My speech to the Yale Political Union (yes, I even wore a tie…) tonight:
Thanks for having me tonight. All of us in this university community are going to have important decisions to make over the next week, and I appreciate the chance to add my voice to what I hope will be a constructive debate about how we can best see our shared values better realized by our university.
One of the values which brings us together at this institution is a shared commitment to educational excellence. I’m glad to be able to say that I’ve received an outstanding education to this point at Yale, and it’s one for which I’m very grateful. That’s why many of us, with GESO’s strong support, have fought to make that education a realistic possibility for more students. And it’s why many of us are deeply concerned by trends which threaten to erode the quality of undergraduate education at Yale and at universities across the country.
One of these trends is casualization: the transformation of long-term, well-supported jobs into temporary, insecure work lacking the job security and job benefits of their predecessors. Casualization is a national economic trend in which employers cut costs by disinvesting in their workers and cease encouraging workers’ long-term investment in their work. The casualization of academic work is reflected in the national drop from three decades ago when 80% of teaching was done by ladder faculty to 50% today. Ladder faculty have long-term contracts and opportunities for further advancement or tenure. They’re being replaced with a casualized workforce made up of adjunct professors and graduate employee teaching assistants on whom is shifted an increasing portion of the academic workload. Here at Yale, ladder faculty do even less than 50% of the teaching – more like 30%. Adjuncts do another 40%, and teaching assistants do 30%. That means an hour of teaching at Yale University is at likely to be done by a TA as by a professor with a multi-year contract. Needless to say, this is not the academy some of GESO’s detractors are picturing when they refer to its members as “ruling class” spoiled kids biding their time until accepting tenured jobs on completion of their degrees. Instead, they’re doing the teaching work which in another generation was done by ladder faculty, and discovering on graduating that the jobs they may have hoped for at other universities are being done instead by casual employees.
The trend of casualization poses two challenges: How do we make sure universities maintain enough long-term faculty to provide effective mentorship? And how do we make sure that the casual workers who do a majority of today’s teaching have the support necessary to do the best job possible? Around the country, more and more graduate employee TAs, including three-fifths of the ones teaching in humanities and social sciences at Yale, have decided that the answer includes exercising their right to collective bargaining and union representation. As undergraduates, if we want a university which fosters educational excellence, equal opportunity, and democratic participation, then their fight is our fight as well.
This fight is our fight as undergraduates because until Yale fully values the work of our teachers, Yale cannot fully value our education. GESO is right to call for a living wage for graduate student employees to justly compensate the crucial work they do and to enable them to do it better by removing the necessity of working additional jobs on top of teaching, classes, and research. GESO is right to call for paid teacher training to help graduate student employees become better teachers, for smaller class sizes to facilitate better learning, and for office space in which they can better advise students. GESO is right to call for pay equity so that teaching assistants are not paid less the longer they’ve been teaching, and for a rational system for teaching assignments so that teaching assistants are not needlessly teaching far out of their areas of study.
Just as in the campaign for undergraduate financial aid reform, the issue at stake is both how this institution supports the people who are here and who it is that makes it to Yale in the first place. Those who say GESO isn’t sympathetic because most Yale graduate students are white single men in their early twenties are not only wrong about the make-up of Yale’s graduate school – they’re ignoring the factors which make graduate school a more difficult prospect for others. All of us have a stake in the provision of childcare and dependent healthcare for graduate student employees because TAs who didn’t have to spend significant fractions of their pay on childcare and put their kids on HUSKY would be free to be better teachers, and because addressing these injustices would mean fewer outstanding students and teachers kept out of Yale.
Yale cannot be the global leader or liberal educator which we aspire to make it as long as it draws teachers and students disproportionately from a narrow segment of this country. While every individual brings unique perspective to bear on their work, when the voices of swaths of the population are largely absent the ranges of experience narrow. GESO is right to call for full funding for the Office of Discrimination and Equal Opportunity and a formal impartial grievance procedure for discrimination complaints. And GESO is right to call for greater transparency in admissions, hiring, and retention of women and people of color as a spur to further diversification and integration of our community. Today teaching unfortunately mirrors other parts of Yale’s workforce in that women and people of color are concentrated in lower-paying casualized jobs from which it is difficult to rise into the secure well-compensated positions today dominated by white men.
Because they believe in the best ideals of this university, Yale graduate student employees have been organizing for nearly two decades for policies which better support them, their families, and their students, first as “TA Solidarity” and then as GESO. Over this time, GESO has spurred a series of progressive reforms in their working conditions, from stipend increases to healthcare coverage to the formation of the Graduate Student Assembly. Throughout, GESO has recognized that winning requires more than deserving better – winning requires being organized. Everything GESO has achieved has been won through organizing, by building a platform out of the articulated concerns of thousands of graduate student employees and bringing them together to press collectively for change. It’s because the process of agitating for better conditions demonstrated to graduate student employees the urgency of achieving an institutional voice and a seat at the table that they’ve been fighting for over a decade for a union contract.
In pursuing union recognition, these graduate student employees demonstrate their faith in the fundamental democratic principles which inspire this university in its best moments: that justice is best served when everyone with a stake in the result has a part in the process. In signing union cards, they demonstrate their understanding that their rights are best protected and their interests best furthered when they stand together in calling on Yale to do better, be it Chinese students combating discrimination at Helen Hadley Hall, researchers fighting to make the AIDS drug they helped discover available to poor patients, or parents pushing for childcare they can afford and trust. Three-fifths of humanities and social science TAs have joined up with GESO for the same reasons workers in many jobs in many parts of the country do: To make their work more effective and better supported and their voices better heard and respected.
We’ve come to this point because Yale’s leadership has refused to recognize what everyone from the United Nations to the Internal Revenue Service does: that the thousands of hours graduate student employees spend each day teaching classes, grading papers, and conducting experiments constitute labor critical to the functioning of the university, and the people who do it are a workforce. Whether TAs plan to spend their lives doing exactly the same work, whether they enjoy doing it, and whether they learn on the job are all as irrelevant in considering the legitimacy of this union as they would be were it a union of artists or of supermarket clerks or of carpenters. Equally irrelevant is the question of whether Yale’s graduate student employees are better or worse off than its clerical and technical or service and maintenance workers, who’ve shown far less interest in that question than GESO’s student detractors. Instead, Yale’s other service workers have stood with and sacrificed with GESO throughout, just as Local 35 did in staying out on strike for ten weeks to help Local 34 win its first contract at a time when the image of mostly black male blue-collar workers standing with mostly white female pink-collar workers left most observers in confusion or disbelief. These Yale workers stand with GESO because they know from personal experience that the university is stronger and healthier when the people who do the work of this institution have an organized voice in negotiating how that work happens.
Unfortunately, President Levin has not yet come to that realization. Instead he told undergraduates a month and a half ago that he would rather see GESO strike than have even a meeting with GESO leadership because it would be “less detrimental” to the university. This after a full decade of abject refusal to sit down with the union which has each year won the support of a majority of TAs in the humanities and social sciences to discuss GESO’s proposals for change or to agree to a fair process for a majority to make clear whether or not it wants GESO as its bargaining representative. Unless Levin changes course, I’m confident that tomorrow a majority of GESO’s members will vote to strike for a recognized voice, and I’ll be proud to stand with them next week for changes which realize the great potential of this university.