“Restoring the American Dream: Building a 21st Century Labor Movement that Can Win,” the platform released by UNITE HERE, SEIU, the Laborers, and the Teamsters on Monday, is on-line here. Its Agenda for Worker Strength has five points, the first of which, “Uniting Workers for Economic Strength,” articulates the structural proposals which have been at the center of the controversy over the future of the AFL-CIO. It calls for the federation to:

Use incentives to focus unions on uniting workers in core industries.More of the national labor movement’s resources must be directly devoted to the task of bringing millions of new workers into the labor movement. The AFL-CIO budget must be used to create incentives for unions to increase their organizing and focus on uniting workers in their core industries in order to maintain and build bargaining power. We believe that half of what unions now pay to the AFL-CIO should be rebated to unions that have a strategic plan and commitment to organizing in their core industries based on the formula outlined in the Teamster proposal.

Actively support mergers that unite workers by industry. Many AFL-CIO affiliates do not have the resources or strength or effectively take on large employers that are driving standards in their industries or to help workers organize on a large enough scale in their industries…The AFL-CIO should play an active and direct role in working with affiliated unions to facilitate mergers – subject to approval by the affected members – that lead to increased power for workers in the same or complimentary industries…

As this platform recognizes, the responsibility of a single national labor federation, if we are to have one in this country, is to grow the labor movement by protecting the right to organize and providing resources and facilitating coordination for organizing. In an era of declining union density and increasing corporate consolidation, coordination within industries is crucial to turning the tide, and mergers – when they are strategically savvy and democratically supported – are a powerful tool for building power and solidarity. And most of all, as John Sweeney himself has repeated over the past decade, the straits in which working Americans find themselves today make it imperative to organize or die. The unions bringing forward this proposal are right to recognize that spurring organizing requires more than rhetorical leadership from the AFL-CIO. The reason they represent a significant fraction of the membership of the federation is that they have prioritized an aggressive organizing program over the past decade, and in so doing have realized the right to collective bargaining for millions out of the more than half of American workers who say in polls that they want union representation at a time when only one in twelve in the private sector has it. Because union membership is a source of greater strength when greater numbers of workers are in unions, it is not only justifiable but crucial for a federation funded and supported by fifty-some internationals to use its resources to push each of those unions to grow. Remitting a portion of those dues to those unions committed to spending money to directly grow the density of the movement is directly in the service of the broader movement. If the AFL-CIO is kept from aggressively push greater organizing and coordinated action, it risks being reduced over time to little more than an occasional media and turnout apparatus of decreasing usefulness. The document continues:

Strategically leverage labor’s existing bases of industry strength…It means identifying lead and dominant unions by sector, industry, employer, market, and where appropriate, craft, along with the responsibilities that go with it. It means that industry or area bargaining standards need to be made central to the inter-union dispute process and central to labor’s efforts to focus resources…rules must be updated and revised to reflect the pressing need for organized labor to deter the “race to the bottom” caused by employers seeking to use one affiliate as a means of protection from another, and to encourage unions to devote precious resources to building power in core industries and coordinate bargaining. Where multiple unions have members in the same industry, industry in a market, or employer, the AFL-CIO will facilitate coordinated bargaining. Affiliates undercutting standards should suffer penalties.

I’m not sure yet what to make of the assignment of dominant unions in each sector, but the need for clear and unyielding standards in bargaining is inarguable. As long as weaker unions cut deals with employers to keep out stronger unions, the labor movement is shooting itself in the back and it is those workers who most need effective representation who suffer. Critics of the New Unity Partnership are right to remind us that the absolute right of a worker to join a union of her choosing is not to be compromised. No one wants to see workers shoehorned into pre-selected unions based on negotiations in which they have no part. But the fundamental economic freedom of union representation is not served when weak unions take on the role of the company unions of the pre-Wagner era and push out internationals which threaten an employer because they have the power to win real gains. The only way I can see to empower workers to organize and to win is through the formation and standards and the facilitation of negotiation, and the reformers are right to identify a role for the AFL-CIO, as a voluntary union federation, to play here in maximizing the effectiveness of its member unions in growing and serving the ranks of its member workers. Too often, this issue is discussed as a matter of big unions versus small unions. But the assumptions that small unions are always more democratic and that that big unions are always more effective are both misguided, and neither is borne out by history. Much more salient is the division between those unions which prioritize organizing and industrial democracy and those which do not. Somewhat less controversial is the next proposal:

Make the AFL-CIO the strategic center for a permanent campaign to take on powerful anti-worker employers and help workers unite their strength in new growth sectors.…Well-funded, movement-wide campaigns are required to make low-road employer respect their workers’ freedom to form unions…We support the creation of a dedicated fund of $25 million out of the current AFL-CIO to finance large, multi-union movement-wide campaigns directed at reversing the Wal-Marting of our jobs and out communities by large low-road employers.

Fortunately, after years of unsuccessful and largely unnoticed and uninspiring organizing attempts by the UFCW at Wal-Mart, there’s a growing awareness that the viral expansion of Wal-Mart and its noxious business model will mean diminishing returns for the entire movement until we take it on head-on, and that organizing Wal-Mart represents a momentous challenge which cannot be overcome by a single union alone. As John Wilhelm wrote to John Sweeney last year, however the November election went there would have been no greater priority for the American labor movement in its wake than winning a robust right to organize for millions of Wal-Mart workers. As we saw in the supermarket strikes in LA, as long as Wal-Mart pushes forward a race to the bottom at an unprecedented rate, all working people lose. And it will take the commitment of the whole federation to reverse that trend.

Make growth and worker power our political focus…To empower workers politically we must have a growth agenda to build larger, stronger and more effective workplace organizations. Increased political spending without a program for growth will not lead to either increased power for workers in the workplace or in politics…Our program must be workplace-centered, worker-oriented, and independent of any party or candidate. Our purpose is to be the voice of workers in the political process, not the voice of politicians or parties to the workers…The AFL-CIO’s political program at the local, state, and national levels should have as its highest priority encouraging public officials to actively support workers who are trying to form unions, as well as to support the maintenance and growth of union jobs…those politicians of either party who support the union-busting agenda of the Right to Work Committee, the Associated Builders and Contractors, or any other similar organization should face rebuke from all unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO regardless of their stand on other issues. The AFL-CIO needs to develop a strategic growth and political plan focused on critical swing states that will make the difference in changing the direction of our nation, and to which state and local bodies and affiliates are held accountable…an increase in union density in the State of Ohio, for example, from 16% to 26% would have put John Kerry in the White House.

This document is absolutely right to recognize the failures of the AFL-CIO in holding accountable Democrats who cast anti-labor votes, in forcing the right to organize onto the national political agenda, and in using the political system to protect and further workers’ rights. I think the problem has much more to do with the federation’s treatment of anti-labor Democrats than of pro-labor Republicans – in fact I’d say too often labor has bent over backwards to bestow the pro-labor Republican label for the appearance of a bipartisan pro-labor consensus of the kind we have yet to create. And the reformers are right that a resurgence in labor’s political clout cannot come without a resurgence of union organizing. Here labor and the Democrats should have a shared interest in creating more union members, given that union membership is the only thing that makes white men with guns who go to church vote Democratic; would that the Democrats put as much effort into trying to multiply the ranks of union members as the Republicans are into trying to create more investors. Putting the right to organize front and center would help Democrats doubly by creating more union members and by giving them more reason to vote Democratic; this platform attests to the ways the AFL-CIO has to go in pushing for politicians to do so. The legal right to organize cannot itself be labor’s entire political agenda however; while this paragraph almost reads as if it is, the platform later devotes entire sections to coalition-building around healthcare and global trade. The line later on refering to “social issues” as outside of the purview of labor is as unsettling as it is intentionally ambiguous. It certainly doesn’t represent the approach that’s yielded success for SEIU and UNITE HERE over the past decade. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and freedom from discrimination for women, workers of color, and queer workers, are fundamental issues of workers’ rights, and any labor federation which shies away from them does so to its own detriment and that of this country’s most marginalized workers. A recognition of the urgency of broadening the movement is more clear in the sections on diversity within the AFL-CIO and international solidarity.

New Standards of Accountability and Governance…If labor as a whole is to grow the AFL-CIO must be the movement’s strategic growth center…democratic change requires the creation of a streamlined Executive Committee comprised of the largest unions that represent most AFL-CIO members and are responsible for uniting workers in the major sectors of the economy, with several additional rotating seats to ensure diversity…Financial and organizational accountability and openness must be the operating principal of a new AFL-CIO. Ongoing senior level staff meetings between unions on issues of AFL-CIO policy must take place between meetings of principals…The AFL-CIO must establish and enforce standards in such areas as bargaining, strategic industry plans and results; political fundraising and participation by members and their families, workplace organization, among others.

I’m not sure what structural arrangement best serves the ends of openness and representativeness within the AFL-CIO. But inter-union dialogue is certainly a must, as is transparency in decision-making and accountability in producing results. This accountability must apply both to the federation’s leadership and to its member unions. The AFL-CIO is, after all, a voluntary compact, and affiliation should signify a commitment to organizing and building the movement.

These proposals, all the more so when taken together with the other four points of the platform (focused on representation, strategic use of union money and purchasing power, global solidarity, and healthcare and retirement security), represent a blue-print with at least the potential to bring real change to a federation in deep need of it. I support its broad vision, including the final point of that first section:

Leadership Committed to Building a Movement that Can Win. The AFL-CIO needs leadership that is committed to the kind of fundamental restructuring of the federation that we are proposing.

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.

This letter in today’s YDN is a whirlwind ride through the classics of anti-GESO rhetoric:

The Graduate Employee Student Organization (GESO) is not a union. Let’s not call teaching fellows’ failure to show up for work a “strike” (“GESO issues strike threat,” 4/7). Let’s call it failure to show up for work. Yale should withhold pay from and appropriately punish any TF who fails to do his or her work, just as the University would treat any other of its employees.

Yes, you read that right: Yale should treat TAs “just as the University would treat any other of its employees.” But if they are indeed like any other employees, then don’t they have the right to bargain collectively? And when they organize to exercise that right, isn’t that a union? And when the workers in that union refuse to work in order to bring their employer to the negotiating table, isn’t that a strike? The irony is that were Yale to recognize that its graduate employee teaching assistants have the same rights as other employees, there would be no need for this strike. Jon Fougner continues:

It’s unclear to me how GESO ringleaders regularly work up the gall to hijack section time to propagandize.

Funny thing is, when professors and graduate students who oppose GESO use class time to slam GESO, you don’t hear as much concern from the administration about the sacrifice of academic time. Same when it’s, say, graduate students’ advisors making veiled threats about how union support could destroy their career (more about these tactics, and their relationship to Fougner’s citing the 2003 LOWV vote, in this report). Fougner says:

It’s unclear to me why we should be sympathetic to strikes by the ruling class, whether they be professional hockey players or professional academicians.

Not only are GESO’s members, who work for well under $20,000 a year and in many cases will work in not much more lucrative post-Doc positions after graduation because graduate students like them will be doing the jobs they would have wanted, not the ruling class, but to the extent that graduate school’s like Yale’s disproportionately represent particular slices of the American population it’s precisely because of the absence of reforms like dependent healthcare and childcare which, if Fougner had his way, GESO would have nothing to say about and the YDN would give no coverage:

It’s unclear to me that the News ought to let GESO use its front page as a free megaphone…What is clear is that GESO has accomplished little for its own members, and nothing for real laborers. Indeed, in 2001, while Harvard students were courageously bringing Massachusetts Hall to its knees over a “living wage” for university employees, GESO was opportunistically shanghaiing honest-to-God unions into its shifty, self-serving camp.

GESO has accomplished plenty for its members, who are indeed laborers, as everyone from the UN to the IRS has recognized. One of GESO’s ongoing fights is for a living wage for all Yale employees, a fight in which teachers, researchers, service and maintenance workers, and clerical and technical workers – none of them dupes – have stood together with supporters throughout the city in demanding better.

Wal-Mart Watch: A disappointing op-ed today from Robert Reich, who should know better. Somewhere in there, he’s trying to make the accurate point that government regulation has a role to play in overcoming the collective action problem under which consumers who prefer high-roading companies nonetheless patronize low-roading ones for the cheaper prices (this is a point he makes better in his book I’ll Be Short). Indeed, there is a structural problem which could be ameliorated by changing the perverse incentives behind the corporate race to the bottom. Thing is, it’s not only national legal change which could better reward companies which invest in their workers. It’s also coordinated organizing and media campaigns by labor and community folks organizing workers and consumers to reward better companies and punish worse ones. Taking the fight to Wal-Mart in particular is the defining challenge facing labor in the next decade. Because Wal-Mart is indeed bigger and badder than anyone else. So to write a piece called “Don’t Blame Wal-Mart” suggesting that all employers squeeze their workers equally is simply false and counterproductive. Reich gets a pedestal from which to play broker state technocrat, rising above parochial concerns, calling no one out in particular, pleading with both sides to be more fair-minded. Meanwhile, millions of Wal-Mart workers continue to face prejudicial treatment based on gender or immigration status, poverty wages, anti-union intimidation, and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory-style work rules. Sure, blame Bush, blame Nike, blame ourselves. But let’s blame ourselves in part for not blaming Wal-Mart nearly enough or as often as it deserves.

Kos loses it:

Once upon a time, party officials feared NARAL, they feared the unions, they feared the Sierra Club, they feared trial lawyers, they feared NOW, they feared the NAACP, they feared Latino groups, and so on. For the first time, it looks like they’re starting to fear people, not special interest groups. We’re growing up as a party.

Wal-Mart is a special interest because it leverages a tremendous amount of money and power to serve narrow ends which benefit a tiny constituency of plutocrats and wreak havoc on the lives of most Americans.

Unions pool and leverage the power of their members and their willingness to engage in organizing and collective action to secure justice for themselves and for millions of working Americans. There is no comparison.

To say that bevy (however large) of bloggers (folks who are disproportionately whiter, richer, and maler than America, let alone the Democratic party) are real people in a way that organized workers, organized environmentalists, organized women, and organized people of color are none is outrageous.

Keith Urbahn makes an unpersuasive comparison between graduate student workers and allies fighting for the right to organize and flat-earthers:

Our lovable but deluded Flat-Earthers are the members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the self-proclaimed representatives of graduate students. GESO’s unremarkable history is marred by failure and distinct feelings of apathy and even opposition from many graduate students — both realities the organization continues to deny. Never mind the fact that the Yale administration has always refused to consider it a legitimate interest group, or that over the summer the National Labor Relations Board unequivocally struck down any right for students to organize as employees at private universities, or that GESO just might be the only group in history to lose its own rigged election, as it did in April 2003.

As I argued at the time, the vote by the Bush-appointed majority to overturn a unanimous decision and strip graduate student workers of their rights as employees is one of a constellation of anti-labor decisions pushed through by right-wing activist NLRB judges over the past three years. Other recent targets have included non-union workers, casual workers, and disabled workers. Hell, even the prophets of classlessness at The New Republic have taken notice. It wasn’t so long ago in this country when publice employees, or agricultural workers, or workers as a whole were denied a legal right to unionize. It’s hard to imagine that the same Yale administrators who blithely ignored the NLRB’s historic NYU decision now expect graduate student workers to roll over because lobbying by, inter alia, those administrators has yielded a new one.

As for the election Keith calls “rigged,” the date and time were well-publicized, the qualifications were clear and well-scrutinized, and the whole process was overseen by the League of Women Voters. Every graduate student who showed up, whether or not they were on the list of those who would be part of the bargaining unit, got to cast a provisional vote, and GESO chose not to contest any of them. Certainly, GESO should have done a better job of turning out their supporters, more of whom went out on strike with the union than made it out to vote for it. Unfortunately, Yale’s strategy of depressing pro-union turnout through publically describing it as “like getting your friends together to have an election,” while hiking anti-union turnout through intense pressure from advisors on advisees, particularly in the sciences, was more effective than many had predicted. Read more about Yale’s anti-union campaign here. Even under those circumstances, the result was a near tie. Nearly two years later, last month three out of five teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences declared they had signed union cards and demanded Yale recognize their union. But Keith is unfazed:

And indeed, a 12-week process of soliciting names from a predetermined list of eligible “voters” had finally created the results GESO organizers long desired. Sixty percent of 521 eligible TAs in the humanities, social science and language departments voted in favor of unionization. In a crude attempt to lend at least a veneer of legality to the sham of an election, GESO solicited the help of Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz to certify the “vote.” What Bysiewicz and giddy GESO supporters failed to mention at the Dec. 14 meeting was that the card count was hardly representative of the whole graduate student body. In an effort to exclude departments predominately opposed to unionization — most notably those in the natural sciences — GESO changed the eligibility requirements, denying the right to vote to hundreds who differed with the group’s agenda.

What the vote was representative of is a three-fifths consensus of those whose primary employment is teaching in the humanities and social sciences supporting a union of teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences. For years now, Yale has been claiming that GESO was illegitimate because its proposed bargaining unit included both students in the sciences and the humanities. Since the new NLRB decision, the union’s opponents have flipped their argument. Negotiations over the shape of a bargaining unit are a standard part of a unionization process. The problem is, Yale is still maintaining its dozen-year policy of refusing to negotiate – or meet – with GESO about anything. That includes the nature of a fair process for unionization, another issue on which Keith takes the administration’s side:

Furthermore, the method of a “card count,” a process in which GESO representatives solicited support for unionization by approaching eligible TAs, is hardly a fair way of gauging the graduate community’s interest in unionization. The card count allowed for the possibility of intimidation and coercion — both well-worn GESO tactics according to some graduate students.

Card count neutrality agreements provide workers a measure of protection against the employer intimidation made possible by the asymetrical power relationship in the workplace. As Kate Bronfenbrenner’s research demonstrated, majorities of workers during NLRB election processes strongly fear losing their jobs if they vote for the union, and a third who vote against the union themselves identify their vote as a response to employer pressure. That’s why politicians of both parties are pushing the Employee Free Choice Act in support of card check processes. That said, GESO’s demand for years was an agreement with Yale on a fair process whose results both sides would follow. But Levin, while with one breath telling GESO only an NLRB process was acceptable, that “democracy means elections,” with the other maintained that he would appeal the results of any election, leaving the ballots uncounted and impounded, as his allies in the Penn, Brown, and Columbia administrations have done in response to NLRB elections there. Democracy means following the results of elections. And as I’ve said before, I don’t think a graduate school in which students refrain from trying to win over students who might disagree with them on the issues they face is one living up to the values of liberal education. If you think it’s hard being an anti-union graduate student in a department where most of your peers are in the union, trying being a union member whose research funding depends on a supervisor who hates the union. Now imagine that situation if, say, losing your research funding means being deported out of the country. The plight of international students is, incidentally, one of many issues on which GESO’s lobbying has successfully brought change from the administration. But Keith isn’t too keen on GESO’s issue agenda either:

GESO has become increasingly involved with locals 34 and 35 on issues that are at best tangentially related to graduate student organization…Duped by that word “union” and the “Norma Rae” fantasies of some Yale graduate students — or more likely, attracted to the opportunity of political allies in the fight against the Yale administration — members of the real unions locals 34 and 35 attended the December meeting, dutifully holding up signs and chanting in support of the new “union” of graduate students.

This is the classic “narrow agenda/broader agenda line of argument Yale’s administration has been firing at its unions for at least as long as Keith and I have been at Yale: Either the unions are parochial institutions only narrowly concerned with their members’ wages and benefits who could care less about the greater good, or they’re shadowy, expansive conspiracies with designs to meddle everywhere they’re not wanted. The truth is, unions best protect the rights of their own workers and of all Americans when they have broad agendas. That’s why the trade union approach of the CIO did more for American labor, and for America, than the craft union approach of the AFL ever could. GESO is right to recognize that fighting for graduate student workers means fighting for their rights as immigrant workers against capricious deportation. And GESO is right to recognize that graduate student workers’ voices are most powerful, and their interests are best represented, when they stand together with other Yale employees on issues of common concern, like diversifying Yale’s workforce and supporting working mothers. And members of Locals 34 and 35, far from being the ignorant dupes Keith labels them, are right to recognize that their rights as workers are best protected and advanced by safeguarding the right to organize for all Yale employees and joining them in struggle over common challenges. That’s why, for so many in Yale’s service, maintenance, and clerical workforce, it rings hollow when Dan Koffler argues that:

The suggestion that Ph.Ds in waiting have a common class interest with lifelong wage-laborers, least of all Yale Ph.Ds in waiting, is an unfunny, borderline obscene joke. It is, moreover, a notion that can only hurt the cause of real workers.

As I argued here before, the salient question is not and should not be whether a teaching assistant or a secretary is more exploited or more sympathetic. The question is, do these workers face common challenges? And out of these common challenges, how do they find common cause and better effect progressive change in their own lives and in Yale as an institution? The argument that different kinds of workers should keep to themselves is not new. It was a hallmark of Yale’s anti-union campaign against clerical and technical workers before Local 34 was finally recognized in 1984. Unions are all well and good for the largely male, largely minority, blue-collar workforce of Local 35, Yale clerical and technical workers were told, but are they really the kind of institutions that Yale’s “pink-collar” clerical and technical workers should be associated with. Local 34 and Local 35 stood together, in the face of threats of reprisals against Local 35 by Yale’s administration, and after Local 34 won its ten-week strike and its first contract, Local 35’s new contract was settled quickly once Local 34 made clear its intention to stand in support of Local 35. That’s what winning looks like. And so it’s strangely appropriate how Keith chooses to end his article:

…we know whom they truly stand for: themselves.

Yes, graduate students signing union cards are standing for themselves, and for each other. And because many undergraduates see themselves as future graduate students, its understandable that those who believe in a comfortable dichotomy between service and self-interest have more trouble getting on board with GESO. But now more than ever, in the face of the growing casualization of the academy (a trend which makes Dan’s description of graduate students as “YalePh.D.s in waiting” more misleading), graduate students are right to organize for better working conditions and a better university, and others in the Yale community are right to stand with them.

Bad idea:

The leadership of the Human Rights Campaign, at a meeting last weekend in Las Vegas, concluded that the group must bow to political reality and moderate its message and its goals. One official said the group would consider supporting President Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security partly in exchange for the right of gay partners to receive benefits under the program.

Talk about forgoing the big tent. The Human Rights Campaign has always been too conservative for me. But this would be a new low. First, because contrary to the impression one might get from Queer Eye for the Staight Guy, scores of queer folks and their families also depend on social security to enable them to retire with dignity rather than into poverty, and they too deserve better than this privatization sham. Second, because now more than ever, as the economic justice movement struggles to better do justice to its queer constituents, standing on the wrong side of one of the major economic justice debates of the next four years can only narrow the movement. Third, because social security privatization is also incredibly unpopular with the American public, as it should be. So if, as the article suggests, the HRC’s new focus is on introducing gay America to everybody else, this seems like a particularly ill-chosen move to start with. (Spotted by Julie Saltman)

Speaking of Social Security, some one should ask David Brooks whether he’d be comefortable staking his national security on the stock market. Because if not, he’s in a strange position to be telling working class Americans to entrust their economic security to it. There’s a reason we call it “Social Security,” not “Social Program In Which If You Play Your Cards Right You Have A Decent Shot Ending Up Less Poor Than Without It.”

Frequent readers (thanks, Dad) know that I’m an advocate of broad-based progressive moments as the only effective instrument of progressive change. In particular, I’ve used this space to argue that in support of moves within the labor movement towards a broader conception of what it means to sdvocate for the interests of workers, be it native and immigrant workers standing together in the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, partnership between healthcare workers and patients calling for universal coverage, or SEIU’s strong stance against the Federal Marriage Ammendment as an assault on the rights of its members. As was declared at the first union event I ever attended in New Haven, in response to President Levin’s intimations that Yale’s unions have a broader agenda, “You bet we have a broader agenda.” I’ve also criticized those movements locally and nationally when the broader agenda has proved not as broad as one would hope.

This is a debate that must take place in every progressive movement committed to winning over the next years. The environmentalist movement, as Randy Shaw argued compellingly in his Activist Handbook, is a prime example as well. Looks like former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach agrees:

For example, I’ve been trying to tell my friends at the Sierra Club that the most important battle for the Sierra Club and the next two years might be over public education. That is the battle line over collective activity, interdependence, the values we care about — much more so than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s a skirmish along the way that’s not strategic. It’s way off to the side.

Via Ralph Taylor at Nathan’s site, who also points back to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s “The Death of Environmentalism”:

The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections…Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time….The serial losses on Rio, Kyoto, CAFE, and McCain-Lieberman were not framed in ways that increase the environmental community’s power through each successive defeat. That’s because, when those proposals were crafted, environmentalists weren’t thinking about what we get out of each defeat. We were only thinking about what we get out of them if they succeed. It’s this mentality that must be overthrown if we are to craft proposals that generate the power we need to succeed at a legislative level.

…There is no better example of how environmental categories sabotage environmental politics than CAFE. When it was crafted in 1975, it was done so as a way to save the American auto industry, not to save the environment. That was the right framing then and has been the right framing ever since. Yet the environmental movement, in all of its literal-sclerosis, not only felt the need to brand CAFE as an “environmental” proposal, it failed to find a solution that also worked for industry and labor. By thinking only of their own narrowly defined interests, environmental groups don’t concern themselves with the needs of either unions or the industry. As a consequence, we miss major opportunities for alliance building. Consider the fact that the biggest threat to the American auto industry appears to have nothing to do with “the environment.” The high cost of health care for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies…Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren’t stuck with the bill for its retirees. And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups should have a strategy for lowering the costs of health care for the auto industry, perhaps in exchange for higher mileage standards, you’d likely be laughed out of the room, or scolded by your colleagues because, “Health care is not an environmental issue.”…Let’s go for the massive expansion of wind in the Midwest — make it part of the farm bill and not the energy bill. Let’s highlight the jobs and farmers behind it. But bring about this sea-change in the way the environmental movement thinks and operates isn’t going to be easy. For nearly every environmental leader we spoke to, the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building in America were, at best, afterthoughts.

We all have a lot of work to do.

The YDN reports on the New Haven Student Fair Share Coalition’s dramatically succesful call-in day yesterday to Bruce Alexander and John DeStefano, urging a fair share settlement between Yale and New Haven with a contribution that would narrow the gap between Yale’s tax value and the PILOT money New Haven receives, a mechanism for indexing that contribution to Yale’s growth, and a commitment from Yale to enter Community Benefits Agreements for future expansion:

About 75 students gathered on Cross Campus throughout the day Monday to call Alexander and DeStefano’s offices and urge progress on talks to increase Yale’s contribution in lieu of taxes to the city. The campaign was organized by the New Haven Student Fair Share Coalition, a group of Yale organizations formed in April that claims there is a $10 million gap between the actual tax value of University property and the payments the city receives in lieu of those taxes…Any change in the status of Yale’s contributions to the city would be the first change since 1990, when the Yale Golf Course was opened to taxation and the University began paying the city for fire services. Yale, like most nonprofits, is exempt from property taxes on its noncommercial buildings. Property taxes are the major source of funding for New Haven, which has faced budgetary problems in recent years. New Haven also receives about 65 percent of the money it would have obtained from taxing Yale through Connecticut’s Payment In Lieu of Taxes program (PILOT).

…Josh Eidelson ’06, a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC), one of the Fair Share Coalition’s member groups, said that the launch of talks had encouraged the coalition. “The fact that these negotiations are happening now demonstrates the importance of pressure from students and the community in pushing Yale to have a more progressive settlement with New Haven,” Eidelson said. In addition to the UOC, 13 other undergraduate student groups — including The Black Student Alliance at Yale, Movimiento Estudantil Chicano/a de Atzlan, and Jews for Justice — belong to the coalition. Ben Siegel ’07, who is involved with Jews for Justice, said different groups had different motives for joining the coalition. “The highest principle of charity in Jewish tradition is to give in a way that facilitates other people becoming empowered and gaining control of their futures,” Siegel said. “We hope that the University will live up to those principles.” UOC member Helena Herring ’07, who helped organize the phone calls yesterday, said there was a lot of support for the coalition’s ideas. “People have been really receptive and excited by the idea and people who have been coming to make calls have not been inclusive of the member groups,” Herring said. “It shows that there is broad-based support for this.”

Alas, the article makes no mention of the amazing pies Emily Jones baked for the event, which were as tasty as they were symbolic.

Real, real strong turnout at today’s protest on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Certainly much larger than either of the anti-war rallies I attended in New York a year and a half ago. There may have been little shared ground among the protesters beyond opposition to Bush, but that message came through loud and resoundingly clear, and is about as much information as the mainstream media can be expected to communicate anyway.

Speaking of which, the most telling moment for me may have been when thousands of us, in the middle of a protest easily several hundreds of thousands large, were causing a ruckus around the Fox News Headquarters. We looked up to the channel’s gigantic display overhead, and what was on Fox News? A discussion of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. That, ladies and gentlemen, is as concise a statement of the problems with the corporate media as any.

The question hanging over the protest was what, in the event of a Kerry victory, becomes of this several-hundred-thousand-strong group, some of whom chanted Kerry’s name and others of whom wore masks mocking his face. How do those of us who identify as the left, re-energized and validated by the devastation wrought by the sitting President, organize with the same extent of urgency and breadth of coalition to hold accountable his replacement?

Looks like Errol is (not surprisingly, given the number of debates the two of us have had previously over this issue) celebrating the NLRB decision stripping graduate student workers of legal recognition of their right to organize. Errol contends that this represents “Finally a common sense decision by the NLRB.” I’d say common sense explains the motivation behind this decision – as part of a broader Bush agenda of chipping away workers’ rights through court decisions, executive orders, and legislation, and as one with tremendous cache with certain University Presidents, including some with significant influence – but that that’s about the only relationship common sense and this decision have. There are a lot of points to be made in this argument; for now I’ll stick to responding to those Errol brings up directly.

It’s always been especially telling to me that the graduate student unions have all changed the name of what they do to being “graduate employees” in order to fight this battle. What does that say to me? Well it says that there is a PR game and that most people don’t actually see them as employees at all, so it’s necessary to confront them with the idea. “See I am an employee, because my wannabe union has the word employee in it.” That sort of thing.

This is a cheap and, I’d say, pretty misleading argument. The people subject to this decision are students at the Universities in question and employees of these universities. Sometimes they call themselves graduate employees because those two words communicate that they are both graduate students and employees. Hence GET-UP, Graduate Employees Together, U-Penn. Yale’s parallel union is called GESO, Graduate Employee Student Organization (Light and Truth alleged last year that the fact is was called GESO rather than GSEO showed its members were lazy students. I’ll like to hear them pronounce GSEO). I’m not sure what Errol means when he says that they “changed the name of what they do,” although he certainly makes it sound sinister. What they’ve done, rightfully, is come up with various phrases which allude to the multiple identities they take on simultaneously in the academy. I’d guess it’s the confluence of those identities, not their reflection in names, which Errol and others have a problem with:

That being said, it is obvious that graduate students do work, and probably much of it. Why doesn’t that make them employees of the university and not students? The only thing that separates the two is the possibility of the award of a professional degree. All the other people who recieve payment from the university who are employees are not being paid in their capacity as degree candidates, and it seems to me someone being paid in their capacity as a degree candidate should be considered a student. The payment that the university extends to it’s graduate students for their work is more akin to the financial aid of an undergraduate being paid in work study than it is to a teacher in secondary education.

To insist that GESO members are not “employees and not students” is to take down a straw man argument – GESO members have never contended not to be students. What they are is employees and students. The receipt of educational certification from an employer doesn’t make them as singular a phenomenon as Errol seems to suggest. Apprentices organized some of the first unions in this country so as to better secure the conditions and compensation they deserved for the significant work they were doing while training under their employers. Stipends and benefits for graduate student teaching assistants and researchers are not comparable (except in that both are too low…) to financial aids grants for undergraduates because, while the university’s award of financial aid is hopefully grounded in an understanding that education at the university is strengthened by the presence of a more diverse student body, undergraduates are not being compensated for the provision of a service to the school. Just ask the IRS, which recognizes the former, and not the latter, as salaries. Meanwhile, it’s Yale’s administration, not GESO, which has for the past months engaged in covert and strategic renaming, couching the teaching and research requirements for graduate employees in new language as academic requirements in anticipation of a new NRLB ruling. The fact of the matter is that graduate students are doing over 30% of the work of teaching at our august university, and that they are replacing paid faculty in doing so.

The [generalized] University’s obligation to all its students to provide an atmosphere conducive to learning is perhaps it’s highest one and that being said, it matters very much to that atmosphere if a graduate students’ family doesn’t have an affordable health care plan, or enough money to eat well balanced meals. The University should take care of these needs, and, if the best way to assure that it is in tune with the needs of its students is to recognize them as a group rather than a collection of individuals, I certainly believe that the University should do that. The University should also be perceptive to the outcries of its students that they want to be represented collectively because it’s in the best interest of both the students and families involved and the University to do so. However, that group, those families, that collectivity, are not, and shouldn’t ever be considered a union.

No organization (certainly not the Graduate Student Assembly) has acheived as much for Yale’s graduate students as GESO, whose organizing drive has won the concessions on stipend increases, childcare, international visa reform lobbying and a score of other issues which then become repackaged by Yale’s administration as further evidence of why Yale’s graduate students don’t need a union. That’s because no other type of body has demonstrated the same capacity to leverage pressure, represent constituents, and effect change. But we needn’t just look at Yale. Graduate student unions across and beyond this country have won landmark agreements with universities protecting the institutional support, resources, and freedoms whose procurement by graduate student employees, as Errol says, are vital to the health of the university for all its members. Why shouldn’t graduate employees pursue collective representation through unionization?

It doesn’t do justice to the struggles of everyday working people by calling it so, but most of all, it doesn’t represent the truth of the situation.

But it does represent the truth of the situation, which is that these unions’ members are workers with a right to organize protected by the Wagner Act and the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. They receive payment for the work they do for an employer, and unlike most undergraduates, the majority of them depend on the funds they receive from the university to support themselves and often dependants (this proportion rises as the benefits provided by the university rise, and as this proportion rises, so does the diversity of the graduate employees). The construction of a group called “everyday working people” as the proper constituents of a union, and of a distinction between that group and the workers in question – be they teachers, writers, waiters, nurses, or graduate employees – is not new, and neither is the struggle of every group of workers to demonstrate and defend their right to organize. These struggles absolutely have different contours, and different stakes. But they remain parallel struggles, and while a good number of Yale undergraduates believe that the question of whether Mary Reynolds, GESO Chair and American Studies Teaching Assistant, has the same right to a union that Bobby Proto, Local 35 President and pipefitter does, is a question of whether Mary’s is more or less oppressed than Bobby, my experience is that many fewer members of Local 35 and Local 34 (Yale’s service and maintenance and clerical and technical unions, respectively) see it that way. My experience is that many more members of Locals 34 and 35 see their stake in GESO’s right to organize as similar to Local 35’s stake in Local 34’s right to organize back in 1984, when conventional wisdom was that “pink collar unions” were a contradiction in terms which would destroy the collegiality and intellectual vigor of the university. What doesn’t do justice to their struggle for the right to organize is not GESO’s campaign for the same right, but rather Yale’s campaign, with the unfortunate assistance of the Bush administration and the NLRB, to deny it.

Some prison guard unions have come under criticism, sometimes deserved, for narrowly pursuing their members’ short-term interests in a manner which put them at odds with broader social change movements. That’s what I’d call a craft union approach, and there’s a reason that craft unions never left the kind of impact on this country that the trade union movement – through broad-based organizing – has. Here’s a Madison prison guard local providing a powerful example of the potential of organizing with a broader social vision:

At a meeting recently with four correctional officers, the union’s strategy was laid out in a presentation that will serve as the bargaining unit’s negotiating road map…Far from the “nuts and bolts” wages and benefits, the correctional officers said they will attempt to identify budget problems, how they affect their jobs and why those problems are not the making of the rank-and-file officers. These problems, they say, should not be cited when the state makes what they claim are inadequate economic offers. The officers referred to 1997 Wisconsin Act 283, the state’s Truth in Sentencing Law, that provides for extended supervision and increased penalties for various offenses. The officers claim Wisconsin’s Truth in Sentencing Law was created from model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council. They say ALEC is a politically conservative organization which held seminars on criminal justice issues such as Truth in Sentencing. The officers say the seminars were sponsored by private sector businesses with an interest in corrections. They named Corrections Corporation of America, a prison-building company that houses Wisconsin inmates out of state, as having ties to ALEC.

…During the presentation, the correctional officers indicated that Truth in Sentencing had contributed greatly to the state’s overcrowding problems. They claimed that the law’s author, then Rep. Scott Walker, patterned Wisconsin’s law after the ALEC model, which was developed by a task force led by private sector firms such as CCA…The point of all this, officers said, is that the prison population explosion was caused in large part by a new law mandating lengthy sentences, and that law was influenced by private companies which directly benefit from greater prison populations. In fact, the officers pointed out, more than 3,000 Wisconsin inmates were incarcerated in out-of-state CCA facilities. Overcrowding is not to be taken lightly, the officers said. It’s a contributing factor to prison riots and other lesser incidents which greatly threaten the safety of employees and inmates alike. A so called “tough on crime” approach is not always productive, the officers said. “Wisconsin correctional institutions are becoming increasingly hostile due to inmate take-a-ways and inmate idleness,” they said. “These actions, by and large, have been enacted by legislators eager to be ‘tough on crime’ with little understanding of the potential ramifications in the correctional setting.”