GESO Delivers Grievances To Yale Provost

Aliyya Swaby PhotoHundreds of Yale grad students and union members marched to the university provost’s office to deliver a 200-foot-long petition demanding the right to negotiate on mental health benefits, racial and gender equity and funding security.

The Graduate Employees & Students Organization (GESO-UNITE HERE) organized the rally Tuesday afternoon to continue to press university administration to recognize them as a union on campus, just after graduate employees at nearby universities New York University and University of Connecticut settled contracts for unions this spring.

“We want to act like a union ... We want what NYU got: a process for a free, neutral and fair election,” said GESO chair Aaron Greenberg, also the alder of Wooster Square.

Yale graduate employees turned out in orange and white to march a few blocks down Hillhouse Avenue from President Peter Salovey’s home toward Provost Ben Polak’s office. They cradled a long banner of more than 1,100 petition signatures in the middle of their ranks.

“We deserve a contract,” they chanted as they headed down the middle of the avenue.

Yale spokesman Thomas Conroy said in a statement: “Yale believes that its graduate students are students, not employees, and it would not be in the best interest of the students, the faculty, or higher education to change the teacher-student relationship to a manager-employee relationship.

“Yale provides its graduate students with levels of support — full tuition fellowships, stipends, and free health care and other benefits — that are among the most generous in the country, and graduate students have a respected voice in University affairs that affect them through the excellent advocacy of the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.”

Members of New Haven unions showed up to show their support. Karen Young, recording secretary of Yale’s UNITE HERE Local 35, said she joined the rally because GESO “deserves the contract.” She works in Yale’s mail service on Winchester Avenue. “They do the majority of the work anyway,” she said. “I’m coming out to support them.”

New Haven Rising organizers Reverend Scott Marks and Kenneth Reveiz also marched in solidarity with the Yale graduate employees.

Just as it’s outrageous that few New Haven residents are considered for jobs in their city, “it’s outrageous that GESO has to file these grievances or has to fight to be considered as a union,” Reveiz said.

Graduate employees shared with the crowd the ways they had been personally affected by the lack of a union and by the concerns in the petition.

Third-year math graduate student Tif Shen said he waited one and half months to hear back from Yale Health’s mental health providers after reaching out for help dealing with depression last fall. “I was feeling very lonely and abandoned back then,” he said.

When he finally was connected with a therapist, he had trouble making regular appointments, because his therapist was “overbooked and over-committed,” he said. Though Shen said he is “feeling much better now,” he called on the university to eliminate the cap on the number of sessions graduate students have with mental health professionals.

The presence of a union on campus would allow graduate students to “have a say over how mental health services will be provided to graduate students,” Shen said.

Claire Dickey and Adom Getachew (pictured) called on Yale to honor its past promise to diversify its teaching staff, in terms of race and gender. Getachew, a sixth-year political science graduate student, has seen many black female professors leave for other universities after not receiving tenure, leaving her with fewer options for career and project mentors.

Dickey, a first-year astronomy student, said she is surrounded by men and very few women in her field. “How can I believe I’m able to stay in a field I love if I don’t see examples of women doing just that here at Yale?” she said.

She said it is hard to talk with her male mentor about “microaggressions” she experiences from male peers for being a woman.

Getachew, Greenberg and GESO co-chair Robin Canavan delivered the rolled-up petition to someone in the provost’s office. “We want a union,” Greenberg said. “We will be back until that happens.”

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posted by: asdfghjkl; on May 5, 2015  5:29pm

I get that unions can be very helpful and important for protecting the interests and material wellbeing of the poor and vulnerable. Yale graduate students, however, are neither of those things. They’re extremely privileged individuals who can pretty much go anywhere and do anything they’d like.

posted by: grd on May 5, 2015  8:06pm

Sure, “EXTREMELY privileged.” Every last one. From the first generation college student to the students of vastly underrepresented racial and gender identities. If we’re going to engage with this issue seriously, we may have to actually read some students’ grievances. They’re trying to get their rightful share from an extremely privileged employer that provides no sufficient avenue for redress—because it don’t have to.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 5, 2015  9:08pm

Unions are not just for poor people. Also while they quite well could be living the high life in the future, Yale GESO students are exactly loaded. The stipend is $33k a year I believe, which while a decent payment, isn’t exactly mad money.

posted by: robn on May 5, 2015  9:48pm

I guess this week it’s going to be impossible to find news other than Union affiliated aldermen enriching themselves at the cost if others. Thanks again UNITE, Local 34, and AFSCME. You guys have done a bang up job subverting democracy.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 5, 2015  11:37pm

If the unions are so bad.How come you union haters are free loading off of the benfits that the unions have won?

posted by: elmcityresident on May 6, 2015  10:05am

wish us hospital employees could have a union

posted by: asdfghjkl; on May 6, 2015  10:21am

They are extremely privileged, and this is coming from a first generation student who went to Yale. I was less privileged than my peers at Yale, but it would be disingenuous to for me to claim that compared to average Americans I was not extremely privileged. These are people who are very academically accomplished from the best schools in the country. They’re intentionally choosing a relatively low paying job for the near future. They could be making a whole lot more, but they made the conscious decision to pursue something of particular interest to them. If they find themselves in the position of not having a ton of bargaining power because they are easily replaced by other students, I’m not too worried about that. They have a million other wonderful options, and there are plenty of students who would love the opportunity to be in here if these students or prospective students decided one of those options was better than Yale.

posted by: poetbum on May 6, 2015  10:27am

Unions come in many different forms, but the ultimate aim is to build solidarity; people should support GESO because a win for any single union is a win for all unions.

posted by: asdfghjkl; on May 6, 2015  10:34am

I guess my point is that if they are a vulnerable population or being taken advantage of in some way, then I can definitely see the need for a union. That’s simply not the case here, though, unless Yale has lied or manipulated them in some way that I don’t know about.

The reason Yale would oppose any particular demands they have is because they would come at a cost to the university, where the university thinks those resources are best spent elsewhere. The university does a lot of important things than affect many many people, and I don’t particularly want to see them being pressured or forced to pull resources from one of those other areas to give them to grad students.

posted by: highered on May 6, 2015  12:48pm

Without fail, every single time the NHI writes about GESO, the comments section blows up with self-righteous and unthoughtful comments about how graduate students don’t deserve a union because they’re “privileged.” What GESO is doing goes FAR beyond advocating for the interests of graduate students. It goes far beyond just asking for more. The unionization of graduate students has important consequences that could meaningfully resist and god forbid undo the damage that has come with the corporatization of the modern university, including the gutting of tenure track jobs across the country, the growing itinerant adjunct labor force (adjuncts often make less in a year than a graduate student, while being asked to do the work of a junior faculty member only without benefits), the lack of diversity in the academy, the gutting of the humanities, etc. If graduate school is preparing the gross majority of students for lives of precarity as adjuncts, who will probably never go on to hold tenure track jobs in their respective fields, what exactly about that stinks of privilege? If a female scientist has no faculty role models on whose success she can chart her own, how is that privileged? Do you really want to dismiss the very people calling for racial diversity in the academy just by nature of the fact that they are IN the academy?

No one is denying that to get to graduate school at Yale you have to be privileged (indeed, that is PRECISELY the problem!), but to dismiss a graduate union out of hand because you think grad students were born with silver spoons in their mouths is just missing the point. Yes, the pipeline of inequality in this country starts much earlier than the academy, but if the university is perpetuating trends that disproportionately affect women and people of color and that essentially keep them out of the academy, tell me why it doesn’t make sense to fight for a union that can demand diversity in faculty hiring?

posted by: asdfghjkl; on May 6, 2015  1:54pm

But fighting for more tenured jobs and more benefits for adjuncts is, simply, asking for more money from the university. They are entering a job market where there is fierce competition for positions because there are far, far more qualified applicants than there are positions. It’s a tough job market, but it’s because so many people want to do it. If they don’t want to put up with the competition for resources, they don’t have to. There are plenty of other careers out there.

My question is whether Yale or society would be better off if they won. I don’t see how shifting resources to give people more money (or benefits, etc) for jobs they would be doing anyway (and there is obviously still huge demand for jobs in academia despite the fierce competition). If they were poor people, I can see how we’d be better off allocating more resources to them, but they aren’t. They may not make a lot of money at this point in their careers, but that’s because of the career they’ve chosen, not a lack of opportunity.

Advocating for diversity is important. I would like to see it be easier for minorities, first generation students, and people from low income backgrounds succeed in this industry. I’m skeptical that a union is the best vehicle for that, though.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 6, 2015  2:01pm

“The reason Yale would oppose any particular demands they have is because they would come at a cost to the university, where the university thinks those resources are best spent elsewhere. The university does a lot of important things than affect many many people, and I don’t particularly want to see them being pressured or forced to pull resources from one of those other areas to give them to grad students.”

This is the argument owners and managers have made against every union ever.

posted by: wendy1 on May 6, 2015  3:01pm

I am pro union and pro GESO.  Yale doesn’t want to treat their employees like employees cause they’re overhead.  Yale clings to it’s money unless some fool billionaire or millionaire gives them extra to buy a couple of dorms or a palace for the prez.

Since they spent $17 mill on Salovey’s pad, I have one question; “where is the pool?”

posted by: robn on May 6, 2015  9:52pm

This is not about privilege or even fairness because, as has been noted in this forum before, GESO is focussed upon a bite out of Yales Apple for those activist grad students in the humanities with no sure prospect of a lucrative future (other than maybe tenure in the academy) while the majority of those in the hard sciences shun GESO and just look forward to paying their dues and finally getting out into the lucrative career that awaits them.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on May 6, 2015  10:37pm

Ever notice that the ones doing the class policing by shouting down cross-class alliances are those who do so from above? I’ve spoken with hundreds of people in New Haven, and the only ones I’ve heard decry grad-employee unionization efforts by claiming our privilege disqualifies us from unionizing are those who occupy positions of greater status & power. The message: stay in your place. Play by the rules set by management. Do not betray your privilege by allying with the “authentic” workers, for you are supposed to be on the fast-track to managerial status by virtue of your Yale degree. The hypocrisy of GESO critics is astounding, and incredibly insulting to ALL university workers, who can see right through it and have remained steadfast in their support for GESO.

I recommend you widen your selectively narrow lens on the issue, and consider how these issues resonate across academic institutions and “Meds & Eds” cities.

posted by: KatieP on May 7, 2015  8:29am

SteveOnAnderson, I am hardly “above” the grad students.  I do know that grad students have a pretty sweet deal at Yale, though.

I see (on this and the Register article) a few grad students being quoted who are in their sixth year of their studies.  If you’re a grad student longer than four or five years, you probably should find a new career.  Will a GESO union push out under-performing students, if they are really “workers”?  Will they be laid-off if the school finds itself with too many?  How will that look on a CV?

posted by: robn on May 7, 2015  8:56am

Ever notice that the biggest complainers are those that seek the comfortable high position of tenure in the academy?

If you don’t like the terms of your employment (ones you knew about when you signed up), seek another employer.

posted by: KatieP on May 7, 2015  10:42am

robn has a good point.  These students can always decide what is more important to them…being in a union, or having their diploma say “Yale” on it.  Maybe they can transfer to UConn or NYU, and be in those unions?

Grad student troubles are like “first world problems”; nothing compared to people in sweatshops, or making $10/hour here (or less).

What I wonder is why are Local 34/35 trying so hard to unionize the grad students at Yale and not all the jobs at Yale-New Haven hospital?

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on May 7, 2015  11:45am

robn & KatieP,

It is important to understand how and why Yale grad students got the conditions that we have now. It’s a historical question. These were not the conditions that grad students had in the 90s, and they were not handed down from on high by a benevolent administration. The stipend & health care provisions for grad students were extremely uneven and inconsistent until NYU’s graduate student union successfully reached a contract with the university back in 2000. As the article I linked to in my last comment mentions, the Bush administration’s NLRB struck down the right of graduate students at private universities to unionize and collectively bargain, but that decision is now being reversed. Unfortunately, most of us are extremely poorly educated in labor history—myself included—and are blind to the fact that we stand on the shoulders of those who struggled in the past, as institutions try to pass off improvements as managerial designs.

Even more unfortunately, you seem to believe that people not in managerial positions ought to be docile and obedient to their institutions, rather than attempt to organize and work collectively to make them better and more just. I can only speak as a member—not a representative—of GESO, but I believe that we all collectively understand that our recognition is important for the integrity of our academic work. There are many facets to this, from the governance of the university to accessibility to the graduate school for people from a diversity of backgrounds, and these struggles are taking place in a time where universities in this country are rapidly transforming.

I’m not sure what your familiarity with, and experience of, these issues is that would drive you to so confidently and dismissively express your disapproval. If you are interested in the issues, I encourage you to talk to more people, read more articles, and better understand what it is that motivates us to spend our time & energy advocating for our union.

posted by: robn on May 7, 2015  1:05pm


I’ve done my research. Compared to the Graduate Student Assembly, which represents a majority of graduates, GESO is a pipsqeak organization with a political inclination to raise a ruckus. Your comment about docility is an insult to the majority of grad students who are generally satisfied with their choice of attending Yale and the vast opportunities afforded to them.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on May 7, 2015  1:29pm


When (and why) did the GSA (which I agree serves an important function) come into existence?