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Yale Bites Unions | The Nation

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Yale Bites Unions

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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.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Kim Phillips-Fein
Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She...

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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.

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