecke Plaza, where they delivered the petition to Woodbridge Hall. After the rest of the crowd spilled into the plaza, the the protesters continued chanting, “What do we want? A Union; When do we want it? Now!” for about fifteen minutes before the petition was delivered.
As the crowd began to disperse, Greenberg could be heard through the megaphone saying, “We’ll be back.”
Correction: Oct. 22
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a petition with over 1,000 signatures was delivered to Woodbridge Hall. In fact, protesters delivered a binder containing photos of over 2,000 GESO supporters, not a signed petition.