(Opinion) Before coming to Yale in 2014, I hadn’t interacted with a union. Alabama is a right-to-work state, and graduates from my public high school who work at the Mercedes plant didn’t have a union until well after I moved north. So when an organizer with Local 33 — then GESO — came talking graduate student union, I was skeptical. In the three years since, including two years spent organizing friends and colleagues in the History Department, I’ve come to see the promise of forming a union to make Yale a better place for graduate teachers and workers across New Haven.
It’s impossible to separate my desire for a union from my own trajectory to Yale. I grew up in the rural South, was the first generation of my family to attend college, and only the second generation to graduate high school. I started at a community college, received my associate’s degree, and transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — not because I fully understood the advantages I would enjoy there, but because UNC promised me two years of debt-free attendance. There I relished an opportunity long denied my family: I read southern history. I found promise in the postwar black freedom struggle and began to appreciate the challenges of grassroots politics in the rural South.
I first believed I could pursue graduate study in history because of graduate teachers who were brilliant scholars as well as academic and life advisers. I too came to believe in the promise of higher education for students like me. I wanted to bring my experiences home, to share the same freedom from hate and exclusion that came with living alongside diverse thinking and experience.
In my own teaching at Yale, I’ve found students far removed from the legacy stereotype. Many of my undergraduate students also come to Yale as outsiders, whether they’re first-gen, underrepresented minorities, or immigrants. My students deserve graduate teachers who don’t fill their free time wrestling for adequate healthcare, figuring out quarterly estimated taxes, or arranging emergency childcare.
After all, when we’re not teaching, prepping, or grading, we’re also working towards major scholarly contributions in our respective fields. I focus on the marginalization of rural narratives in national histories of civil rights, white supremacy, and policing. My research utilizes oral history as a way to include the memories of communities that experienced the past that I study and live with its legacies. I also work towards the opening of classified state archives, such as the records of the Mississippi highway patrol through freedom of information requests. Historians who prioritize this research alongside community-based and non-institutional archives frequently take longer to finish their dissertations. They might even take the current average time-to-dissertation at Yale, 7.2 years. Thus, I’m thinking ahead—as I’ve always had to do—as the Yale administration continues to restrict access to teaching work for seventh and eighth-year graduate teachers.
I’m frequently reminded that most in Yale’s History PhD program don’t share my story. But I’m as frequently reminded that most graduate teachers share the root of my greatest challenges, whether they struggle with inadequate healthcare, gender discrimination, or lack of a grievance procedure: we have no voice in the terms of our employment.
Our working lives are shaped by decisions in which we have little say and no recourse when problems arise. When we seek improvements we’re told that we have it good, and that we should be thankful.
I’m certainly not the only first-gen, low-income, or non-traditional graduate teacher in Yale’s classrooms. We’re here, whether we take as public a stand as this or not. The tension between who we are and who we show is constant.
This Thursday I’m going to take the next step toward making Yale a more accessible place for people who aren’t independently wealthy, and for historians like me who hope to engage with wider publics and take our work back to the communities that fostered it. I’m going to vote yes to form a union for graduate teachers at Yalen and then I’m going to take my seat at the negotiating table.
Justin Randolph is a graduate teacher in the History Department at Yale University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.