Powerful picketing all afternoon today, including a thundering presence outside of the Yale Corporation’s meeting, complete with megaphone-enhanced trumpet. We had our strongest undergraduate turnout yet, marching down College Street chanting “My TA deserves fair pay” and joining our teachers in standing for educational excellence and equal opportunity at Yale. And Jesse Jackson certainly draws a crowd.

The biggest news of the day, though is Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts’ agreement to meet with GESO, a historic concession from the body which has refused such meetings for over a decade. Just another way in which this strike has made visible the work and the workers which Yale refuses to see. Bringing Yale to the table is a crucial step in bringing Yale to the point of recognizing these workers, recognizing their work, and recognizing their union.

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We had a great crowd of undergrads and prospective students at our ice cream social last night to discuss the strike and progressive activism on campus. The event was made that much more interesting by a protest outside by the Committee for Freedom (right-wing undergrads from the Party of the Right) with slogans like “GESO caused the tsunami.” Nice to know that at least some of the folks in the Committee for Freedom see public protest as legitimate. I think their failure, after a couple hours of tabling at the bazaar for prospective students, to recruit a single prospective student, or more than four current undergrads, to come make posters and protest us speaks nicely to the sentiment on campus.

This morning we revived Education in the Streets and, just as we did two years ago, set up classrooms on College Street in which graduate employees, undergrads, and community members taught classes on the issues at the center of the strike and of the social movement in this city. Scores of students turned out for classes on diversity, debt, contract negotiations, community benefits, and the challenges facing women in the sciences. Attending the latter was a particularly appropriate reason for me to miss my seminar on the Political Economy of Gender.

After moving words from John Wilhelm and others, we picketed a panel of Yale alumni in Battell Chapel including Roland Betts, Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the doors were locked and Betts refused to come out and speak with us, valuing the discussions in our sections as little and fearing disucussion with the people who lead those sections as much, apparently, as President Levin.

Thursday, my Constitutional Law professor was introduced Youngstown by saying “You need steel to fight a war – much like you need TAs to teach class, which incidentally is why I have some reservations about this GESO business,” holding up a GESO leaflet pushing for greater equal opportunity at Yale as he did so. Funny thing is, if teaching assistants are indeed like steelworkers in that they’re employees who do important work, then under the Wagner Act they have the right to organize a union. And it’s only because Yale refuses to recognize that right, or even to come to the table, that a strike is a looming possibility. Somehow, the University’s rhetoric on GESO is always about its members not being workers – except for when they go out on strike, and the rhetoric is about how irresponsible it is for them not to do their work. It’s preciesely because graduate student employees, like steelworkers, do jobs that get disrupted when they go on strike that they should have a voice on the job through a recognized union.

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.

Three out of five: That’s the majority of current Yale teaching assistants who’ve joined GESO and are now demanding that Yale recognize their union. Inspirational meeting tonight, with compelling speeches from GESO members about their platform, a strong show of support from Local 35 and from graduate student unionists from Penn and Columbia, and Congresswoman DeLauro, Attorney General Blumenthal, and Mayor DeStefano there to verify the results and pledge their support for a just settlement. Now it’s time for Yale to come to the table and level with the people whose teaching makes a Yale education possible.

The Yale Daily News prints a telling retraction of its
paraphrasing of Graduate School Dean Butler as having been influenced by GESO’s organizing for decent stipends:

Thursday’s article “TAs get stipend increase” incorrectly reported Graduate School Dean Jon Butler’s motivation to increase teaching fellow stipends. Butler said the increase was in coordination with the Graduate Student Assembly, the school’s elected body of student representatives.

Last graduate students should get the idea that they can mobilize for progressive change and actually be listened to – because that would just encourage them to do it more…

Jacob Remes points out a History News Network account of the tension at the annual Business meeting of the American Historical Association, which he attended, over the successfully passed resolution calling on Yale to respect the right of its graduate students to organize. Yale History Chairman and candidate for Yale College Dean Jon Butler made the unfortunate argument that it was “presumptuous” for historians to concern themselves in a dispute over free speech and the right to organize and the specious argument that calling for a fair process to determine whether GESO represents the majority of graduate students is unfair to any other potential graduate student organizations, and finally tried and failed to stall the resolution on procedural grounds.