Give Yale Grad Students a Chance

Letters to the editor

To the editors:

With a title like “Grad Students Should Grow Up,” I very much doubt that the comment by Travis R. Kavulla ’06 against graduate student unionization is going to persuade many readers (Comment, March 12). Still, one would hope that the author of such an essay would at least be conversant with the basic issues at hand. This doesn’t seem to be the case.

Kavulla charges that, “Teaching Assistant (TA) unionization was an inane fantasy... until very recently.” In fact, graduate students have been bargaining successfully in higher education for over 30 years, and more than 20 percent of graduate employees across the country belong to a certified union.

Kavulla also trivializes graduate students’ concerns, without ever telling readers what those concerns are. Since he doesn’t mention them, I will. Across the nation, grad students complain of sparse and unequal wages, expensive and hard-to-find housing, nominal health-care, the absence of child-care, a lack of grievance procedures, no office space, fuzzy job descriptions, inadequate training, professorial power-tripping and crushing work loads.

Kavulla’s suggestion that grad students are not “real” workers is particularly humorous in this regard, since TAs and research assistants are currently recognized as employees under federal labor law, and Yale’s TAs have been warmly embraced by their co-strikers in Locals 34 and 35. Equally misleading is his claim that Yale’s grad students are all “well on their way to professorships.” As US News & World Report has pointed out, due to recent trends in the academic labor market, “fewer than half of new Ph.D.’s will find permanent employment in academic settings.”

Of course, if Yale’s grad students were truly apprentices, working in a guild system, then they’d all have some assurance of gainful employment upon finishing their degrees. At present, Yale University makes no such guarantee.

But probably the most revealing aspect of Kavulla’s article is the splenetic abuse he heaps on grad students. He calls the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) a “cartel,” implies they’re a Communist-era front group, and complains about their “guerilla tactics.”  Just what are these tactics? All Kavulla tells us is that GESO members have lobbied for their cause in dining halls, and attended Graduate Student Association (GSA) meetings, where they (gasp!) “control the discourse.”

There may well be some plausible arguments against graduate student unionization, but they’re not to be found in Kavulla’s petulant and uninformed essay.

John C. McMillian

March 12, 2003

The writer is a tutor for the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature.