New Haven, Conn.
The one-sided nature of Kim Phillips-Fein's "Yale Bites Unions" [July 2] may be explained by the fact that she is a union organizer of graduate students at Columbia University, but that does not excuse her errors and misrepresentations. A few facts are in order: At Yale, those select few who enter the graduate school (10 percent of all who apply) are provided a minimum annual stipend of $13,700 for five years. Every PhD student also receives additional support that covers tuition for four years ($23,650 per year) and a comprehensive healthcare plan. Over five or six years of study, Yale invests more than $160,000 in each of these students.
During their years in the graduate program, students are expected to master the skills required to become leaders in an academic field, including subject expertise, research methods, writing and, yes, teaching. Future academic leaders must indeed spend a small part of their studies gaining classroom experience. At Yale, graduate students are typically expected to assist professors by teaching part time during two of their graduate student years. Two-thirds of graduate students at Yale are not doing any teaching at all in a typical semester.
As for Phillips-Fein's claim that the vast majority of students have a strong desire to unionize, that has not been demonstrated. The union that seeks to represent the students, an affiliate of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, has not gone to the National Labor Relations Board to seek an election. There are vocal students on both sides of the issue, and it remains to be seen which point of view has more support. The union has pressed the university to recognize it as a bargaining agent for graduate students without an election. Without protections provided by a federally supervised election, students may be subject to intense pressure to sign authorization cards in on-the-spot, face-to-face encounters with organizers. Yale opposes recognition on the basis of a "card count," because it fails to protect the right of students to a secret ballot, and it fails to promote an open, honest discussion of the issues.
HELAINE S. KLASKY
Director, public affairs, Yale University
New Haven, Conn.
As a member of the Yale faculty, I consider Yale's treatment of unions beneath contempt. Over the past few years I have witnessed trash pile up in the streets while the administration wore the unions down. They were able to wear them down because there is only so long that janitorial and maintenance workers can remain out of work with families to feed. Do the members of Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) really think that the issues they face are in any way similar to those faced by the members of unions 34, 35 and 1199?
As a former graduate student and postdoctoral associate I understand how hard and seemingly unfair it is to be a graduate student. However, my opposition to GESO is the only time in my life I have ever opposed the formation of a union. Graduate students are transient. Further, as college graduates they have many opportunities open to them. They are not faced with working long hours at low wages for the rest of their lives to support a family. The young man described as busying himself in the kitchen of a Yale professor is there by choice, and that description is a misrepresentation and an exaggeration of what goes on at Yale.
Grading papers is no fun, but it is not exploitation by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that this group of graduate students believes it is exploitation because the number of tenure track positions has fallen over the last ten to fifteen years is ridiculous. How many jobs let individuals reach a point in their career where they cannot be fired, regardless of performance? Isn't it tenure that permits the level of academic arrogance described at Yale by the author? No, even faculty such as myself who are strongly pro-union, have union members in our households and can readily see how members of locals 34 and 35 are treated miserably by Yale find little reason to support GESO. In fact, it seems to me that GESO is exploiting the energy of the leaders and members of 34 and 35, who have enough to do fighting Yale on their own.
The old rivalry between Yale and Harvard still exists and extends far beyond the Yale-Harvard football games. The stark contrast between these schools was evident, with Harvard students staging the longest sit-in in that school's history to demand living wages for its workers. Meanwhile Yale students work to protect themselves while claiming that their work will benefit all the unions at Yale.
New York City
I write to protest Kim Phillips-Fein's egregious misportrayal of my old friend and professor, Paul Kennedy. It is just plain bizarre to see a scholar's unusual devotion to teaching, to history and to his students held up as part of an indictment of his views. And although the author was granted an interview with Kennedy, she made no attempt to allow him to express the rationale for the positions she treated so contemptuously.
It is my understanding that because of his commitment to his undergraduate students, Kennedy asked his TAs to sign a pledge that they would not, as part of a union protest, withhold undergraduates' grades. Why should undergrads, he asked, suffer for graduate student grievances? This position, while certainly arguable, is defensible and honorable, even to a former Yale grad student like myself who supports the cause of their unionization, as I do. To compare the pledge to "yellow dog" contracts of the past is ignorant and ahistorical–revealing much more about the author than the subject.
In addition to his unmatched reputation as a scholar and a mentor, Kennedy is well-known throughout the community for his commitment to serving the needy in New Haven soup kitchens, as well as his public and spirited opposition to the most egregious aspects of conservative rule during the past two decades. It was the publication of his masterwork, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (not "of Great Powers," as it was mistitled in the article), that marked the beginning of the end of the reign of Reaganism in public discourse. He deserves far better from The Nation.
Molivos, Lesbos, Greece
As a former Yale graduate (PhD, 1974), I am sickened reading your article about Yale's attempts to maintain its elite status at the expense of underpaid workers. In the early 1970s I worked with the Yale Women's Faculty, Graduate Student and Staff organization to bring HEW to Yale to investigate sex discrimination among faculty, staff and students. I also supported the effort to unionize Yale's vast secretarial staff. At that time the university president sent a letter to department chairs urging them to tell their secretaries that a vote for the union was unbecoming to their position. One would have hoped that times had changed at Yale.
CAROL P. CHRIST
New York City
Next time Helaine Klasky writes a letter, she might want to talk first to Yale Law School dean Anthony Kronman. Even this antiunion Yale administrator has admitted in the New York Times that grad students have "serious concerns": They "teach undergrads whom the faculty have neither the time nor inclination to teach, and then, after receiving their degrees, are cast off into an inhospitable job market."
Beyond that, Yale pays its "select few" salaries that are lower than Yale's own estimate of what it costs to live for twelve months in New Haven. Graduate students don't take classes in the third and fourth years of study, so it's not so generous for Yale to grant them free "tuition" for four years. Klasky is invoking an accounting fiction, not an argument. At the same time, as Yale administrators know, GESO fought for and won all the benefits that Klasky mentions. Yale would never have raised stipends and improved benefits without graduate students demanding change. When I was doing interviews for my article, administrator Thomas Appelquist–former dean of the graduate school–told me there was "no question" that pressure from GESO was responsible for improving the graduate school.
Klasky might also want to check with Yale's lawyers on the university's position on union elections, for what she says directly contradicts what it has been saying and doing for the past ten years. For years GESO asked Yale to hold an election. The university always refused. The League of Women Voters sponsored a union election in 1995. Yale paid no attention to the results. Richard Levin's administration has fought to reverse the NYU decision granting grad students rights under the Wagner Act, which would make it impossible for grad students anywhere to hold union elections. It's not surprising that these students are skeptical of Yale's newfound democratic sympathies.
In response to Nina Stachenfeld: This past spring, more than 1,100 members of locals 34 and 35 voted to support GESO in the upcoming round of contract negotiations. Given her professed respect for janitorial and maintenance workers "with families to feed," it's odd that she presumes to know better than they what's in their best interests. That kind of condescension is what all Yale's unions are fighting. On a deeper level, as Stachenfeld notes, we live in a society divided by class and privilege. It's sad that a faculty member at Yale should have nothing but criticism for people who are joining together across such boundaries. Her remarks, despite their patina of sympathy for the downtrodden, only reinforce these divisions.
In response to Eric Alterman: It's a curious union supporter who thinks it's "honorable" to deny union members employment unless they sign a pledge not to engage in union activity. Would Alterman support such a pledge for high school teachers? For Yale's janitors and clerical workers? Before whipping himself into a moral lather, Alterman should also check his facts. Kennedy's original e-mail said that he would refuse to teach his undergraduate lecture course if "any of the TAs were GESO members who might take industrial action" in a future dispute with Yale. Making nonunion status a condition of employment is the definition of a yellow-dog contract. When pressed by a student, he explained that what he meant was that while he did not mind having people from GESO as TAs, he sought "reassurance that my undergrads will never be disrupted by industrial action of the sort that so often accompanies wage/benefit negotiations." Until he received it, he would not offer the lecture course. Exactly how grad students could give Kennedy this open-ended reassurance, he did not specify.
Kennedy does care a lot about his students. At Yale, though, this particular ideal of the student-mentor relationship–where a professor is supportive, provided that the student knows his or her place–is precisely what has fueled the viciousness of the school's antiunion reaction.