I never anticipated that unionization would occupy my time when I came to Yale. I certainly never planned to be one of a few dozen students to decide its existence in my department.
But here we are, approaching the elections of Local 33, determining whether graduate student unions at Yale will come to pass. I should make two facts clear at the outset. I am dubious of Local 33’s past tactics, pleased in my present situation and feel that unionization actually has the slight potential of hindering my personal progress. Yet, I’m voting “yes” on a union anyway, because unionization goes beyond my personal feelings on the subject.
Depending on whom you ask, Local 33 is either a brave organization that alone has the courage and power to represent the marginalized and strike a blow for fair treatment, or it is a group of self-righteous bullies that intimidates graduate students into joining ranks to answer to nationwide, non-Yale interests. Similarly, the administration is either a benevolent group of Yale citizens patiently attempting to facilitate the interests of all, or an antidemocratic cohort so fascinated with maintaining power that it has transformed them into unwitting advocates of antilabor conservatism.
To some extent, these extremes are inevitable — with 150 years of labor history in the United States and 81 of it under the National Labor Relations Board, plenty of examples and anecdotes can fuel anyone’s bias on the issue. I started my time at Yale with fairly poor union experiences and fairly good administrative ones. While I was receiving emails from Local 33 — then known as the Graduate Employees and Students Organization — condemning the University for curtailing privileges to students in their seventh, eighth and ninth years, I was signing my wife up for generous health coverage throughout her pregnancy and receiving free coverage for our entire family upon the birth of our son. While I was watching GESO organizers wait outside seminar rooms to speak with students exiting their first-year classes, I was applying for parental relief that would allow me to spend seven months with my family and still receive one of the most generous graduate student stipends and health care benefits I am aware of.
One can argue about which forces provided me these privileges, of course. I am well-aware of the arguments that GESO’s organizing campaigns secured such benefits, just as I am aware of the arguments that the Graduate Student Assembly’s advocacy secured such benefits, just as I am aware of the arguments that Yale’s desire to draw top talent to stay competitive among the world’s elite universities secured such benefits. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and ultimately does little to obscure the fact that the administration still granted them, allowing me to have a standard of living and family life that would have been impossible 15 years ago and remains impossible for many of my peers at other universities today. The administration deserves at least my recognition for taking such steps. I go further here in extending them my gratitude.
So why cast my ballot for unionization? Because, to borrow from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., I strongly believe that my agreement or disagreement with Local 33’s past tactics has nothing to do with the right of student teachers to express their grievances and negotiate their futures through a formal and accountable process. At this point, there exists no such process. The GSA, in which I am honored to serve, does admirable work to listen to the concerns of our constituents, research possible solutions and advocate for our interests with the administration. But the GSA ultimately exists in an advisory capacity, and Yale faces no compulsion to hear or consider its requests. Few if any avenues exist for appeal, and virtually no formalized rules govern our interactions. A union would change that.
If unionization comes to pass in this week’s elections, it will inevitably only answer one question while raising many more. Yet it will also ensure that those future questions are answered with accountability on both sides of the bargaining table, and concerns about health care, harassment, compensation, child care and teaching expectations will find solutions both parties agree to. I feel fortunate to personally have few concerns in any of these areas, and it may be in my own personal interest to vote “no.” But that’s not the point. I am part of a campuswide collection of diverse student teachers whose needs are different from mine, as well as an even broader set of students unable to vote because they’re not teaching this term. It’s on their behalf that I’m voting “yes.”
Connor Williams is a graduate student in the history and African American studies department and a member of the Graduate Student Assembly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .