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Yale graduate students unite to fight union

Sunday, May 4, 2003

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- For graduate students at Yale University, the question was supposed to be elementary: Did they want to form a union that would fight for more money and benefits for them?

Instead of the resounding "Yes" that people on both sides of the issue had been expecting, the initiative was narrowly rejected.

Many students who banded together this week to oppose the union said that if they spoke as one, it was precisely to fight the requirement to speak in a single voice.

"Among academics, there is a lot more respect for differences of opinion," said art history student Claudia Brittenham. But with the graduate organizers, she said, "They feel if I have a different opinion, it's because I haven't been sufficiently educated."

The unionizing effort by the Graduate Employee and Students Organization has been more than a decade in the making. Graduate students gave huge backing to a 1995 union proposal, but Yale refused to recognize the union and the initiative has been in limbo ever since.

The latest vote, held Wednesday, was intended by organizers to attract such an overwhelming majority that Yale would be forced to reconsider its opposition. The strategy backfired -- the measure lost 694-651.

Critics of the union said tactics that have served labor unions so well were a turnoff for them. They said organizers interrupted science labs and bothered students in the library, on the phone during dinner, even at students' homes.

The union also was accused of trying to sneak through a yes vote by calling the ballot on short notice, having ambiguous eligibility rules, short poll hours and no absentee ballots.

In addition, graduate students from overseas fretted that their visas would be jeopardized if they joined a union and became "workers" instead of "students."

That all led the anti-union camp to organize against getting organized. On April 28, psychology student Kate Marsland e-mailed colleagues about her frustrations with the union, creating momentum to quash the motion.

"What's going on here is a culture clash -- you have an old-style, inflexible culture trying to use the same cookie-cutter tactics on a different population," said graduate student Leon Rozenblit.

Union leader Anita Seth blamed Wednesday's result on voter apathy among union supporters rather than on tactics. She cited a pro-union petition that circulated a week before the vote that garnered 1,000 signatures among Yale's 2,300 graduate students.

Seth also argued that the Yale administration's anti-union stance stifled the union effort. The school has had frequent labor problems, regularly facing strikes by janitors and other campus workers.

Union leaders at other universities agreed.

"The atmosphere there is tainted and contentious. It makes it hard for the union to do its work," said Elena Gorfinkel, a union steward at New York University.

She said her union has reaped big benefits, bringing higher teaching stipends and better health insurance for NYU graduate students.

More than 20 colleges and state university systems have graduate student unions. The oldest, at the University of Wisconsin, organized in 1969, and about half organized within the past 10 years.

Yale graduate students teach up to four semesters during their 10 semesters of study. Yale pays stipends of between $15,000 and $25,000 and provides free tuition, health care and other benefits.

Seth said the union would work hard to get its message across when the new academic year begins.

"The issues the union seeks to discuss and resolve have not gone away at all," she said.

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On the Net: http://www.yaleunions.org


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