The union Yale deserves

I read with interest Valerie Hansen’s op-ed “Why I Oppose Unionization of Graduate Students” (Sept. 9). I teach at Yale, although not at the tenured level of Hansen, and I too once opposed the graduate student union — when I was a Yale undergraduate, in fact. My senior year, GESO — as Local 33, the graduate-student union, was then called — held a “grade strike,” withholding the grades of students in some sections, as a tactic to get the administration to bargain with teaching assistants over wages, hours and other matters. At the time, I, like most undergraduates, was horrified.

Over time, though, I realized that what the graduate students wanted — better training for themselves, smaller section sizes, more respect as teachers — was entirely to the advantage of undergraduates, too. What wasn’t to undergraduates’ advantage, or anyone’s, was the status quo, in which professors taught a shrinking percentage of student-contact hours, while doctoral students, at the time paid about $13,000 a year, picked up the slack, often teaching sections for which they weren’t prepared, with unpredictable hours, section sizes, expectations and pay. In fighting for professional respect as teachers, the TA union was fighting for all of us.

There are graduate student unions at two dozen universities, and everywhere they exist, they seem to make life better — and not just for graduate students. As I wrote recently in The New Yorker, “The first graduate student union was organized at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1969, and since that time nobody has found solid evidence that unions negatively affect the relationship between graduate students and their mentors. A 2013 paper found that students in these unions report that when their teaching loads and wages are set by contracts, they actually feel better supported than their nonunion counterparts.”

Hansen adduces no example of a grad student union that has turned education into “an adversarial relationship between ‘employees’ and ‘management,’” as she fears one would at Yale. And the arguments she does present strike me as non sequiturs.  “It is erroneous to classify graduate students as full-time employees,” she writes. But part-timers can form unions — indeed, part-timers often need unions most. “And make no mistake,” she writes. “Yale faculty members teach their own classes.” Who said they didn’t? But TAs often teach sections and grade papers, which is work, for which they get paid. And according to federal law, employees who do paid work have the right to unionize. “One of the main tools available to unions is to strike,” Hansen writes. True — but there have been TA strikes without a union! A union, with its power to negotiate clear terms spelled out in contracts, can help the parties avoid strikes. Indeed, the National Labor Relations Act was written in part because strikes were already occurring nationwide.

I have been at Yale since 1992, off and on, and been on all sides of the union issue. The older I get, the more I see, the more I wonder what many of my fellow teachers are so scared of. We have decades of evidence that grad student unions do not harm, and in many cases improve, the culture of learning, respect and scholarship on campus. They also promote solidarity within the community across lines of race, gender and financial background. I, for one, hope that Local 33 wins an election, and soon. The undergraduates whom they teach, and all of us at Yale, deserve nothing less.

Mark Oppenheimer is the director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and a lecturer at Yale College.