For the past four years, Yale University has been continually struggling with a group of graduate teaching assistants who wish to unionize. The group, which calls itself the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), can't seem to decide whether it's composed of students or employees. We think it's clear that graduate students are students, and GESO has no right to unionize. Furthermore, the group's threat to withhold final grades for thousands of undergraduates strikes us as self-defeating.
GESO is made up of approximately 700 teaching assistants (TAs), a minority of the graduate students at the university. These TAs, most of whom study the non-government-funded humanities, see their teaching positions as jobs. They would like to unionize and even take part in the contract negotiations of Yale's existing unions.
We're all in favor of big labor, but we find GESO's position untenable. Being a TA is not the same as having a job; the teaching post is one part of a larger financial aid package offered by the university to its students. GESO's members find their "salaries" insufficient for subsistence in New Haven. But these are not salaried jobs at all--they are fellowships granted to assist graduate study financially and to train future academicians as teachers.
Yale estimates the cost of being a graduate student on its campus at $30,700; it says so in its graduate school application. When students are accepted, and at the beginning of each subsequent year of study, the university outlines what aid will be available based on existing funds and financial information submitted by the students. This situation is not meant for bargaining--students can accept what aid is offered or go elsewhere. Furthermore, Yale is not under obligation to guarantee subsistence to every student. The university offers a package, and the student's choice is yes or no.
Yale University is not a profit-making institution. It can't boast of vast stock gains that it should be sharing with its students and employees. Its endowment is roughly one-third the size of Harvard's. To attract bright graduate students (especially when competing with Harvard), it must already offer financial aid at the bounds of its capabilities. Not only does GESO not have a case for unionization, but it wouldn't stand to gain much even if it succeeded.
GESO's most recent ploy--the withholding of their undergraduate students' grades--is a destructive move that can't possibly help their cause. We are sure that Yale will not give in to this pressure, since its officials need only to mark down incompletes for this semester. Underclass students can wait to complete their transcripts, and even seniors applying to graduate schools don't need their fall semester grades until February.
The TAs will also lose one of their potential allies in their fight for unionization--the undergraduates themselves. It's all very well to sympathize with your TA about making ends meet in New Haven, but when you can't find out how you did on the final exam, well, sympathies may tend to fade away.
GESO's members will also hurt themselves by withholding grades. What professor will or should ever recommend them for teaching positions in the future? The TAs' behavior will undoubtedly strike experienced academics as irresponsible and harmful to the educational process; several professors have recently commented to this effect.
We hope that GESO's members will give up their delusions of unionization and go back to being students. While many students would give anything just to be at Yale's graduate school, it doesn't seem to be enough for this relatively small group of TAs. We hope they'll realize just how lucky they already are