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Yale grad students one step closer to unionization

By Andrew Heller

After a year of intense legal wrangling and protests against the Administration, graduate students at Yale won a major battle on Wed., Nov. 1, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) upheld the right of graduate student teachers at New York University (NYU) to unionize.

The decision has important implications for the Yale community and private universities across the country, as teaching assistants (TAs) and certain research assistants will now be able to use collective bargaining to push the University into granting certain rights, including teacher training, health care benefits, and increased diversity.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, told The New York Times on Thurs., Nov. 2 that the NLRB decision "underscores what...graduate workers have known all along: their long hours spent grading papers, teaching classes and holding office hours is real work, done by real employees of the university.'"

The Wednesday ruling upholds an April NLRB decision in favor of hundreds of NYU graduate students who voted earlier this year to seek full union rights. Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that this latest resolution cannot be appealed. In response, Yale President Richard Levin, GRD '74, who has stated his opposition to GESO multple times over the past few years, urged NYU officials to "carry the case to the federal courts."

Whatever the case, the NLRB's decision creates a great opportunity for Yale's graduate students, who have been trying to unionize for years. "The ruling itself acknowledges that we do work that's essential to the University," Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) spokesperson and history graduate student Carlos Aramayo said. "It reaffirms everything we've been working for."

GESO member Rachel Sulkes, a graduate student in the German department, added that since higher education is continuously changing, "grad students are doing more teaching than they've ever done in the past. Administrators need to recognize that." University officials, though, have been adamant in their refusal to support graduate students, even in the wake of Wednesday's decision.

Yesterday, University Provost Alison Richard, GRD '86, sent a letter to all Yale students, affirming her belief that "graduate student unionization is not in the best interests of the graduate students themselves, undergraduates, faculty, or higher education as a whole." Richard wrote a similar letter in November 1999, expressing her "deep reservations [over the] potential danger...unionization poses to central elements of what Yale is and does for its students."

For GESO members, though, the Administration is just making things harder for itself. "The University has reached a critical juncture," Aramayo said. "[Administrators] could go down a path of least resistance and take a position of neutrality, or they could take the other road, which would likely lead to more wrangling."

Right now, it looks like the latter might be the case. Just hours after the NLRB handed down its most recent decision, Levin released a statement asserting that "the decision reverses a longstanding precedent that has served this country well and helped ensure that our system of higher education remains the world's very best." Like Richard, Levin added that "the unionization of graduate student teaching and research assistants is not in the best interest of [the Yale community]."

But many graduate students would call Yale's current system of education anything but the world's best, maintaining that poor working conditions and benefits actually hurt undergraduates.

"Graduate students know that the University could be doing a better job with regard to academics," Sulkes said. "Right now, sections are too big and TA training is inconsistent. In the German department, we used to have a two-week paid teacher training period in the summertime, and just this year, it was done away with. So, there's minimal training for us—it varies from department to department—and this might hurt undergraduates."

According to Aramayo, 70 percent of contact hours between students and teachers at Yale occur between students and TAs, and "given that, those are a lot of folks who don't have a lot of say over their pay or how the University works," he said. "If [grad students] did have a voice, it would be a good push for Yale to hire more full-time professors."

In addition, GESO is seeking better health and dental benefits, more diversity among grad students, and smaller section sizes. For now, though, Aramayo said he's unsure exactly how GESO will go about getting the reforms it's been working for. "Right now, we're in a phase of figuring out what our next step should be," he said, adding that what happens next is largely contingent on the Administration's next move. "The ball's in their court now."

Carl Bialik contributed to this article.

Graphic courtesy geso.org.

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