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Why Yale Grad Students Didn't Unionize

By Rachel M.S. Anderson

Many at Yale were surprised by the results of an April 30 election where graduate students voted down a proposal to adopt the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) as their collective bargaining unit. Certainly GESO’s leadership had every reason to be surprised. They’ve spent over a million dollars and have been working for more than 11 years to unionize graduate students at Yale.

And they set up this election to lean in their favor. The election was announced to the public just days before it was to be held. It was poorly advertised, especially in areas of the campus where GESO does not enjoy great support. And when deciding who would be eligible to vote, GESO conveniently “forgot” many graduate students who are outspoken critics of their approach and agenda. They continually visit us in our offices and in our homes—but when it comes time to let us vote, they forget we exist.

As GESO chair Anita Seth put it, “I never believed that it would be possible for us to lose.” But it was possible. In fact, it was inevitable. GESO lost the election because its belligerent behavior angered and disgusted many of the students they sought to convert. Further, GESO lost because their platform of graduate student unionization makes no sense for the academy.

The organizers for the union employ coercive and aggressive tactics, visiting students multiple times at their homes, in their offices, and in their labs—even after students have expressly stated that they do not want to be visited or called. If an ex-boyfriend behaved this badly he would be called a stalker, and a restraining order would be granted. When several students in a social science department complained about frequent unwanted home visits, a GESO organizer responded by saying that he could not respect their requests—because he felt his message was too important not to continue visiting those students. Organizers have barged into psychology labs where subjects were being tested, and the results from those subjects had to be discarded because they were invalidated by the uninvited interruption. Organizers have walked into closed biological laboratories while radioactive experiments were being run, jeopardizing the safety of the students performing the experiments as well as their own. When faculty members have asked the organizers to leave in such instances, GESO has initiated litigation against the professors with the National Labor Relations Board for hindering unionizing efforts.

Non-members aren’t the only ones fed up with GESO’s tactics. Many of its own members removed themselves from the membership list, stating that the GESO leadership is deaf to feedback from the general membership. Is this the group Yale graduate students want to represent them? Clearly not.

GESO also lost because unionization is not the answer for graduate students at Yale. Yale students receive a very competitive stipend and benefits package. Graduate stipends are market-driven, and locking them in at a certain level with a collectively bargained contract would prevent the university from being able to compete with other top-tier schools in attracting the best graduate students. Yale has a functioning, effective Graduate Student Assembly composed of representatives from every graduate department. These students have the ear of the dean, sit on dozens of university committees, and meet annually with the Board of Trustees. The Assembly is legitimate, democratic, and able to respond promptly to needs and concerns as they arise eliminating the need for a union.

In addition, unionization of graduate students would hurt the most important relationship in graduate student education—that of student and advisor. It would place a gag order on professors—labeled as managers by the union— preventing them from speaking freely or interacting directly with their students on any issues relating to student contracts or “conditions of employment” such as work hours, maternity leave, or teaching requirements. Professors and administrators would not be able to nimbly respond to needs and questions—they would have to be routed through labor attorneys and negotiation panels. Ultimately graduate students are students, not employees. The work we do is for our education, our degrees. We don’t want a union telling us how or when we are going to work or not work.

I was surprised by the results of April’s election. But I really have GESO to thank. Through their actions they have effectively proven to the Yale community that their unionization campaign would lead to a disaster for graduate students at Yale.

Rachel M.S. Anderson is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University.

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