When I heard that several members of Local 33 had begun a hunger strike to protest Yale’s refusal to begin contract negotiations, I immediately felt the peculiar mixture of ambivalence and annoyance that only the efforts of the union inspire. Since my first year as a doctoral student, I have supported the idea of unionization, and I even played the role of amateur organizer for about four months in 2013. Like many of my peers, I quickly grew weary of the constant phone calls and messages, surprise house visits in the evening and general harassment around campus. I knew it was time to part ways when I found myself canvassing for Toni Harp’s mayoral campaign and Local 33 chair Aaron Greenberg’s GRD ’18 campaign for East Rock alder — an election they needed to win, I was told by organizers, so that the union could exert pressure by withholding building permits from Yale.
The political opportunism was evident, and I had little desire to do the bidding of up-and-coming Democrats in New Haven. Greenberg’s recent pieces in the News and New Haven Independent contrast the world of the union with that of our recently elected president. But I have to wonder what world the chair of Local 33 takes himself to be living in. The election of Trump made clear that the Democratic Party has failed the very people for whom Greenberg is fighting: the working class. Trump won the argument because he dared to say that America isn’t what it ought to be — an assertion that should be uncontroversial for Democrats as well as Republicans. There is only one world, not two, and any emancipatory project worthy of the name has to take that world as the site of its struggle — not an imaginary one in which corporations ignore the imperatives of the market and make their decisions on an ethical basis.
Nevertheless, I have continued to passively support the unions, meeting with organizers and signing petitions when asked. I even agreed to vote for unionization in the recent election, despite my misgivings about Local 33’s tactics and the widely recognized transparency issues surrounding its leadership structure and the so-called “micro-unit” bargaining strategy, which tried to ensure that only union-friendly departments were able to vote. American studies professor Michael Denning GRD ’84 has remarked that concerns over the “undemocratic” character of the bargaining strategy are misplaced, given the undemocratic nature of Yale as a university. But that is something of a non sequitur: Just because Yale is not a democratic institution does not mean that the collective bargaining rights of graduate students should not themselves be pursued in the most democratic manner possible.
This brings me to the issue of the hunger strike, which was advertised in a glossy video on Local 33’s Facebook page and in a remarkable op-ed by Greenberg in the New Haven Independent. Following the expiration of the second and final deadline on April 25 for Yale to negotiate with the union, eight of its members began what they are calling “the Fast Against Slow.” Greenberg describes the strike as a last-ditch effort to get the University to come to the table. The piece is a solemn announcement of weighty self-sacrifice, complete with MLK quotes, preemptive recognition that critics won’t understand and a disclaimer acknowledging that Local 33 isn’t the civil rights movement.
Far from inheriting the mantle of the tradition of civil disobedience, this hunger strike is its damaging caricature. The strike tactic initially surprised me, but I soon realized that it is entirely consistent with the overall strategy of Local 33. The hunger strike is a new form of coercion, employed less to force the administration to negotiate (it won’t), than to maintain its grip on its body of supporters and to expel its political failure from our collective memory.
The micro-unit strategy was already an admission of defeat, appearing to many as a tacit acknowledgment of the lack of broad support among graduate students. In the absence of such support, and in the face of an administrative body that knows it, Local 33 has ingeniously decided to dress up political defeat as moral victory. To quote theorist Theodor Adorno, “Pseudo-activity can stay alive only through incessant self-advertisement.” The hunger strike becomes a technique of shameless self-promotion and marks the final defeat of the union’s own political strategy.
Jensen Suther is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .