When you arrive at Yale as a graduate student, you are asked a question, again and again, implicitly and explicitly, by everything in the environment of the University: how will you relate to the stark racial segregation and stratification of this place? Will you ignore it? Does it trouble you? Does it mean something about your own place here?
Living off campus, relating to the University as a workplace more than a home, you might wind up traversing some of the boundaries that divide the city. Maybe you live somewhere west of Dwight Street or west of Science Hill, or make some friends outside the Yale community or get involved in some kind of community activity. These things might give you a perspective on how Yale looks from the outside.
But even without this, the segregation and inequality of New Haven will make themselves felt. It’s not just out there in the distance, it’s present right on campus: the contrast between the racial composition of the dining and maintenance staff, who are largely Black and the largely white scholarly spaces; the heavily policed edges of the University that Black and Brown workers (including TAs and instructors), students and community members must traverse to their disproportionate risk.
All graduate students are confronted in some way by these questions, although they have many choices about how to react. But for both of us the experience of navigating Yale and New Haven’s racial geography was especially jarring, as it often is for Black graduate students. When one of us arrived at Yale there was only one Black woman at the full professor rank in the entire university and as recently as 2021 only 4.24 percent of Yale ladder faculty self-reported as Black or African American. We saw faculty who were working on topics concerning race in disciplinary programs leave Yale, with some citing racism, bullying, or a lack of institutional support. The lack of support and funding for programs devoted to the study of race and ethnicity has been such a long-standing source of frustration for faculty leading these programs that some have submitted letters of resignation in protest.
Although progress has been made in the area of faculty diversity through many long-term struggles and national movements, the proportion of Black ladder faculty at Yale has remained largely unchanged in the 12-year period between 2009 and 2021. The casualization of the academic job market disparately impacts those of us who come from working class families or who were the first in our families to attend college or graduate school. Because of these issues many of us felt compelled to organize for racial and labor justice at Yale, work that was rewarding but also strained our energies and time. This environment makes you ask questions about where, and with whom, you belong. It did this for both of us, after we arrived in 2009 and 2003. These questions do not prove so easy to answer.
For us, as for thousands of other graduate students over the years, the graduate student union — GESO then, Local 33 now—provided the space to find a meaningful answer: to confront this environment and even to exert some agency over it. By coming together through the union, we were able to confront and end Yale’s investment in the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America and we conducted research that provided the foundation for campaigns to diversify the faculty. Over the years, the combination of intense racial and economic inequality and the domination of the city by a single major employer has compelled the workers of the University and many other New Haven residents to band together to an unusually high degree. At no other university that we know of are academic workers, custodial workers, food service workers and clerical and technical workers all affiliated with the same union. What this means is that when you join Local 33, you are making a choice about where, and with whom, you belong. In a very real way, Local 33 is the instrument by which the people of New Haven reach into the heart of the University and invite graduate students to cross over, to think of themselves as coworkers and community members who share something important with the custodians who clean their offices, the lab techs and librarians who enable their studies and the neighbors who share their communities.
This was what it meant to be part of the union for both of us. We did not imagine that Local 33, or the broader coalition with the other unions and New Haven Rising, would resolve racial and economic injustice at Yale or in New Haven, although we hoped to make some modest contributions toward this end, and we believe we did so. Equally, though, we wanted to prove that the life of the mind, a commitment to intellectual work, does not require acceding to unjust conditions.
During our time as organizers and no doubt again today, many will argue that graduate students are privileged apprentices, that their short sojourns in New Haven, their educational backgrounds and professional prospects distinguish them from the long-term residents of the city who live in Yale’s shadow. Certainly, there are many differences — of class, age, race and more besides. But such a divide is not universal and certainly is murkier for people of color, immigrants, the indebted, and working class among us. Although graduate students may find themselves torn between the sides of this divide as we did — if they are people of color, or working class, or immigrants, or indebted or for a thousand other reasons.
But solidarity does not require that people be identical. If it did, it would not be solidarity but sameness. Rather, solidarity is something you choose, not something that exists already in advance for you. When one graduate student asks another to join Local 33, to come to a union rally, to join a canvass in a New Haven local election, to sign a petition about working conditions for dining hall staff, to put up a lawn sign for local hiring, to join in a city-wide call on Yale to contribute more revenue to the city, they are offering this choice. The unease so many feel when they arrive in New Haven, recognizing the inequalities all around, is a sign of their readiness to make this choice.
In this sense, a vote for Local 33 is not only a vote for graduate workers to have a say in their terms and conditions of their work, although this is of course critical. It is also a vote for the idea that university justice must extend to all members, centering those most historically excluded. It is a vote for the idea that academic work can attune us to the world around us rather than separating us from it.
ADOM GETACHEW Ph. D. ’15, is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago. She is a political theorist with research interests in the history of political thought, theories of race and empire and postcolonial political theory.
SARAH HALEY Ph.D ’10, is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. She has research interests in the history of gender and women, carceral history, Black feminist history and theory, prison abolition, and feminist archival methods and is the author of No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity.