Yesterday afternoon, chants echoed through the central part of campus: “We will win! We will win!” The chanters stood around an impromptu stage in Beinecke Plaza, some hoisting banners with the names of academic departments. A motley crew of young and old, of Yale and its locality, the crowd yelled loudly, “We will win!”
This was no pep rally. I had stumbled upon a protest organized by the Graduate Employee and Students Organization — a group aspiring to unionize Yale’s graduate students. One by one, graduate students took to the stage to air their grievances about being graduate students at Yale. A student in archeology bemoaned the size of his stipend this semester. Another in anthropology claimed her TF salary fluctuated year-to-year by 40 percent.
While the verses varied, the chorus was the same: “more.” More money, more benefits, more therapists. Yet absent was an answer to the essential question: “From where?” Although the activists cheered their own interests in higher salaries and better services, no speaker addressed how to pay for these things.
Behind the shouts of “we will win,” its corollary went unspoken: “Others will lose.”
If Yale graduate students unionize, they will likely succeed at diverting additional resources towards their priorities. Within the reality of a zero-sum budget, these increases must come from somewhere. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Even if Yale were to expand its budget by drawing from the endowment, it would come at a cost to future generations, including graduate students. Either research departments will receive less funding to hire professors, or financial aid expansion will be curtailed, or maybe undergraduate tuitions — which have increased 4 percent this year and 87 percent in the last 15 years — will rise even more. Whatever the case may be, “we will win” does not happen in a vacuum.
At the GESO protest, no representative of these competing interests had a voice. GESO demands the right to unionize without interference, or, in the protesters’ words, “intimidation.” Yet the decision to unionize would affect more than just graduate students. All of Yale would have to face the reshuffling of priorities that would result from one group having unique collective bargaining rights. While the graduate students may unionize, the departments, the students on financial aid and the tuition-payers will not. Hence President Salovey would not be able to allocate resources based on his sense of Yale’s priorities; he would also have to contend with the special leverage of graduate students.
There may be legitimate concerns about graduate student well-being, which could justify rebalancing the University’s priorities in that direction. Ignoring the alternatives, however, does a disservice to the complexity of these choices. In the context of finite resources and competing priorities, there are no easy answers. Moreover, there is a danger in letting the loudest voices set the agenda.
Yale departments want more money. Students on financial aid want to eliminate the student income contribution. And families would like to see lower tuitions. Under the status quo, Yale graduate students are entitled to benefits that many working men and women would envy. Beyond getting to pursue their intellectual passions, all graduate students receive primary health care and mental health services at no cost. Those with children may receive parental relief for at least 8 weeks or may choose to take a traditional leave of absence. Yale offers salaries to TFs that are competitive with those of other universities.
Maybe Yale still isn’t doing enough. But securing a special bargaining position isn’t the way to responsibly lobby for change. To promote their self-interest, graduate students should employ the same means available to other Yale constituencies. This includes lobbying administrators, writing editorials and holding protests. However, by seeking to place itself above other Yale interests, GESO threatens to harm our community.
President Salovey and Yale administrators do not hold back additional resources out of ill-will or condescension. I imagine that Yale’s leaders would love to have more resources and make everyone happy. But in a world of scarcity, increasing TF pay means investing less in our computer science department — and they won’t have a union to say that.
Zach Young is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .