Last October, hundreds of members of Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization — now known as GESO-Local 33 — marched toward Woodbridge Hall, the office of Yale University President Peter Salovey.
As they walked, the marchers held up plaques as high as 10 feet tall, spelling out the names of individual departments within the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Religious Studies. Psychology. Economics. Astronomy. Their intended message was clear — whole departments, entire segments of the Graduate School, were all in support of GESO’s cause.
“Four times in the last 18 months, a majority of us have demanded a no-intimidation vote,” GESO Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 said. “I’m tired of waiting.”
GESO believes Salovey and other top Yale administrators should extend union status to graduate students, who also work as teaching assistants during some of their time at Yale. Though GESO dates back to the 1990s, their work has ramped up in recent months since close-neighbor NYU became the first private university in the country to officially recognize a graduate student union in March 2015. According to a GESO press release, the group’s main concerns involve “long-standing issues” such as insecure teaching assignments, inadequate mental health care, lack of access to child care and race and gender inequities.
Yale’s graduate student population hovers around 2,800, with GESO members being only a partial share of that number. That means that when compared to the overall New Haven population of nearly 130,000, the percentage of those in the Elm City who would be directly affected by union status for GESO is, at most, 2 percent. And yet, alongside the students who marched last fall, a diverse coalition of New Haven residents, undergraduate students and members of other workers’ unions also showed up to support the group’s cause.
Supporters included Mayor Toni Harp, Gov. Dannel Malloy and Sen. Chris Murphy, among others. Other New Haven groups such as Students Unite Now and New Haven Rising also came out in support, in addition to the two Yale unions that have partnered with GESO — Locals 34 and 35. According to Greenberg, Local 217 — the union of hotel and food service workers in Connecticut — and the Yale Unions Retirees Association were also present at the event. After arriving at the President’s Office, multiple government officials from both the city and state spoke to the crowd, solidifying their support for the not-yet-official graduate students union, while standing on a large stage covered in pictures of graduate students who already support GESO.
“I understand how hard it is, [and] it takes a brave bunch of people … to say we go no further without our rights being protected and recognized,” Malloy said at a previous GESO rally in October 2014. “You do the hard work of this University. This is a state that stands up for working-class people. We have to stand up for you.”
The number of attendees and the leaders’ public statements seem indicative of strong support for GESO. But the origin and extent of that support are still unclear. Do supporters truly feel invested in the causes GESO is so tirelessly fighting for?
The rally last October was the fourth time in 18 months that GESO called on the University administration to accept their right to unionize. Though it was not the first of its kind, the rally was the largest the union had held so far. The New Haven Independent estimated that around 2,000 were present; the New Haven Register reported a similar number. On its official website, GESO claims that there were 1,500 protesters present.
However, the website does not specify how many of those 1,500 were actually GESO members, stating only that “1,500 members of GESO and allies” attended the rally. Most other news organizations that reported on the rally also did not specify the actual number of graduate students present at the event. The Hartford Courant, for example, states only that “hundreds of Yale University graduate students” attended the rally.
When asked the number of graduate students currently in GESO, Greenberg did not provide a specific number. Instead, Greenberg responded that, on five occasions in the past two years “a majority” of graduate employees have demonstrated that they want a union. That uncertainty in numbers may be indicative of GESO’s standing within the graduate student community. Though it is unquestionable that the organization has garnered significant attention and support from its fellow students, GESO has also come under scrutiny for the way it has attempted to attract and retain its members.
Notably, an open letter written this January by female graduate students, LGBTQ graduate students and graduate students of color at Yale alleged that the organization utilizes coercive methods when trying to bring new students into its ranks. The letter claimed GESO utilized tactics such as using students’ schedules to force meetings, following students to their homes and using “physical force” to continue speaking to students.
“We are concerned that while the union has committed to supporting underrepresented students and faculty in its racial and gender equity campaign, its organizing practices fundamentally deny the different ways in which we move through Yale,” the letter read. “We emphasize here that these organizing issues are structural, not isolated instances that can be blamed on individual organizers.”
According to Charles Decker GRD ’17, a member of GESO’s coordinating committee who is a person of color, the committee released a letter in response to the first letter with specific action steps to address the students’ concerns. He highlighted the creation of a committee dedicated to ensuring race and gender equality within GESO, so that it can be the just space it aims to be within the University.
So if it’s not all graduate students, where does the larger base of support for GESO stem from? According to Greenberg, part of it stems from city and state leaders and the community around New Haven — all the relevant parties in the community who recognize the group’s cause.
“Except for Yale’s administration,” Greenberg lamented.
From its early days, GESO has had the support of the two other labor unions that bargain with Yale University — Local 34, Yale’s white- and pink-collar union representing technical and clerical workers, and Local 35, the University’s blue-collar union which represents dining, custodial and maintenance workers. Together, these unions are part of a coalition called UNITE HERE.
Yet it is unclear whether this support from the two Yale unions is due to GESO’s platform itself, or the consequent benefits that any gains by the graduate students could bring to Locals 34 and 35.
“Being a union member we feel any one or group deserves recognition if they want to unionize,” Silliman chef and Local 35 Treasurer Stu Comen said. “I also think there’s strength in numbers, so the more unionized members we have on campus the better we can negotiate with the University.”
Similarly, in an interview with the News in October 2014, Local 34 President Laurie Kennington said a threat to any one of Yale’s unions was a “threat to all of us,” essentially integrating the three groups’ missions into a single one.
“We stand here today, 5,000 strong, ready to support our brothers and sisters that do the teaching and the research and carry the mission on for Yale,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said at the rally last fall. “For many years we have been giving Yale a message. So hear this, Peter Salovey, hear this, Yale Trustees, if you have a coordinated campaign, if you intimidate your graduate teachers and your researchers, we as union brothers and sisters in 34 and 35 are going to consider that a line in the sand with us.”
Decker highlighted that Locals 34 and 35 have “incredible” and long-standing experience in making Yale a more just environment, and that GESO only stands to gain in allying itself with those who have been part of the movement for longer. Locals 34 and 35 have been bargaining with the University for decades on issues such as job security and health care. Their most recent contention was with Yale Dining, when many dining hall workers were moved from their individual residential colleges to a centralized location — a change the administration saw as necessary to streamline food production, but which workers saw as a demotion from leadership positions to a windowless room.
“It’s common for unions to support one another in their collective desire to bargain as organized units with employers,” Mayor Toni Harp said in a statement to the News. “GESO seems to be well-organized and it seems to have broad support from those who would be members — and certainly from Yale’s other unions.” When asked why she had chosen to support GESO, Harp did not provide specific reasons, instead noting that she had “steadfastly supported” workers and their right to organize throughout her career.
Similarly, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen — who was also present and spoke at GESO’s November rally — said in a statement to the News that solidarity and strength in numbers lie at the core of trade union activity, and that it should come as no surprise that graduate students would receive support from other union members.
“I was a teaching assistant in two courses when I was a law student and graduate student, [and] I know firsthand the challenges of juggling studies, teaching and affording tuition and personal expenses,” Jepsen said to the News. “The right to organize is protected by law and is an effective tool for improving the lives of workers.”
Other groups in both the New Haven and Yale communities have also been standing alongside GESO. For example, New Haven Rising — a citywide grassroots organization that is pressing Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital to hire more local residents — and Students Unite Now have both been present at GESO’s events. Members of Students Unite Now and New Haven Rising did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Though these local groups differ in structure from GESO and other unions, they also want to bring Yale and its top leadership to the bargaining table. “We are all pressing Yale for the same things, for a more fair university,” Decker said. “This way, we press together. It has to do with the fact that we are pressing for Yale to be a better member of the New Haven community, and that is a benefit to all in the community.”
As a former graduate student and law student, Jepsen can empathize with GESO members’ concerns and motivations. But it is not as clear that many of GESO’s other supporters can do the same.
According to a student in Yale’s Graduate School who wished to remain anonymous so as to “not get on GESO’s radar,” it is difficult to organize supporters in the community and integrate GESO’s mission because of the disparity in experiences and living qualities between graduate students and other New Haven residents.
“[It’s] very upsetting to knock on doors looking for supporters when your head organizer wants you to talk about, for example, that Yale graduates don’t get good dental insurance,” the student said. “Many of the people in the local unions do not have health insurance, period. Many of them make far less than graduate students do.” While all Ph.D. candidates at Yale receive a full tuition fellowship of $38,700, the average salary for a blue-collar worker in New Haven in 2016 was $35,000.
On behalf of Director of Labor Relations Marcus Paca, City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer said that New Haven’s Office of Labor Relations is not at all involved in the “GESO matter.” Grotheer added that each individual union should be contacted to determine whether or not they were involved with GESO. Only two of the city’s eight unions could be reached for comment last week.
James Wankowicz, the president of Local 71 — New Haven’s blue-collar union — said he only “vaguely” knows what GESO is and what it stands for. He added that there is no partnership or any type of support between his union and GESO. Similarly, president of New Haven Police Elm City Local Craig Miller had not previously heard of GESO and had not been contacted by any members in request for support. Miller added that though the other members of his union are also not familiar with the organization, he would be likely to support GESO’s cause because “everyone has the right to organize.”
Still, Greenberg, who also serves as the alder for Ward 8, which encompasses Wooster Square, said that from talking to his constituents, he believes residents from “all around” recognize the situation involving GESO and have asked him how they can be supportive of the cause. But given the overall disparity in experience between residents of the Elm City and Yale’s graduate student community, some graduate students have questioned whether the external support for GESO is primarily a result of some ulterior motive on the part of GESO’s supporters.
“Other unions like the idea of having grad students on their side just as much as GESO wants to claim it has widespread community support,” the anonymous student said. “When push comes to shove, will [graduate] students really help Local 34 members negotiate, especially if it means tabling our own concerns during negotiations? Will Yale’s clerical workers really go on strike to help [graduate] students get paid to take classes?”
Malloy’s support for GESO itself might be similarly questioned, though in a different context. When speaking in support of GESO at their October 2014 rally, the now-governor was campaigning for his second term in office. In 2010, when he first edged out Republican businessman Thomas Foley by a relatively small margin of 6,404 voters to win his governorship, Malloy relied extensively on urban communities like the Elm City, and counted on strong support from labor union members across the board.
Moving forward with their battle, GESO will have to face the challenges of maintaining its base of support while facing continuing resistance from a body as large as Yale. The group took a significant step in solidification earlier this year: In March, GESO officially rebranded itself as Local 33, after UNITE HERE’s governing body unanimously voted to allow the graduate student organization to join its ranks as a chartered union. Locals 34 and 35 have been members of the same coalition for over 30 years.
Regardless of the support it is getting from outside, internally, GESO is ready to continue treading its way to official union status within Yale.
Decker said GESO will continue to press Yale for a no-intimidation vote. He added that it is important to continue to press Yale to grant graduate students a fair election without an ensuing “anti-union campaign by Yale,” and ultimately give them a seat at the bargaining table. Greenberg highlighted that Yalies are not the only ones pushing in this fight. At universities all around the nation, including the University of Chicago, Harvard and Cornell, graduate students have also gathered to rally.
“Yale is the only authority that doesn’t recognize us, and that adds to the pressure [on them],” Decker said. “Other unions, the community and politicians — they all recognize us. The question now is on Yale. When are we going to get the non-intimidation vote?