Yale and Columbia Grad Teachers Strike for Union Rights

Over 1,500 graduate teachers and union workers from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey left their posts in labs and lecture halls and rallied in New York Wednesday as part of a week-long strike for union recognition at the two campuses.

The group marched down Broadway in Manhattan, in an attempt to pressure the administrations of Yale and Columbia to recognize graduate teacher unions at the two schools. The strike by graduate teachers, TAs and research assistants is the first such multi-campus labor action in the history of the Ivy League.

The two unions – Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale and Graduate Student Employees United (GSEU) at Columbia – are fighting for collective bargaining power as legitimate employees of the elite universities. For years, the schools have refused to recognize the unions, saying that graduate teachers are not employees.

The graduate students have received endorsements from 43 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, seven members of the U.S. Senate, the American Association of University Professors, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Cornel West, as well as labor leaders nationwide. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney spoke at Wednesday’s rally, expressing the support of the national labor movement for the graduate teachers’ fight for recognition.

“All of us will be standing with you until we bring these two institutions -- which have gone from elite to elitist -- to their senses,” Sweeney told the crowd.

On Thursday, a rally was also held at New York University in support of the graduate union there, which is set to lose its contract with the school when it expires in August of this year.

Among the strikers are also several undergraduate students who say their education has been adversely impacted by what is known as the “casualization” of higher education.

“More and more classes are being taught by adjunct and temporary faculty,” said 21-year-old Yale undergraduate Lauren Burke. “In my senior year, I had to fight to get an advisor because the professors I’d worked with in previous years had all left the university.”

For grad teachers, a union contract would guarantee a fair stipend, decent health insurance, child care, and clear avenues through which they can address any issues they may have with the institution. A study done at Yale in 2003 found that one third of all undergraduate classes are taught by graduate teachers, roughly the same number that are taught by regular tenure-track faculty. Jay Driskell, a 32-year-old teaching assistant at Yale, teaches modern African history and is on strike for a fair contract and a living wage. “It takes six years of postsecondary education to be a TA,” he says, “and Yale could not educate its undergraduates without TAs.” This year, Driskell says, he will be paid only $16,000 to live on.

Like much of the temporary work force, grad student teachers are rarely given decent wages or adequate healthcare coverage, because they are “learning on the job. ”The graduate teacher unions suffered a major setback in July 2004, when the Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate teachers are not official employees of the universities for this reason.

Kirsten Weld, a 23-year-old first-year graduate student at Yale, said the NLRB decision looks bad for all kinds of workers. “It sets a dangerous precedent,” she said. “There are so many other jobs where one could be said to be learning first and working second – apprenticeships, residences – basically any job that is also a learning experience could be affected down the road by this decision.”

Among the rallying graduate teachers were a number of international students, who are not permitted to work off-campus and are therefore fully dependent on their teaching stipends. Nadia, a 26-year-old Columbia research assistant from Pakistan, says she doesn’t qualify for most of the federal work-study jobs on campus. She says she is striking not only for a living wage, but also for decent health care. Describing her current coverage, she says, “Basically, if you have more than one prescription a year, your coverage runs out.”

The issue of health insurance is even more central for those graduate teachers supporting families. A strike organizer at Columbia said that in the past two years, Columbia has made it nearly twice as expensive for graduate teachers to insure dependents. And without a contract, nothing prevents the administration from cutting grad teachers’ benefits from year to year. “It affects a relatively small segment of the population, but for that population, the effect is calamitous,” said Dave Spiegal, a 27-year-old grad researcher in astronomy at Columbia. “People with families have a really hard time insuring them.”

Thomas Frampton, 21, is an undergraduate student in Jay Driskell’s Modern African History class at Yale. “This fight affects me and my learning environment,” he said. “I think it’s unconscionable that Yale has a $12.7 billion endowment and its TAs’ kids are going on state welfare.”

Graduate teachers have attempted to secure union contracts at Yale and Columbia before, with no success. The universities have maintained over the years that the work done by the graduate teachers is not the work of statutory employees, despite the fact that a majority of Columbia’s core curriculum is taught by graduate students and undergraduates at Yale have as much face time with graduate teachers as with tenure-track professors. While some strikers at the rally seemed hopeful that the universities would “do the right thing” and grant collective bargaining rights to the graduate unions, the majority seemed to feel that their only recourse was to attack the one thing Yale and Columbia hold dear: their public image.

"It's bad publicity, basically. The one thing we can do is leverage outside pressure, pressure from political allies and from Yale's investors," said Weld. "It makes President Levin's promise to keep labor peace on this campus seem pretty hollow when the members of the Yale Corporation have to walk through a crowd of hundreds of strikers just to get out of a meeting, as they did on Thursday. It doesn't look good for Yale when Jesse Jackson comes and publicly calls the university on abusing the rights of its employees. It all just makes Yale look bad, and eventually it will be too much trouble for them not to sit down and bargain with us.”

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