[Marxism] Graduate-student labor activism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 11 07:51:45 MDT 2005

Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2005
Scenes From the Picket Lines

Teaching assistants' unions lost a major legal battle, but they are still 


By now it seems written into the academic calendar: With spring come the 
police barriers, the bullhorns, and the sandwich boards. Every April campus 
labor activists across the country head outside. Strikes, teach-ins, and 
rallies bloom like daffodils.

But not every spring is the same.

For graduate-student labor activists, the past five years have seen 
historic gains -- and a sudden loss -- in organizing momentum.

When the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2000 that New York 
University was obliged to recognize its graduate teaching assistants' 
union, a wave of organizing swelled at private universities across the 
Northeast. Union drives at Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Tufts Universities, 
as well as at the University of Pennsylvania, quickly gathered force, 
emboldened by the new legal precedent that said teaching assistants were 
employees, and not just students.

Then, last year, the wave broke.

In July an NLRB freshly loaded with Bush appointees reversed the 2000 
ruling. Graduate students, in the eyes of the law, no longer had the rights 
of employees. The union drives that gained purchase in the legal climate of 
the early part of the decade suddenly had to readjust their expectations.

This year, with spring back in the air, The Chronicle set out to check the 
pulse of graduate-student labor movements at several private universities.

During the third week of April, teaching assistants at Columbia and Yale 
Universities staged simultaneous five-day strikes -- the first joint strike 
ever at Ivy League institutions. Rather than open-ended walkouts designed 
to break the will of employers, the two strikes were what labor activists 
call a "solidarity action" -- a message to the universities that graduate 
labor is banding together for the long term. That same week teaching 
assistants at New York University held a large rally, attempting to avoid 
the loss of the bargaining rights they won in 2000.

The message from graduate organizers at all three private universities was 
that the wave may have broken, but the water is still high. On the picket 
lines, some voiced hopes that shame, spectacle, and public pressure by 
themselves might bring universities to the negotiating table. But the 
history of graduate organizing does not reveal many instances of voluntary 
concession. Victory for unions may take a new U.S. president, a new labor 
board -- and another several years at sea.

Yale University
Tuesday, April 19

On New Haven's warmest morning of the year so far, about 100 members of the 
Graduate Employees and Students Organization, or GESO, began their day by 
heading underground. Activist by activist, at 8 a.m. they shuffled down to 
the linoleum-floored basement of the First & Summerfield United Methodist 
Church, and, with groggy exuberance, set up the day's assault on Yale.

The scene lent immediacy to the term "organized labor." The strike leader 
wove his way through placard-covered folding tables to dole out bullhorns 
to each picket captain. Other activists assembled the group's arsenal of 
percussion instruments -- bongos, shoulder-mounted snare drums, 
water-cooler bottles, animal-hide African drums, tambourines, wood blocks, 
and a skillet -- while the rank and file served themselves from a table 
laid out with two crates of sliced bagels and blocks of cream cheese.

At 8:30, according to schedule, the strikers divided into four picketing 
teams. They were sent out one by one, up into the sunlight, placards held 
high, their throats filled with the first union chants of the day.

Minutes after setting out from the basement, one team set up its churning, 
oval-shaped march in front of the hall housing Yale's history department. 
Led by a bullhorn-toting picket captain, the marchers began to sing (to the 
tune of "Alouette"): "We are teachers, dedicated teachers. We are teachers, 
we're on strike today."

When the song was over, the captain broke into a shout: "I say history, you 
say matters. History matters. History matters."

The history of GESO itself, compared with that of other 
graduate-teaching-assistant unions, is an uncommonly long and fractious 
one. The group began organizing about 15 years ago, a decade before any 
private university's graduate union had the blessing of the federal labor 
board. In fact, GESO did not even try to seek recognition under the 
national board after 2000, out of a jaundiced certainty that Yale would 
appeal the board's ruling to kingdom come.

The union has always seemed determined to go mano a mano with Yale in the 
fight for recognition. In the words of Rachel Sulkes, the union 
spokeswoman, "The only way you're going to win on this campus is to create 
a climate where it's more costly not to do it."

For their part, Yale administrators argue that teaching assistants are 
students, not employees, and that a union would harm the relationship 
between graduate students and professors.

Far from admitting defeat, the members of the union are loath even to 
acknowledge much disappointment at the labor board's 2004 reversal. "We've 
just basically been getting stronger because of the NLRB ruling," said 
Melissa Stuckey, a fifth-year graduate student in the history department, 
citing the recent coordination between unions at Yale and Columbia that 
brought about the week's two-campus strike.

That said, GESO's unflinching adversarial stance toward the university and 
its clockwork organizing structure have alienated a significant portion of 
its own constituency: Yale graduate students. Indeed, there is a sense 
among some graduate students that GESO has organized too well.

Around noon, while all the labor activists were holding union-themed 
"classrooms in the streets" at one end of the campus green, Bill Hinrichs 
sat on a nearby bench, smoking a cigarette. A graduate assistant in Spanish 
and Portuguese, he wore sunglasses and seemed to scout the horizon.

"If you don't join GESO, it affects your social life and your personal life 
for the entire time you're here," said Mr. Hinrichs, citing the 
never-ending phone calls, invitations to coffee, two-on-one meetings, and 
house visits that make up the union's recruiting strategy.

"I was told I didn't like these personal visits because I had this 
bourgeois sense of personal space," said another graduate student sharing 
the smoke break, who asked that her name not be used.

Later that afternoon, at a coffee shop near the campus, a handful of 
graduate students opposed to GESO got together to talk about unionization.

One of them, Allie Murray, a first-year Ph.D. student in anthropology, had 
been a GESO organizer during the fall semester. She left the union, though, 
after having a conflict with her leader over her frequent trips to visit 
her fiancé, in Cambridge, Mass.

"I was told very soon into my short tenure as an organizer that I would 
have to choose between commuting and seeing my fiancé and organizing for 
GESO," said Ms. Murray. "And clearly it was implied that GESO was the 

For Allison Alexy, another anthropology graduate student, the union's 
rhetoric about the corporate decline of the profession rings true enough, 
but she is unable to conjure a sense of personal abuse at the hands of 
Yale. After a 20-percent raise in 2001, Yale graduate students get annual 
stipends of at least $17,000 for the first four years of their Ph.D. 
programs. That support, combined with the alienation she feels at GESO's 
organizing tactics, keeps Ms. Alexy off the picket lines.

"When someone comes to me and says, 'You are being exploited, can't you 
feel it?,' my reaction is, I can't," she said. "I don't feel this. I don't 
feel exploited."

Columbia University
Wednesday, April 20

New Yorkers ascending from the subway at Broadway and 116th Street were met 
with the sound of drumbeats ricocheting off the tiled walls of the 
stairwell and dissolving into white noise. Once they reached street level, 
however, the racket clarified into a laid-back, syncopated meter, produced 
by a rhythm section of picketing students making a slow procession inside a 
narrow pen of police barriers up the street.

Compared with Yale, Columbia's picket line had a cool, languid feel. In 
place of chants and singsong, it was led by a saxophonist playing the hook 
from War's 1975 hit "Low Rider." Only every now and then, when the 
saxophonist took a rest, did the marchers break into brief chants of the 
"What do we want? When do we want it?" variety.

Another thing people probably noticed as they left the subway station was 
the giant inflated rat standing behind the marchers.

More than 10 feet tall, with red eyes and a grotesque array of pink teats 
swelling from its belly, it leered from between the wrought-iron gates of 
Columbia. Standing near the enormous rodent was a teaching assistant named 
Erik Goldner -- tall, tan, and fit, with a 5 o'clock shadow and longish 
dark hair.

"Does that rat belong to you guys?" a reporter asked him.

He relayed the question to another picketer: "Carpio, is that our rat?"

"No," said Carpio.

Mr. Goldner paraphrased: "We're borrowing the rat."

Did you need a permit for it?

Again, Mr. Goldner to Carpio: "Do we have a rat permit?"

"We don't need a rat permit," Carpio replied.

What does the rat mean?

To this Mr. Goldner had a ready response: "It signifies that the employer 
is not doing right by its employees," he said.

Like most private universities, Columbia considers teaching assistants to 
be apprentices and not employees, even though it relies on them for a large 
portion of its classroom labor. Mr. Goldner was among the first graduate 
students at the university to organize against that definition. A 
seventh-year graduate student in the history department, he is a charter 
member of Graduate Student Employees United, or GSEU, the Columbia group 
that began organizing late in the summer of 2000. "We took NYU as our 
inspiration," he said of its genesis.

The Columbia union does not have Yale's longtime attitude of detachment 
from the machinations of the National Labor Relations Board. On the 
contrary, GSEU was counting on the board's blessing. Now, facing a long 
slog of endurance activism, the union has taken on a tone that sounds both 
determined and somewhat dazed.

"We feel very optimistic that the university will recognize our union," 
said David Wollach, a philosophy graduate student who turned professional 
organizer for the United Auto Workers, which backs the Columbia group. "The 
university can recognize the union with or without the labor-relations 
board. They could've recognized us yesterday, they could recognize us today."

In an afterthought, he placed his faith in a timely theory about social 

"We don't know what the tipping point will be," Mr. Wollach said, "but we 
aren't going away, and we're not going to stop organizing until we get a 

Later that day, more than 1,000 people from Columbia, Penn, Yale, and 
sympathetic labor unions marched down Broadway, starting just across the 
street from the inflated rat. For 10 blocks, the chanting mass snaked down 
a single lane of the famous avenue. As New Yorkers stared in bemused 
curiosity at the sight of thin scholars striding alongside barrel-chested 
carpenters, the marchers, as if to introduce themselves, bellowed an old 
union chant:

"Everywhere we go ... people want to know ... who we are, ... so we tell 
them. ... We're the mighty mighty union!"

At the end of the day, the university had made no concessions and little 
public comment. The giant rat lay before the university gates in a heap, 

New York University
Thursday, April 21

When the president of the United States gives the State of the Union 
address, he typically begins with a preamble that slopes up towards the 
inevitable punchline: "My fellow Americans, the state of our union is ... 
strong." When graduate-student organizers hold large springtime 
demonstrations, it is similarly only a matter of time before someone says, 
"Brothers and sisters, I give you ... the Reverend Jesse Jackson."

That was the moment anticipated at a noontime rally at NYU, where Mr. 
Jackson was scheduled as the main attraction. The preamble, however, got 
off to a slow start.

"Grab a sign and get in the pen!" shouted Owen Whooley, a first-year 
graduate student in the comparative-literature department at NYU, as 
graduate activists trickled past the police barriers set up along the 
southern edge of Washington Square Park. The signs looked fresh and unused, 
and the percussion arsenal was thin: so far just one water-cooler bottle 
and a double cowbell.

"Only in the past two months have we really mobilized," said Mr. Whooley, 
standing outside the demonstration pen. For the first several months after 
the labor board's 2004 decision, he said, NYU's teaching assistants were 
slow to respond to the threat that the ruling would pose to them down the 
line. "Initially there wasn't the same sense of urgency," he said, "because 
we had a contract."

That contract, however, will expire in August. And while NYU has not 
declared one way or the other whether it will resume negotiations with the 
union, its statements on the issue suggest that it may be ready to ease out 
the back door: "NYU is considering whether or not to continue recognizing 
[the union], although it is under no legal obligation to do so."

"We're doing this to kind of build momentum," said Mr. Whooley, referring 
to the swelling demonstration, which was just beginning to press against 
the police barriers. A sign displayed an ink drawing of a feisty dinosaur 
with the caption, "Don't let NYU's union go extinct."

A little after 12:30 p.m., busloads of Columbia students arrived, filling 
the demonstration pen even further with bodies and, now, the sound of 
drumming. The two unions, created in different ways in response to the 2000 
NLRB ruling, were demonstrating as much as anything that they would outlive 
it -- even if that meant simply outliving the early momentum of their 

By the time the main attraction was ready to speak, the pen had burst open. 
At one end, the marchers bled out into the street. As the Reverend Jackson 
climbed, somewhat awkwardly, onto a concrete planter in front of the crowd 
and raised his hand above Washington Square Park, there was no doubt: 
Spring was here. There was likewise no doubt that it would return again 
next year.



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