• July 23, 2014

Look for the Union Label

Veterans of Yale's graduate-student strikes are forging their experiences into scholarship

Text: Recent publications by veterans of Yale's Graduate Employees and Students Organization

Late last month, for the sixth time since 1990, graduate teaching assistants at Yale University went on strike. The strikers' demands have changed little from those in the previous five walkouts: better health benefits, child care for students with families, and an end to Yale's practice of reducing teaching assistants' wages after their fourth year in graduate school.

Chief among the strikers' demands throughout the years has been that Yale recognize their union -- the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, or GESO -- as a collective-bargaining agent.

In the 18 years (and counting) of conflict over teaching assistants' rights at Yale, pro-union students have developed an elaborate subculture of activism. In some cases, cadre wins out over classroom: At least a dozen veterans of the student union have left academe for jobs in the labor movement. The union's opponents, meanwhile, have developed their own vibrant tradition of criticism. A satirical leaflet they distributed in 2000, for example, announced a fictitious GESO workshop that would train students "to shirk personal responsibility while whining with self-absorbed urgency."

The Yale union battles, whatever their outcome, have already left a lasting imprint that goes deeper than the leaflets and counterleaflets piling up in New Haven. In a small way, the conflict has left its mark on scholarship itself.

Several of the graduate-student union's most visible organizers in the mid-1990s -- an era marked by a bitterly contested grade strike -- are now junior professors of history, political science, and American studies at other campuses across the country.

Those young scholars bonded at Yale a decade ago in part because of their mutual frustration with then-fashionable academic leftists "who were willing to analyze power but not willing to build social movements," says Corey Robin, an assistant professor of political science at City University of New York's Brooklyn College who spent much of the 1990s as a GESO organizer.

During the past three years, a number of Yale graduate-school labor veterans have published several acclaimed books on economic and political conflict. All of them say that, in one way or another, their scholarly projects have been profoundly affected by their bruising experiences at Yale.

Skeptical at First

Mr. Robin, who is perhaps the most prominent of the GESO veterans, published his first book last fall. In Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford University Press), he explores how theorists from Montesquieu to Judith Shklar have understood the roles played by anxiety and terror in political life. Among the book's themes is that contemporary liberal and communitarian theorists have paid far too little attention to private-sector tyranny in the workplace.

When Mr. Robin arrived at Yale as a graduate student in 1990, he initially found the nascent union movement tedious and misguided. He attended a GESO event during his first week on campus. "They were going on about how Yale is a feudal institution where everyone had to rely on the patronage of the faculty," he recalls. "And I sort of raised my hand and said, What's so bad about that?"

Within a year, however, Mr. Robin grew much more sympathetic to the union's arguments. In particular, he was angered by the manner in which the university established a policy that required graduate students to complete their doctorates within six years. "There was no grandfather clause," he says. "I had friends who were in their seventh year, who were suddenly not allowed to register or to use the library."

Mr. Robin was only in his first year, and at some remove from the rules' impact. But he was bothered by what he saw as the university's imperiousness. "I'm not a lazy person," he says. "I certainly believe in getting work done and all the rest of it. But there was something about this whole chunk-'em-in-chunk-'em-out philosophy that I really did find noxious."

New Vantage Point

At a rally that spring, Mr. Robin came to see Yale's student-union activists as "people who actually had a view of the university that was quite close to my own."

Mr. Robin had conceived of writing a dissertation on fear before he joined the union, but the eventual project was heavily shaped by his own labor activism. Battling with the university administration, he says, "gave me a real vantage point for reading these theorists, or certain passages that no one had ever really glossed. And the focus on the workplace would absolutely never have been in the book had it not been for this."

In Mr. Robin's view of events, the university successfully intimidated once-sympathetic professors into withdrawing any support for the union, especially during the hugely controversial grade strike of December 1995 and January 1996. Almost all of the union's work stoppages, including last month's, have been simple "classroom strikes" -- that is, the participants declined to teach their classes. But in early 1996, the union used its own version of the nuclear option, refusing to calculate and submit fall-semester grades for the undergraduates they taught. At that point, some faculty members who had been sympathetic began to turn against the union -- in certain cases, Mr. Robin says, because they feared that the administration would withhold perks and privileges from professors seen as too friendly to the union. (Tom Conroy, a spokesman for the university, says, "It is completely untrue that any faculty member or any student has been mistreated in any way because of their personal position or opinion regarding graduate-student unionization.")

Mr. Robin grew interested in more flagrant forms of workplace tyranny, such as factories' restrictions on when workers may use the bathroom. Such old-fashioned bullying, Mr. Robin argues, is barely explored in contemporary political theory. "Anybody who spent a day in a typical American workplace -- all those sort of Foucauldian ideas about diffuse administrative power, all of that stuff would just fly out the window."

"This is as old-regime as it gets," Mr. Robin says. "To my mind, the sheer intimacy of the supervisor and supervised, and the kind of real coercive authority there ... Jeremy Bentham's panopticon would be a paradise compared to this."

Mr. Robin, who writes frequently for political magazines such as the Boston Review and The Nation, is now at work on two books. In collaboration with Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, he is writing a study of how the government and civil society interacted to create an atmosphere of repression during the McCarthy period. The second, more ambitious project will explore themes and continuities in counterrevolutionary movements in the West during the last 300 years.

On the Job

Two other GESO veterans are now affiliated with labor-studies programs. Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, is best known for The Job Training Charade (Cornell University Press, 2002), a scathing study of the bad faith that he says underlies federally financed job-training programs.

When Mr. Lafer arrived at Yale in 1988, he was, like Mr. Robin, skeptical about the union. "A friend of mine once said to me, 'You're never going to organize a graduate-student union, because what it means to be a graduate student at Yale is that you were the teacher's pet in every previous stage of your life,'" he recalls. "And so everybody thinks, Well, I don't need a union, because I'm going to charm my way through the system. And that's the way I felt myself when I got there."

What changed Mr. Lafer's mind was the experience of a friend who was told that she would not receive her teaching stipend until she turned in an incomplete paper from the previous semester. "This seemed completely arbitrary," he says. "If you want to say, Turn in this paper or you'll fail, fine. But the written policy was that there should be no connection between your class work and your TA work."

His friend's frustration, and the fact that she had no avenue for complaint, led Mr. Lafer into GESO, and eventually toward an enduring scholarly interest in the dynamics of power in the workplace. "It was clear to me that this woman could not solve this on her own," he says. "This is why you need a union steward or a lawyer, because it's psychologically difficult to advocate on your own behalf."

Eve S. Weinbaum, an associate professor of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, followed a course similar to Mr. Lafer's. She arrived at Yale in 1989, in the early period of teaching-assistant organization. Like Mr. Lafer, she became a staff organizer for the union and also went on to work in the broader labor movement. (He did a stint organizing hotel workers in Hawaii; Ms. Weinbaum organized textile workers in the Carolinas.)

In 2004 the New Press published Ms. Weinbaum's first book, To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia, a study of community organizations in Tennessee. She is now writing a book with the working title "Successful Failures," a study of the frustrated social movements that lay the groundwork for later organizing. She says that she hopes that Yale's graduate-student union will be remembered as such a pioneer.

"If GESO had done exactly what it had done in a different context" -- that is, at a public university such as Massachusetts -- "it would have been the most successful graduate-student union in the country," she says.

Greg Grandin, another former Yale union organizer, is now an assistant professor of history at New York University. He is the author of two books, the more recent of which is The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press). Like Ms. Weinbaum, Mr. Grandin had already been heavily involved in community activism before he arrived at Yale, in 1992. So it is easy to imagine that he might have pursued a similar scholarly career even without his GESO experience.

He says, however, that the union experience did subtly color his dissertation, which traced the history of Mayan nationalism in Central America since 1800. "There was a sense of kind of underscoring how power operated," he says.

Several GESO veterans of the mid-1990s earned their degrees in Yale's American-studies program, where two professors -- Michael Denning and Hazel V. Carby -- were, according to Mr. Robin, among the few faculty members who wholeheartedly supported the union campaign even during the 1996 grade strike. The American-studies students have produced work that echoes the spirit of Mr. Denning's book The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso). In that project, Mr. Denning traced the history of labor-oriented novels, music, and film during the Popular Front era of the 1930s.

Cultural Politics

Kathy M. Newman, a protégée of Mr. Denning, is now an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. In Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947 (University of California Press) -- a book that grew from her dissertation -- she explores left- and right-wing boycotts of radio programs and their sponsors during the industry's heyday. She had originally planned to write a dissertation on the culture of American higher education around 1900. But her union activism, she says, played at least a subliminal role in steering her toward a study of social movements.

"I had a book that I really thought was about radio," she says. "But the more research I did, the more I realized that it was also about activism. So I would say that the activism was almost an unconscious part of the book, until I was rewriting. ... Then suddenly I found myself telling a story about union workers who were interested in culture, which was certainly our position when we were organizing at Yale. And I was also writing about boycotts, which were something that we organized at various points during the seven years when I was at Yale."

Another of Mr. Denning's students, Scott Saul, is now an assistant professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Saul, who left New Haven in 2000, was a staff organizer and researcher for the nascent union for several years. In his book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Harvard University Press), he explores the complex relationships among various jazz subcultures, the civil-rights movement, and the predominantly white bohemian milieu of New York and San Francisco between 1955 and 1965.

"I arrived at Yale as sort of an aesthete, based on my undergraduate training," Mr. Saul says. "I'd really been led to isolate the artifact that I was studying and to burrow into its workings."

But his intellectual engagement with Mr. Denning's work, combined with his GESO experience, led Mr. Saul to the belief "that you couldn't really understand the power of an artwork without understanding the community that stood behind it," he says. "That meant writing a history of jazz in the 50s and 60s that was also a history of the 50s and 60s."

A third Denning protégé is Joseph Entin, who is now an assistant professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is working on a history of depictions of American poverty in literature and photography during the early 20th century. Mr. Entin, who earned his Ph.D. in 2000, is still actively involved with GESO. In March he spoke to a group of Yale faculty members in an attempt to build support for the most recent strike.

Mr. Entin says that he arrived at Yale with very little experience with or sympathy for unions or other social movements. But he slowly grew sympathetic to the graduate-student group and became an organizer, and the experience, he says, gave rise to his scholarly interest in the cultural creation of social solidarity. "The atmosphere, the environment, that was created by the union, translated into my own research interests," he says.

Similar comments are offered by Robert R. Perkinson, who earned his Ph.D. in 2001 and is now an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Organizing for GESO, he says, "gave me insights into social movements that I think I would have had trouble gleaning on my own. In fact, I pity people who study and write about social movements if they haven't been involved with one pretty intensively over a sustained amount of time."

Mr. Perkinson is now completing a book on the Texas prison system.

Michelle A. Stephens, an assistant professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College, has turned her American-studies dissertation into Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (Duke University Press, forthcoming in June). The book explores the efforts of Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, and C.L.R. James to imagine and create international institutions that would -- unlike the League of Nations -- fully include colonialized people.

Ms. Stephens, who was the chair of GESO during the mid-1990s, says that her union experience "affected my ability to actually see that the black intellectuals that I was reading were trying to think in sophisticated ways about institutions, and where they fit as subjects within those institutions. ... I can really see now, in retrospect, that doing that in the context of being an organizer for a union, and thinking about what kinds of institutions we might create that would serve our interests -- that structure very much shaped what I was seeing in the black intellectuals I was reading."

Losing Battles

The GESO veterans' view of the conflict at Yale is hardly unanimous. Colleen J. Shogan, an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, earned her Ph.D. at Yale in 2002. She says that she found the union to be dishonest, self-important, and much too concerned with parochial campus concerns. "When GESO lost its straw poll in 2003," she says, "that was very heartening to me. It showed me that democracy works, and that reasonable people will listen to reasonable arguments."

Aaron M. Sackett, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Yale, says that he was a member of the graduate-student union for 18 months before quitting out of frustration with its tactics. (He says that the organizers would knock on his door at all hours of the day, with no respect for his work schedule or personal life.) Mr. Sackett does not know of anyone whose research has been shaped by frustration with the union (nor does Ms. Shogan), but he says that he and his psychology colleagues often talk, half-facetiously, about the union's apparent familiarity with the insights of social psychology.

"Some of the union's tactics seem manipulative, and quite deliberately so," Mr. Sackett says. "I'm a social psychologist. My colleagues and I are all pretty well versed in the tactics that people can use to change people's behavior and attitudes. GESO organizers always travel in pairs. That's not unfamiliar -- Jehovah's Witnesses do the same thing when they come to your door. And that's because it's much more difficult to confidently counterargue when you're outnumbered.

"Even in cases where I requested that I would speak with only one GESO organizer at a time," Mr. Sackett continues, "they would agree to that, knowing that that was the only way I was going to agree to go have coffee with them. But then, lo and behold, a second person would either show up unexpectedly, or the organizer would be dragging along someone they would describe as 'a friend.' And I was like, Come on -- I know what's going on here."

Criticism of the union's methods and goals is a touchy subject among its veterans. "If you're going to rank everything in the world," Mr. Lafer says, "starting with AIDS in Africa, or hunger, then you wouldn't make academic unions at the top of that list." Nonetheless, Mr. Lafer says, it makes sense for Yale graduate students to fight for justice in their own working lives. "You get tested where you get tested."

When asked whether their recent studies of social movements have given rise to reflections on things GESO should have done differently in the 1990s, most of the veterans say no. "I don't feel terribly critical of us, looking back," Ms. Newman says. "To me, it's just inexplicable -- well, I can explain it -- but I'm sad that after all these years that the university still refuses to see that graduate students are workers."

Even if it never wins recognition, Mr. Saul says, he believes that the union will be remembered as having inspired similar movements at Columbia University, New York University, and elsewhere. "I'd like to think that GESO has been responsible for changing the cultural predisposition about whether graduate students should organize themselves or not," he says.

In the spring of 2020, will GESO be in the midst of its 12th unsuccessful strike for recognition? Ms. Newman offers no predictions, but she does point out that strikes have been much more common at universities that have chosen not to recognize nascent unions than at public-sector universities, like the University of Wisconsin, that have longstanding graduate-student unions. Yale's stubbornness, she says, has given rise to "a movement culture of graduate students that has been perpetuated for 15 years.

"I don't know if you and I would even be having this conversation," she continues, "if our little organization had been recognized back in 1992."

THE FRUITS OF LABOR

Recent publications by veterans of Yale's Graduate Employees and Students Organization include:

  • Greg Grandin (Ph.D., history, 1999), The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
  • Gordon Lafer (Ph.D., political science, 1995), The Job Training Charade (Cornell University Press, 2002)
  • Kathy M. Newman, (Ph.D., American studies, 1997), Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947 (University of California Press, 2004)
  • Diana Paton (Ph.D., history, 1999), No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870 (Duke University Press, 2004)
  • Corey Robin (Ph.D., political science, 1999), Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Scott Saul (Ph.D., American studies, 2000), Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (Harvard University Press, 2003)
  • Michelle A. Stephens (Ph.D., American studies, 1997), Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (Duke University Press, forthcoming in June)
  • Eve S. Weinbaum (Ph.D., political science, 1997), To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia (New Press, 2004)

 


http://chronicle.com Section: Research & Publishing Volume 51, Issue 35, Page A14

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