Call It A “Moveable Fast”

Contributed PhotoRobin Canavan could smell dinner being prepared inside the Commons dining hall steps away. “Maybe,” she said with tinge of regret, “we should have had a cheeseburger right before.”

But cheeseburgers weren’t on the menu Wednesday afternoon for Canavan and seven other members of the newly formed union, Local 33–UNITE HERE, which represents graduate student-teachers at Yale.

No food is on the menu. Until, they said, Yale agrees to negotiate with them on a first contract. The eight teaching fellows have launched a protest fast.

It took some preparation.

Starting over the weekend, the eight fellows switched their diet to solely fruits and veggies to prepare their stomachs. The day before, they had only liquids. On Tuesday around 5 p.m., the group ceremonially downed final cups of “victory juice,” a tasty green blend, and swore off food indefinitely. Until Yale is willing to negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement, the student-teachers won’t ingest anything but water, they declared.

No solid food, no juice nor vitamin packets and “no coffee, disturbingly enough,” said another faster, Charles Decker, who’s in the political science department.

A few participants said they had fasted in the past for a 24-hour period for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. But otherwise, they didn’t have experience with hunger strikes. Wheelchairs are ready for when physical movement becomes difficult.

But none of the four student-teachers the Independent interviewed said they were willing to risk hospitalization. If not eating endangers a student’s health, that individual will sub out and another union member will assume their place in renouncing meals — a moveable fast, if you will.

Local 33’s organizers decided to escalate their protests this week after Yale twice ignored deadlines that the union had set to initiate contract negotiations following a unionizing election victory in some academic departments. Yale maintains that the union’s so-called “micro-unit” strategy of winning elections in six hand-picked academic departments prevented most doctoral students from expressing their opinion. The university is now pleading its case before the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., which has already ruled in favor of the union but could soon have a Trump-appointed union-buster in its two empty seats.

Until NLRB renders a decision, Yale said, any collective bargaining would be premature. In a written statement, the university called the fast “unwarranted by the circumstances.”

Hungry as they might have been, the fasting teaching fellows camped out on Beinecke Plaza Wednesday shot back at the university’s perceived foot-dragging

“Every time I speak out, Yale acts as if they can’t hear me or that they would prefer that I am invisible. So I am taking this action — this very physical action — to make sure my voice is heard,” Decker said. “If I have to wait a little while longer, I will, but I’m doing it without eating.”

Christopher Peak PhotoOn Wednesday afternoon, graduate students lounged about under a boat shed-like structure —  dubbed “33 Wall Street,” or “Little House on the Plaza” — that had been assembled from wood and plastic sheeting that morning, just as incoming high school students and their parents arrived for Yale’s admit week, Bulldog Days.

During daylight hours in the plaza, the fasters sipped water from Nalgene bottles, chatted with their friends (about anything but food), and with dissertations to be written, caught up on their reading.

Aaron Greenberg, the union chair and a Wooster Square alder, leafed through an anthology of texts by Reinhold Niebuhr, a leftist theologian widely known for authoring the Serenity Prayer.

Christopher Peak PhotoThe fasters cycled through a check-in with Aliza Kreisman, a School of Nursing student, who monitored their weight and blood pressure. One day in, the fasters said they felt tired — a sluggishness that reminded Canavan, a union co-chair who studies geology and geophysics, of the exhaustion from pulling an all-nighter. When they moved, they walked slowly, preserving their limited stores of energy. Conversations meandered, as hunger interfered with concentration.

Around 3 p.m., two Yale officials emerged from Woodbridge Hall, which houses President Peter Salovey’s offices, and politely asked the protesters to clear out. Pilar Montalvo, the director of administrative affairs, pointed out that nobody had submitted a formal application online to use the area, known formally as Hewitt Quadrangle. “So that technically means you don’t have permission to be on the space,” she informed the group. “You’re not supposed to be building structures on [Beinecke Plaza or] Cross Campus, of course,” she added. (In the 1980s, anti-apartheid protesters built and occupied a shanty on Beinecke Plaza to protest Yale’s investments in South Africa. Eventually a conservative alumnus torched it.)

Montalvo then asked if the union members fasting were present. “Yes? You guys? You? No?” The graduate students glared at her in silence. She introduced Dr. Andrew Gotlin, the chief of student health, to offer some unsolicited advice.

Gotlin warned, “If you’re experiencing any symptoms, really after a couple days, including feeling weak or not being able to think clearly or feeling apathetic or depressed, those could be signs of dehydration and malnutrition. We encourage you to seek help, and we’re here to help you as well.”

“Any questions?” Montalvo queried.

The union members continued to stare the officials down.

“All right, more blank faces,” Montalvo said and walked off.

Greenberg later told the Independent that the union plans to defy the university and leave their structure up overnight. “We’re staying here. We have no intention of leaving,” he said. “I have every expectation that the university will sit down and negotiate with us, just as in the past — whether it’s admitting women to Yale College, negotiating with Local 34, changing the name of Calhoun College — the university has a long history of saying no before they say yes. And I feel like it’s their time to say yes. It is our time to finally, after 25 years of struggle, get to the table and negotiate our contract.”

Thursday morning, the structure remained in place.

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posted by: wendy1 on April 27, 2017  7:37am

GO VISIT…...I did, to show my support.  This is a wonderful civil disobedience.  I hope they get global coverage.  Three is a lucky number.

posted by: robn on April 27, 2017  8:02am

UNITE has pulled off a marketing coup with its fancy pavilion. Its the Shake Shack of protest.

posted by: BoboSkribs on April 27, 2017  9:10am


posted by: Renewhavener on April 27, 2017  9:33am

Nice tailgate tent.  Very ‘on-message’ with respect to how severe you suffering must be.  Does it have wifi?

Sarcasm aside, looking at the moment through a purely clinical political lens, showing up at all, let alone with a doctor, only provides more validation to this tantrum.  But once that choice was made, it would have been better if the administrator and the doctor arrived separately.

Pivoting back to the subjective, and regardless of how the package was delivered, to not even having the common courtesy to say ‘Thank you’ to a doctor (while very in-character for this millennial-attitudinal-control-sample) is completely discourteous regardless of how they feel about the administration or the envoy that administration sent to ask you to leave.

Believe it or not, you all are very lucky and privileged in a ways most other humans on earth will never experience.  Sadly that does not translate into basic manners.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 27, 2017  11:55am

robn and renew,
According to the participants in this fast, faculty, other staff, and students experience rampant and pervasive sexual harassment, and racial and gender discrimination from upper tier faculty members and administrators. Apparently, these graduate student-teachers seem to think that these issues can be addressed by forming a union that can negotiate with their employer-institution. I suspect that neither of you support harassment and discrimination, so I’m curious as to your opinions about this.

Do you think the harassment and discrimination are being overstated?
You think harassment and discrimination are problems within Yale, but you don’t think that forming a Union is the best way to address these allegations?
You think that forming a union could help with these issues and others, but that Unite Here is not the best relationship for the graduate students union to have?

If harassment and discrimination are problems at Yale, what would be another way for graduate students to address these issues, which have thus far apparently fallen on deaf ears when complained about previously (according to the experiences of those fasting)?

posted by: TheMadcap on April 27, 2017  12:00pm

“Believe it or not, you all are very lucky and privileged in a ways most other humans on earth will never experience.”

You do realize it’s you right? You’re the lucky and privileged one that lives a life most of the Earth can’t imagine.

posted by: robn on April 27, 2017  12:35pm


What I know is that local labor unions (comprised of a small minority of New Haveners), after dumping enormous local and national union resources into their effort, commandeered the New Haven Board Of Alders to seek indirect leverage over Yale. Now they seek direct leverage by gaming the system with a similarly small minority of grad students. Grad student already have representation and its called the GSA…and its not beholden to outside interests.

posted by: Bill Saunders on April 27, 2017  12:41pm

Viva Le Shanty Town!

posted by: wendy1 on April 27, 2017  12:52pm

THEY made the TIMES.

Doctor??  What doctor???  And by the way being a doc or nurse or judge or priest does not make you special or flawless.  We are all human.  So are authority figures and the well-educated.  We shouldn’t have to k*** anyone’s a** unless we want to.

posted by: OutofTown on April 27, 2017  4:06pm

A reputable source said Jared Kushner offered to purchase 33 Wall Street for conversion to high-end apartments and a French-chic comfort food restaurant.  Renamed, The Union, Kushner said it will be “bigger and swankier than any of the rub joints back in Russia.”  Delirious from famine, the organizers told Kushner they’d rather have a Mexican wall around them - but, he can rent the lower Hewitt Quadrangle for 3 dozen tostadas and some Red Bull.  Just in - Vladimir Putin cautioned on escalating tensions, but suggested mediation with dueling banjos at College Street.

posted by: Renewhavener on April 27, 2017  4:32pm

@Wendy1, “THEY made the TIMES.”

You are so excited.  It’s adorable.  Sadly, there is probably more of a causal relationship between the fact that this is a Chris Peak authored piece and it being subsequently picked up by the AP then regurgitated by NYT.  * Shrug.  They may show up eventually, but if they do, a spotlight so bright may only illuminate another Jerelyn Luther moment in the court of public opinion.  We’ll see.

But, if in the meanwhile you want to swear at me in an attempt to make a point, then I can see anything I have to say about an obligation to each other to have civility would be a waste of time.  Sadly in some ways we probably agree, it’s just I’m not willing to invest the time to find common ground in this case.

@JH.  In some respects you may be viewing this out of context, which you generally do not do spatially and is causing a head-scratching moment for me that you would do so politically.  More later.

posted by: Bill Saunders on April 27, 2017  10:01pm

If these abused, privileged wanna-be somebody’s really want to make a difference while making a point, maybe they should donate their fasted food items to the homeless.

File under Self Serving.
Maybe the Lunch Lady Union is soon to be replaced with a Salad Bar.

posted by: Renewhavener on April 28, 2017  8:47am

@ JH.  That is a lot of questions.

Will not be drawn into a rhetorical jousting match that seeks to align my opinion with all of those negative things.  Not ignorant.  They have and will continue to happen.  At Yale and elsewhere.  As they do in industry and government.  Academia is not unique in this way.  But when it does happen then victims need to press the proper authorities outside the the University hierarchy for satisfaction.  The truth always comes out:

In reading so many articles on the subject from UConn to Yale to points farther afield, where so many seem to get it wrong in is in pressing University administrators with such grievances. There is a different institution that exists to address criminal matters.  The police.  Thinking a Professor, or Dean, or Chair, or Provost or anyone internal to the institution is going to help, while it should be the case, is naive. 

One does not need a union to call a cop. 

Moreover, not all those huddled in this tent-ma-hall have been victimized in the manner you suggest. From what I have read and heard this is more about money, benefits and union politics than anything else.

Since before Socrates the academic apprentice / practitioner relationships has existed. In a contemporary context, once these mere apprentices have earned Yale credentials they will enjoy much higher than average pay, time and intellectual freedom, and prestige, even for academics. But they want it now. 

How comical it would seem for a white-belt to bow onto the mat and demand all that the black-belt has earned.  How foolish would a new tradesperson seem in demanded a journeyperson’s pay and benefits. How out of their depth might a fresh advocate appear in demanding to lead oral arguments before the high court. Yet such is the point of view of so many of the most vocal of this up and coming cohort.  Generation-Y-not?

Because you haven’t earned it, that’s Y.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on April 28, 2017  9:57am

robn and renew,

Those were meant as honest questions - I am genuinely curious about your thoughts on this subject.

So you feel that the existing GSA, the press, and the law enforcement authorities are (or at least should be) adequate resources for addressing sexual harassment and discrimination accusations?

I initially thought this unionization effort was primarily about pay and benefits, but at the rally on Tuesday, the fasters spoke and almost all of them mentioned some form of harassment and discrimination going unchecked despite them being vocal about it. So that made me wonder if a unions are a good way to address these types of issues, or if there are better alternatives to either Unite Here, or unionization for these specific types of issues. Pay and benefits were not really a part of the discussion at Tuesdays event.

Can anyone explain to me why a union would be uniquely qualified to address issues of harassment and discrimination rather than some other resource(s)? In addition to negotiating pay and benefits, is it common for unions to be able to address issues of harassment and discrimination? If so, how?

I am genuinely curious.

posted by: robn on April 28, 2017  12:42pm


Its not about sexual harrassment; its about a small minority of people consolidating power in New Haven and over Yale.

Besides, for any sexual harassment claim with merit, there’s two stops; first stop, administration; if there’s a vacuum of response, the second stop is civil lawsuit.

posted by: LookOut on April 28, 2017  3:04pm

agree with @robn : this is just a union power play.  If it goes the way that most unionization in New Haven goes, the result will be union bosses in the suburbs controlling jobs and a flow of money away from both union members and New Haven taxpayers.