Orange picket signs bobbed in the autumn light Thursday afternoon on Beinecke Plaza as over 600 people called, for the fourth time in 18 months, for a Yale graduate student union.
“This is our decision and we want to make it ourselves,” said Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, chair of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, to the crowd over a loudspeaker.
Since its founding in 1990, GESO has held regular strikes, straw polls and rallies on Yale’s campus. And over the past 25 years, GESO’s central demand has remained the same: a vote to unionize without being intimidated by the Yale administration.
But student unionization at Yale — according to administrators and professors interviewed — seems like a contradiction in terms. Beneath the fanfare of Thursday’s rally lay a single question: are members of GESO employees, or are they students?
FOURTH TIME AROUND
Around 150 GESO members marched from Warner House to Woodbridge Hall, where they met their allies: two New Haven unions, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, Mayor Toni Harp and a host of student groups including Fossil Free Yale and Students Unite Now. GESO, which claims it has the support of over two-thirds of Yale graduate students, carried a long banner featuring the faces of its graduate student supporters into Woodbridge Hall.
On Monday, the office of the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences posted flyers around campus highlighting the money Yale spends on graduate students each year in financial aid and stipends. While Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley said her office came up with the idea for the posters before knowing about the rally, Greenberg told the crowd that GESO stood opposed to any effort by Yale to sway graduate student opinion on the topic of unionization.
“[Yale’s] posters are about numbers, our posters are about people and their experiences,” Greenberg said.
Every Yale graduate student must teach for at least three semesters while at Yale. After taking intensive courses for their first two years, graduate students are paired with professors through the Teaching Fellow Program. Every Ph.D. student at Yale receives a full tuition fellowship of $38,700 in addition to a minimum stipend of $29,000, which can reach up to $33,700. These stipends are guaranteed to all Ph.D. candidates in their first five years. Graduate students in the humanities and social sciences who are on course to finish their dissertation during their sixth year also receive a guaranteed stipend during the last year.
After students have completed the teaching requirement, if they choose to teach while finishing their dissertations, they are paid on a course-by-course basis. Students receive $4,000 for a course that requires six to 10 hours of work per week and $8,000 for teaching a course that takes 10 to 20 hours.
“Just as students are expected to attend classes, take exams and write a dissertation, they are expected to teach,” reads the GSAS website on Teaching Fellows.
Several professors and administrators interviewed said they see the Teaching Fellow Program as a vital step in a graduate student’s education. They also pointed out that graduate students do more than teach.
In the humanities and social sciences, students must attend class, conduct research and meet with their advisor about their dissertation. In the sciences, many graduate students do more collaborative work in labs. To think of graduate students as employees, rather than trainees, would be inappropriate, Cooley said.
“Students are students, not employees,” she added.
Former Deputy Provost Charles “Chip” Long came to Yale as a professor in 1966. Having studied at the University of California, Berkeley during the protests of the 1960s, Long said he is sympathetic to student activism. But in the case of GESO, Long worries that graduate students are misguided in their desire for unionization. He said he believes students can have an enormous effect on the University without being unionized.
But Greenberg and other members of GESO have chosen to turn away from Yale-approved channels of communication — like the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate — instead hoping for change through a graduate student union.
CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION
The stories of students like Tanambelo Rasolondrainy GRD ’19, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, suggest that some graduate students may throw their support behind GESO, not because they have been turned away from Yale-approved channels, but rather because they are not familiar with other ways of communicating with the University.
“Joining GESO is the only way I can have my voice heard,” he said. “I don’t really know what the GSA is. I don’t have time for that.”
The two primary bodies of graduate student government through which Yale administrators communicate with students are the GSA and the GPSS. Cooley said she meets regularly with the GSA and praised the organization’s proposals as “well-researched.”
Through these two organizations, all graduate students can voice their concerns to the administration, and several requests from the GSA and GPSS have come to fruition. In December 2014, Yale extended a sixth year of funding for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences after working with the GSA. After funding was announced, however, GESO took credit for making it happen. At the time, Greenberg said GESO viewed the sixth-year funding extension as an official response to GESO’s actions. But former Graduate School Dean Tom Pollard said GESO had “absolutely totally nothing to do with it.”
“There are thousands of reasons that the existing channels are not working,” Greenberg said, though he did not elaborate.
The GSA and GESO share a history at Yale, one that shows how graduate students have, by fits and starts, gained a greater voice in their education over the past 50 years. When GESO began in the early 1990s, neither the GSA nor the GPSS were very robust, Long said.
“The GESO organizing effort increased the importance and the validity and the interest in the GSA and GPSS,” Long said, adding that in 1990, “it seemed clear that GESO was organizing not entirely without context.”
The context for the growth of GESO and the GSA was a graduate student population largely dissatisfied with their learning environment, Long said. In the 1960s, Yale only provided full financial aid by merit — the rest of the graduate student population received either partial or no financial assistance.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who earned his Ph.D. from the University in 1995, described life as a graduate student at Yale in the 1990s as “challenging.” In those days, even Yale’s full financial stipend did not meet the cost of living in New Haven, Holloway said. Medical benefits for graduate students were at a bare minimum, and medical care for spouses and children of graduate students was not even considered until more recently, according to Long. Holloway said the disparities in graduate student support were the source of occasional ill-will — unless you got an external fellowship, there was no money for research or travel, he said.
“GESO started, in part, as a result of graduate students’ dissatisfaction in general, not just teaching fellow wages or working conditions,” Long said.
But all this began to change when former University President Richard Levin became Dean of the Graduate Schools of Arts and Sciences in 1992, Holloway said. Levin increased graduate student fellowships across the entire University.
Because Levin’s changes coincided with the foundation of GESO and the growth of the GSA, it is difficult to pin down the source of these reforms. Long said he thinks the creation of a more attractive environment for graduate students would have happened even if GESO had never existed.
“GESO did not cause all this stuff,” Long said. “[GESO] is a symptom of a problem that was already being adjusted.”
NOT THE FIRST TIME, NOT THE LAST
While Yale professors who were on campus during the 1990s interviewed by the News said the University has responded to many of the needs of graduate students during the past two decades, GESO continued to push for a student union. In the fall of 1995, GESO members attempted a “grade strike” by withholding the grades on exams and papers in the classes they were teaching. The strike backfired, as not all of GESO’s members withheld the grades. When some professors threatened not to hire GESO members in the spring, GESO took Yale to court.
On Dec. 7, 1995 then-Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead called GESO’s grade strike a “serious dereliction of a Teaching Fellow’s responsibilities.”
Several months later, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that if GESO had been a union, the grade strike would have been invalid because it was a “partial strike.” Dissenting graduate students, the board ruled, could not withhold their teaching work while still coming to classes and writing their dissertations. GESO became unpopular with undergraduate and graduate students because of the strike, Long said.
Since then, GESO has not attempted any similar strikes. Instead, the GESO of today models itself on the graduate student union at New York University. In 2000, the NYU graduate students negotiated a contract with their university, but then lost the contract in 2005 when the university declined to renew it. In 2013, the group regained union status and remains one of the only graduate student unions at a private university.
Past GESO efforts to unionize also include a 2003 vote by the graduate student body. The vote was not sanctioned by Yale, but was monitored for fairness by a nonpartisan political organization, the League of Women Voters. The motion to unionize failed by 43 votes. Still, GESO continues to ask for a “neutral election” — one without interference from the University. Such a neutral election would still allow GESO to campaign on its own behalf, while also keeping undergraduates, faculty and administrators from voting.
Long said that GESO, in gathering support from graduate students, has used strong-arm tactics like harassing graduate students at their homes and coercing some students into signing union cards. Long characterized such activities as “inappropriate.”
In the past, GESO demonstrated that it had majority support through the collection of signatures of University graduate students. But on Thursday, as the group did the year before, GESO took photos of over two-thirds of graduate students to show their strength in numbers. The rally was among the larger of GESO’s four previous demonstrations in the last year-and-a-half.
GESO, like the GSA and the GPSS, is concerned by what the organization considers insecurities around teaching assignments and funding, as well as inadequate mental health resources and child care for graduate students. GESO has also called for greater gender and racial equity across all departments, especially in the sciences.
Yet according to U.S. labor laws, a union can “collectively bargain” only around issues that pertain directly to the working conditions of union members. Long said that graduate students have nothing to do with faculty hiring, which is currently under the authority of the Office of the Provost. Furthermore, Long said the University knows it needs to diversify its faculty, and has taken steps to do so.
“You don’t need graduate students to instruct [Yale] in the importance of diversity,” Long said. “I don’t know why they’re doing this.”
Holloway said he supports the conversation around faculty diversity that graduate students are trying to foster. Yale recently hired 15 men and 13 women into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for the coming academic year. Of those new hires, three are African-American and six are of East Asian descent. In an email to the News, FAS Dean Tamar Gendler said that an excellent faculty is a diverse faculty.
“WE WILL BE BACK”
As the sun set on Beinecke Plaza Thursday evening, a few graduate students shared their personal experiences at Yale. Grant Mao, a former School of Management student, said he was expelled in April after struggling with depression. He said the University barred him from ever entering Evans Hall at the SOM, and that he may have to return to his home in Shanghai due to visa requirements that mandate he remain enrolled in school.
Michelle Morgan GRD ’16, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies, said that due to the restructuring of the Teaching Fellow stipend last year, she received a 40 percent pay cut. Although Morgan is a seventh-year graduate student and is not required to teach, she said that the money she receives from teaching is necessary to support her son. Morgan said having a graduate student union would help student workers who, like her, struggle financially.
Following the rally, University spokesman Tom Conroy said in an email to the News that Yale highly respects the opinions of Harp and Connecticut’s U.S. senators, noting that Yale has a track record of working with them on city and state issues. The University is responsive to inquiries they may have about Yale policies and practices, including inquiries about the status of graduate students, he said.
Near the end of the rally, Murphy spoke to the crowd about the important role unions have played in American history and in the creation of a middle class.
“What you are asking for is small, it is reasonable,” Murphy said to the crowd. “We will be back here again, but frankly we hope that we don’t have to.”