On a Friday afternoon in late April, Woolsey, the great hall at Yale, is packed with Old Blues. Gilt scrolls frame the proscenium, and from the ceiling hangs an enormous screen bearing the word YALE. A sudden organ chord sounds. In their starched shirts and navy jackets, the alumni rise like a single body and, without prompting, sing the Yale anthem. At the last refrain–“For God, for country and for Yale”–they take out white handkerchiefs, waving them above their heads in a gesture resembling surrender.

It’s the first event of Yale’s Tercentennial Alumni Weekend, part of a yearlong festival celebrating 300 years of pomp and circumstance. Yale has always been self-conscious about its place in American society. Since it was founded by dissenting Puritans, the school has claimed crusading aspirations. Even a modern-day Thorstein Veblen like Lewis Lapham can’t help but extol his alma mater’s “antithetical spirit of remonstrance and dissent” in Yale’s alumni magazine. Three years ago, historian Gaddis Smith gave a course on “Yale and the External World,” featuring such topics as the reorganization of the provost’s office. In a telling misprint, the course was advertised as “Yale and the Eternal World.”

But the weekend’s first event is firmly anchored in this world. It is a chat with Yale alums Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary, and Janet Yellen, a former governor of the Federal Reserve. University president Richard Levin, a fellow economist by training, slyly jokes that perhaps Yale can take credit for the past decade of economic expansion–as well as for the last three Presidents. Levin trots Yellen and Rubin through a few paces, coaxing them to rehearse painfully conventional wisdom (why lower deficits are good for economic growth, why NAFTA is a boon to America and Mexico alike). The alumni grow dazed and bored. People start to drift out of the hall.

Outside in the street, there’s another restless crowd massing. Skinny grad students mingle with secretaries and chat with Yale’s service and maintenance crews. Children run underfoot. A huge sound truck blasts reggae, while police on horseback guard the street corners. A grad student from the French department gives a speech about grading papers, and an undergrad talks about what she’s learned from the labor movement. Carpenters and janitors cheer. Alumni passing by aren’t sure what to make of the noise. “What are they protesting now?” a middle-aged alumna asks. “It’s a little bit rude,” sniffs a gray-jowled man.

The demonstrators are from locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), representing Yale’s support staff and its service and maintenance workers; GESO, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (affiliated with HERE); and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), District 1199, which is organizing workers at Yale/New Haven Hospital. (Yale does not own or directly control the hospital, but the university’s president sits on its board of trustees.) GESO has been organizing for the past decade; the hospital workers, for three years. Yale’s history of hostility to unions makes it impossible to hold a fair NLRB election, the unions say, so they’re demanding recognition for GESO and the hospital workers when a majority of both bargaining units sign union cards.

The battle will come to a head in the next academic year, when contracts for locals 34 and 35 expire. The locals are pressuring Yale to recognize GESO and the hospital workers. If the university refuses, negotiations will be difficult.

It’s fitting that the sleepy gentility of the alumni reunion should be shaken by a ruckus in the streets of New Haven, for unionbusting is as much a Yale tradition as Lux et Veritas. Over the course of the past century, the university has bitterly fought the organization of every group of campus workers. Harvard made headlines recently by refusing to pay its employees a living wage, but when it comes to playing tough with unions, New Haven has Cambridge beat by a mile: Yale’s had seven nasty strikes in the past thirty-five years; Harvard’s last was in 1983.

Everyone knows why campus workers–including graduate students–are organizing: low wages, minimal benefits, outsourcing, the dismal academic job market. But at Yale there are deeper reasons for unionization. To many workers and students, the university seems like little more than a country club or an extended business school seminar. The word “education” has its roots in the Latin educare: to bring out of oneself, to develop the full range of human capacities and talents. For many, the university seems no longer to have this power–but the labor movement does. Yale, for its part, sees itself as defending the university, that fragile flagship of Western Civilization, against the gritty conflicts of the picket line. These competing visions of the university–and not just money and power–are at the heart of the battle over unions at Yale.

When graduate students began organizing in the early 1990s in response to a series of sharp budget cuts (targeted at, among other things, the library), their slogan was as loyal to the university as the most hidebound Old Blue could wish: “Save Yale.” GESO members saw themselves as champions of the true Yale against an administration, led by Benno Schmidt, that seemed willing to sacrifice the sociology department to preserve the endowment.

But over the past ten years of organizing, graduate students have come to understand themselves more as employees than as saviors of Yale. This change is partly a result of Yale’s response to GESO, which has fluctuated between arrogant disregard and vicious retaliation. In 1995 the grad union won a League of Women Voters-supervised election, 600 to 166. Levin responded by promising to shut down the university before negotiating with the union. When teaching assistants in turn went on a grade strike, they were told they would be fired from their spring semester teaching jobs. The administration even gave faculty a green light to mention union activism in recommendation letters–equivalent to blacklisting.

The strike, says Wendi Walsh, previously a psychology grad student and now lead organizer for GESO, “completely destroyed any hope that I had in this place.” Her best friend, a fellow union activist, was singled out for disciplinary charges, telephoned at her family’s home in India in the middle of the night by her department chair, and told she was the only one striking and could be expelled if she didn’t hand in her grades. Walsh’s adviser, a woman she respected, failed to speak out against the administration’s punitive acts. Today, Walsh describes the strike as “the most intense time of my life. People were so scared.”

Since the strike, Yale’s attitude toward graduate student unionization has not softened. In 1998, when 1,000 graduate students signed a petition asking Yale to negotiate a contract with graduate students, Levin mailed the signatures back with a breezy note: “The University will not recognize GESO or negotiate with it as a collective bargaining agent for graduate students.” This past fall, graduate students organizing in a campus coffee shop were kicked out repeatedly by an administrator. And Yale has employed Proskauer Rose LLP, a law firm whose website says its mission is to coach companies on “how to avoid, and, where appropriate, resist union organization of employees.”

At the same time that it has “resisted” GESO, Yale, like other universities, has relied increasingly on graduate student and adjunct teachers. About 40 percent of Yale’s teaching is now done by graduate students–paid $13,700 a year–and 30 percent by adjunct faculty. As graduate students’ prospects for tenure worsen, they are less willing to accept such conditions. “Universities across the country are hiring less and less faculty, so this job you spend ten years preparing for may just not be there,” says Rosa Anna DeFillipis, a student in molecular biology. Rhetoric about the high moral purpose of the university now seems precious and quaint, a way of denying who’s doing the work.

While the labor movement shatters the sentimental faiths of academe, it has provided graduate students with a new vision of the scholarly life, in which being an intellectual demands daily confrontations with institutional arrogance. Unionization, says Carlos Roy Aramayo, a history graduate student, “is about putting Enlightenment principles at the center of the academy.” Most GESO members stay in academia, but for some the labor movement ultimately comes to seem more compelling. Two years ago, Walsh turned down two prestigious postdoctoral posts to organize full time for the union. Her adviser was furious. “Before,” she says, “I always thought I was a strong person, but I always did what was expected of me in every way.” The lessons she learned in academia were about subordination to the job market and to her professors; organizing taught her what it meant to live a thinking life.

At Yale/New Haven Hospital, workers have followed a trajectory similar to that of the grad students. When they began organizing, they believed they were defending healthcare and their own jobs against an administration that endangered both. Now they see unionization as good in its own right.

The seeds of the campaign at the hospital were sown in locals 34 and 35’s last contract battle. In 1996 the university sought to expand its ability to use “casual” nonunion workers and to subcontract jobs. Locals 34 and 35 went on monthlong strikes to fight the proposed changes, and though they were largely successful, the unions concluded that Yale’s aggressiveness augured badly for the future. Organizing at the hospital–like organizing the TAs, which HERE has supported financially from the beginning–seemed like a good way to counter Yale’s plans and to build union power in New Haven. In an impressive example of cooperation between unions, HERE has been working with 1199 to organize the hospital for the past three years.

There are plenty of grievances at Yale/New Haven Hospital. Entry-level workers are paid $8.50 an hour, and many longtime employees make only $11 or $12 an hour. “A lot of people have two jobs,” says Monica Osborn, an operating-room technical associate who cuts hair nights and weekends to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the CEO is one of the highest-paid hospital executives in the country. But the campaign really got going after the hospital “wholeheartedly embraced the concept of change in healthcare,” a euphemism invoked by senior vice president Vincent Conti in 1994 to justify sharp staffing reductions.

The hospital has firmly opposed the organizing campaign. Last summer, armed security guards threatened workers with arrest for handing out leaflets in front of the hospital. Days after settling an unfair-labor-practice suit the union filed to protest the incident, the administration sent a memo to top management saying that the settlement “in no way changes the Hospital’s position regarding the current unionization effort. We oppose it and will continue to do so.”

Peggy Tamulevich, who’s worked at the hospital for twenty-three years since graduating high school, says that if Yale doesn’t recognize the union, she’ll have to leave. “I used to be proud to work at Yale, but I don’t feel that way anymore.” Tamulevich and others now see the labor movement not only as a way to improve their personal conditions but as a source of collective power and idealism. As her co-worker Kent Hilton puts it, “If we can actually organize, and then hook up with the union workers at the university, we will have a stronger voice in New Haven.” He goes on, “I’m not talking about riots in the streets, but wouldn’t it be nice to have one big mass walkout? They can’t just fire everyone. I mean, who would clean up if they did? Are they going to do it?”

Joseph Conrad once wrote that had Europeans looked directly at imperialism, they could not have dominated half the globe. But they did, because of their firm faith in the rightness–the obligation–of European rule. “What redeems” the “conquest of the earth,” he wrote, “is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea–something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” One might say the same of antiunion feeling at Yale. The university justifies its fierce opposition to unions through its exalted sense of purpose.

President Levin–under whose eight-year tenure Yale’s endowment has increased 41 percent annually, now topping $10 billion–sees “the education of leaders” as Yale’s mission in the new millennium. Yale, he boasts, trains “more leaders of US corporations than any other university.” He has sought to place Yale at the pinnacle of the global economy, creating a World Fellows program and founding the Center for the Study of Globalization, to be led by Strobe Talbot, Deputy Secretary of State under President Clinton.

Yet the education of rulers of the globe takes place in the smallest of worlds. Nestled in quadrangles carpeted with magnolia blossoms, the university is a haven of intellectual discovery, which must be vigilantly protected from the fray. Within Yale’s stone buildings, with their spiky iron gates and intricate Gothic carvings, meant to evoke the twelfth century rather than the twenty-first (although many were built in the 1930s), brilliant professors teach the bright-eyed leaders of tomorrow. Devotion to the promise of this intimate space is what brings the administration–and the faculty–to the barricades.

Historian Paul Kennedy, bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, is one of the most fiercely anti-GESO professors on campus. Harking back to the days of yellow-dog contracts, he’s gone so far as to threaten not to teach his lecture course if any of the teaching assistants are GESO members.

A soft-spoken Briton, Kennedy loves old things. He collects books about old churches. He misses the sense of “history and ancientness” that he finds in European university towns. He fondly remembers receiving an honorary degree from a Belgian university celebrating its 575th anniversary, how he walked through the medieval village early in the morning while a light snow was falling. A high mass was said before the ceremony. He even compares Yale to the Holy Roman Empire. (There are limits to his gentility: When I call for an appointment, his receptionist informs me that he charges more than a thousand dollars for an interview. When we meet–sans fee–he explains that’s for Japanese and Korean publications looking for “foreign gurus.”)

Kennedy tries, as best he can, to replicate medieval tradition in New Haven. His grad students live clustered around him. In the summer he takes them to his cottage on Long Island Sound to swim. He likes to take students to the theater, sometimes in groups of just a few undergrads. “Half the time you’re watching the play, and the other half you’re looking at this 19-year-old from Kansas who has never seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream before and can’t control his emotions,” he says. One PhD Kennedy taught–who never supported GESO–now runs his institute, and as we chat, waiting for Kennedy, he busies himself in the kitchen, preparing coffee for the esteemed professor and his guest.

Kennedy’s evocation of a premodern world is consonant with Yale’s overall strategy regarding GESO. The administration insists graduate students are “apprentices,” not employees. Back in the boom years of the post-World War II era, when there was a tenure-track job waiting for almost every PhD, that may have made more sense. But today, the university’s gauzy idealism seems misplaced. Indeed, in a landmark decision last October, the NLRB, rejecting an appeal by New York University, affirmed that teaching assistants at private institutions are employees with the right to form unions under the Wagner Act. After a bitter fight, negotiations between NYU and the Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW began this spring. There are now union drives at public and private universities around the country, including Columbia and Brown.

Yet the Yale administration wants to turn back the clock. After last fall’s NLRB ruling, Levin encouraged NYU president Jay Oliva to challenge the decision in federal court, saying that unionization was not “in the best interest of graduate students themselves.” Administrators insist they don’t understand, despite ten years of struggle, why graduate students would want a union. Perhaps, provost Alison Richard suggests, they don’t feel part of the Yale family. They have no residential colleges or social outlets. Alienated and lonely, graduate students turn to GESO. But Richard admits that she’s had little contact with pro-union students and has had to “infer” most of her ideas about graduate student unionization. “It is perplexing to me,” Richard says, a little wistfully. “I don’t get it entirely.”

In 1978, writer Vivian Gornick spent a few months on a College Fellowship at Yale. Writing for The Nation, she described the boorish inanities of the Yale professoriat. Instead of intellectual conversation, she found brandy-swilling poker games and senior faculty more interested in her kneecaps than her mind. Expecting bookish companionship, she encountered sherry-hour condescension, magnified by an immense, unshakable self-regard. The wife of one senior professor described her husband’s morning ritual to Gornick: While shaving, he would stand in front of the mirror, thinking, “Jesus Christ. I’m at Yale.”

Yale may have traded its clubby atmosphere for a more liberal multiculti image. But even among the progressive faculty who protested the honorary degree President Bush received recently, there are many–like comp lit professor Peter Brooks, who defended Yale’s anti-GESO stance, describing Yale students as “the blessed of the earth”–who have staunchly opposed GESO. And that’s because, like Gornick’s faculty, they remain in thrall to the mystique of the Ivy League. As the school anthem goes, Yale should evoke the same fealty as country, even as God. For them, the university embodies the celestial realm of the mind, far removed from the grubby materiality of the workaday world. Administrators like Richard and professors like Kennedy fear the loss of a beautiful ideal that represents the only way to pursue truth and knowledge. But can an institution devoted to seeing the world as it is rest upon a romance?

The campus labor movement–from the living-wage sit-in at Harvard to grad student organizing to the daily struggles of locals 34 and 35–insists that the university be seen for what it is: a workplace like any other, resting upon the labor of people who grade blue books for low pay, cook and file, lead sections and scrub toilets. Far from denying the university’s purpose, the labor movement on campus fulfills its deepest promise: to tell the truth about the world. Perhaps its greatest triumph will be to strip Yale of its idyllic myths and feudal convictions, making it impossible to take either seriously any longer.