UNION RIGHTS ARE SPEECH RIGHTS

While I don’t at all agree with Thomas Geoghegan’s contention in Which Side Are You On that the ACLU’s agenda, while noble, wouldn’t “cost anyone anything” to implement, he does speak to a well-justified frustration many “labor liberals” feel at the difficulty of stirring certain civil libertarians to get up in arms about the civil liberties of workers on and off the job. Not only are positive rights (like economic security) crucial to the meaningful exercise of negative rights (like free speech), positive and negative rights frequently and fundamentally intersect, perhaps nowhere moreso than the workplaces in which millons spend the majority of their waking hours. Opposition to civil liberties comes not only from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their values but also from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their economic interests. That’s why the right of workers to speak, assemble, and organize on and off the job has always been threatened in this country. And that’s why it’s so often fallen to unions, in Nathan Newman’s words, to “bring the first Amendment to the workplace.” It’s worth asking (as Geoghegan was trying, though through a troubling turn of phrase, to do) why the idea of deprivation of civil liberties affects many of us more viscerally than the idea of economic deprivation. But even those who only get up in arms over the former should be disturbed that, as Geoghegan has been reminding us for years, American law offers you no protection against being fired for expressing your political beliefs, and promises the weakest of responses to employers who threaten, punish, or fire workers seeking to bargain collectively.

What are the stakes? The Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board provided a reminder last month when it upheld a security firm’s rule that bars its employees from “fraternizing” with each other on or off the job. Guardsmark insisted that its employees give up their right to associate with each other socially on their own time as a condition of employment, and the NLRB blessed the company to keep the rule in place.

FROM CHICAGO TO WASHINGTON

One of the contentions which largely cuts across the AFL-CIO/ Change to Win divide is a recognition that the labor movement has yet to match the power of its Electon Day turnout operation with an effective mechanism for holding accountable the politicians it helps elect. Still more controversial is the recognition that a winning agenda for the movement demands a broad conception of the interests of working people and a more comprehensive social vision.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO followed progressive unions like SEIU in passing a strong anti-war resolution condemning the impact of the war on working families and urging that civil rights be strengthened in Iraq and that the troops be brought home “rapidly.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when they used to half-jokingly call it the AFL-CIA. We’re not in Kirkland-Land anymore…

And Monday, as SEIU and the Teamsters were leaving the federation, the two unions’ presidents joined the presidents of eighteen other unions, AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition alike, in sending a strongly-worded letter to the Democratic leadership rightly condemning the party’s refusal to put its full force behind defeating CAFTA (David Sirota offers a good overview of the damage CAFTA could do if approved tonight by the House).

Good signs, in the wake of Monday’s split, for a more muscular movement. Here’s hoping John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, who were re-elected without opposition this afternoon, will be driven further in this direction, and can find a way to facilitate – rather than block – the co-operation with the Change to Win folks necessary to make it happen.

GETTING DENSE AGAIN

A week ago, TPMCafe opened its House of Labor, a collaborative blog on the future of the Labor Movement with the likes of Nathan Newman, Bill Fletcher, and Jo-Ann Mort, and the discussion has remained unusually articulate, informed, and relevant ever since. Over the past few days the contributors have been debating the organizing agenda of the Change to Win Coalition (now chaired by Anna Burger), a topic on which there’s been all-too little discussion in the blogosphere and the media in general.

Tuesday Bill Fletcher considered a letter from Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger making the case that the AFL-CIO under Sweeney has done the best it could under the circumstances – a position Fletcher, like me, rejects – and that those circumstances deserve a more serious examination in this debate. Fletcher writes that

His argument is that the workforce has jumped in size dramatically and events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks (and other problems such as deindustrialization) have been devastating to organized labor. These issues, he asserts, are not being discussed. He is basically right: they are not being discussed in any serious way. Further, he asks what percentage of the workforce should we be trying to organize. What is interesting about this question is that i cannot remember anyone EVER attempting to answer it. The implicit question here is what percentage of the workforce needs to be organized such that there is a QUALITATIVE improvement in the power relation between labor and capital…What has largely been missing from the debate, as i asserted in an earlier blog, is a real analysis of the objective conditions facing workers generally and unions specifically. It is, for instance, very unclear in the debates what people actually mean by “power” for workers outside of bargaining power…while the debate has focused on the AFL-CIO, the reality is that it is the individual unions that have the major resources AND RESPONSIBILITY for organizing, yet this seems to have been largely ignored in most of the discussion.

Yesterday, Nathan Newman took up Bill Fletcher’s challenge to engage with Buffenbarger’s argument, agreeing that we need better ways to evaluate where we stand and how to get back on track than just comparing density percentages. One key, he suggests, is density within industries, and a more promising approach to building density is what distinguishes the Change to Win dissidents from the team that Buffenbarger is defending. He cites a piece from Justice for Janitors head Stephen Lerner which, as he summarizes

Lerner first argued that the key was dramatic comprehensive organizing, not incremental work by unions…He laid out the argument for consolidation around sectors where such strategic organizing would have the resources to make dramatic changes…He specifically argued that there is a critical point where the combination of density and militant action by unions makes employer opposition too costly; that is the point where employer resistance fades and unions make dramatic gains in a sector..The problem was that most unions were too diffuse in their organizing to achieve that critical mass in any particular sector, so they made small organizing gains that failed to counterbalance other losses. And he argued that unions had failed to grapple with changes in the global economy that made these diffuse organizing efforts even less effective…his steps to rebuilding the labor movement involved both a social vision and reorganization of the union structures…The key, he argued, was to exponentially expand the resources spent on organizing, not incrementally but in dramatic ways. In a sense, Lerner completely agreed with Buffenbarger that the problem was not in the AFL-CIO itself but in the international unions responsible for organizing…The solution was to set concrete goals…with a whole range of other resource and political commitments, from achieving legalization for undocumented immigrants to punishing anti-worker companies as examples to other employers.

While criticizing Lerner’s lack of emphasis on union democracy or racial equality, Nathan argues that the broad strategy he laid out was right then, and that the Change to Win unions are right to push the same one three years later.

Jo-Ann Mort echoes Nathan’s argument that the Change to Win approach to building density offers more hope of reversing the decline in union membership, and she suggests that that decline has brought us so far down that Buffenbarger’s question of “how much is enough” becomes an academic one:

SEIU and Unite-HERE, to name two unions, have strategies, it seems to me, on how to build critical mass in key industries and therefore increase bargaining power. These unions have even been willing to trade members in a particular industry so that their membership is more homogenous, and they can build strength within a certain industry or company. Sectors–both domestic and global matter more today than overall numbers, in a certain sense, but numbers also do matter. The fact is that with organized labor’s numbers having sunk below 10%, it makes it difficult not only to organize new workers, but also to advocate for new laws regarding union organizing, labor law, workers’ rights, etc.–let alone elect a union-friendly politician. Today, it’s a too rare occurance when someone even engages with a member of a union. There are whole regions of the country where labor members are nearly completely scarce. This makes it impossible for labor to build any kind of public support. No matter how you cut it, there is a crisis in labor, a crisis which the Buffenbarger letter doesn’t seem to acknowledge.

Responding today to readers’ comments, Nathan acknowledges that manufacturing unions have faced more hostile organizing conditions than the service unions who’ve been Sweeney’s strongest critics. But like the service unions, he argues, they have strategies available to respond – and they parallel the Change to Win approach:

I’d suggest four possibilities- (1) Abandon new manufacturing and organize associated services; (2) leverage their existing density more strategically; (3) organize the world; (4) organize Wal-Mart, the largest manufacturing company in the world…Given the fact that such a large part of employment in the US is in services — many of them not subject to easy overseas outsourcing in almost any scenario — why not concentrate all of the union movement’s extra resources on the “low hanging” fruit of local services, especially those services most related to a union’s core industry? In a sense, that’s what UNITE’s been doing for a number of years, shifting its organizing focus from garment manufacturing, which has been decimated by global competition, over to related industries like the industrial laundries who wash the clothes UNITE workers once sewed…Unlike the garment industry, a lot of big manufacturing like autos are still building factories in the US– often non-union as with the Japanese transplants — but the industry isn’t disappearing. And the UAW for example, as Frank no doubt knows better than me, is getting smarter at using its incumbent power at the Big Three to leverage new organizing through contract agreements– whether going after parts suppliers or through Chrysler negotiations to get agreements at Mercedes…If unions are stronger in developing nations, companies will only move plants there if it’s really more efficient– not just because they’re running to a non-union environment. And the reality is that US unions could help fund a hell of a lot of organizers in those countries precisely because wages and the cost of living are so much lower– and with more global allies, it would help keep the pressure on the manufacturers across the world…Organize Wal-Mart, which is far more than a retailer, but really the global headquarters directing the operations of thousands upon thousands of manufacturing subcontractors who produce what and when Wal-Mart tells them. Get a handle on Wal-Mart and the union movement could get a handle on organizing a heck of lot of manufacturing companies, both domestically and globally. And that’s a goal both the service and manufacturing unions can share.

UNITE HERE and SEIU absolutely were dealt a better hand as unions in industries where fewer jobs can move overseas. But the organizing victories they have to show from it would have been impossible if they hadn’t played those hands much better than most by prioritizing strategic organizing of the unorganized, including marginalized Americans, and strong community-based coalition-building. And, contrary to Buffenbarger’s implication, this is not a specialized strategy for the service industry.

As Nathan reminds us, while differences between industries are certainly something, they aren’t everything. The aggressive organizing strategy which made Detroit a city where auto workers join the middle-class and the one which made Las Vegas a city where hotel workers do have essential similarities we’d do well to recognize. So do the challenge of choosing interracial solidarity over union-backed racism in an earlier generation and the modern challenge of organizing across lines of citizenship and borders.

WAL-MART VERSUS THE DISABLED

It’s not just folks who care about workers’ rights, women’s rights, racial equality, environmental stewardship, fair trade, free speech, or responsible development who have issues with Wal-Mart. The world’s largest retailer is also bad news for those of us who believe in the Americans with Disabilities Act. As this Daily Kos diary reminds us, the company was ordered in Feburary to pay 7.5 million dollars in damages to Patrick Murphy for reassigning him based on his disability. Now the New York Law Journal reports that the judge has cut the damages by $4.7 million to reflect the $300,000 cap on punitive damages under federal law. Judge Orenstein observed that within the limits of the law, it’s impossible to charge Wal-Mart enough to actually have the deterrent effect that punitive damages are supposed to:

“The preceding ruling respects the law,” Orenstein wrote, “but it does not achieve a just result.”…”There is no meaningful sense in which such an award can be considered punishment,” Orenstein wrote, pointing out that Wal-Mart had $300,000 in sales every 37 seconds last year…Orenstein said that Wal-Mart would not be deterred by the amount of punitive damages. He found that in dealing with Brady, the company had not adhered to a consent decree it entered into with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2001 requiring it to train managers and change hiring practices. “The most generous conclusion I could draw … was that the Wal-Mart employees who testified are well-intentioned people whom the company willfully failed to provide with sufficient training to abide by the anti-discrimination law,” Orenstein wrote. “The result,” he concluded, “was that Brady was subjected to the kind of discrimination against the disabled that both the law and the prior consent decree was designed to prevent.” The $300,000 punitive cap, he held, “appears unlikely … to restrain Wal-Mart from inflicting similar abuses on those who may be doomed to follow in Brady’s footsteps.”

Next time you hear someone arguing that arbitrary caps on the freedom of juries to assign punitive damages will protect the little guy against hordes of greedy trial lawyers, remember Patrick Murphy. And remember whoever becomes the next victim after Wal-Mart concludes once more that in the long run, discrimination is cheaper than equal opportunity.

SEEKING SOLAR SOLIDARITY

Nathan offers a good example of what a missed chance to build a broad-based pro-environmental constituency looks like:

California is debating a Schwarzenegger-backed bill to subsidize solar panels on homes and businesses across the state– on a level that could supply energy equivalent to 10 average-sized coal-fired power plants. Sounds good, but in a classic move to pit labor and environmental interests, the GOP cosponsors, as this article details, oppose a requirement that public money only go to installers paying prevailing union wages in the state. Labor in California has fought a long struggle to require that, if government pays for it, the labor has to meet union wage levels. Now, the GOP wants to open a multi-billion dollar loophole in the rule: somehow the hipness of solar panels makes using public money for sweatshop labor acceptable. This is a perfect chance for environmentalists to stand up for the principle that green policy can also be a pro-labor policy, but few environmental leaders have stepped up to champion prevailing wages for the workers who would actually install all these solar panels across the state.

It’s this kind of failure build not just a momentary majority but a stable, inter-generational, cross-cause constituency that caused some environmental leaders last year to declare “The Death of Envionmentalism.” Of course, where Nathan says,

And the enviros wonder why some labor unions joined the GOP in supporting drilling in ANWR when they promised that all those jobs would pay union wages

one could with equal justification fire back “And the union people wonder why some environmentalists are willing to screw them to get solar energy in the wake of ANWR.” The stakes for both movements – fostering an alternative to a laissez-faire race to the bottom and building an economy which values and invests in human beings and the earth – are too high not to work together. Everyone has on the left has some work to do to get their own house(s) in order. If you want to see what the payoff from broader-based, cross-issue organizing looks like, just check out the modern Right in this country.

“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.