Why Yale Graduate Students Are on a Hunger Strike

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Two weeks ago, Yale graduate student teachers began a hunger strike to pressure the school to negotiate with their union. Eight committed to fasting, planning only to stop if a doctor says their health is at risk of permanent damage. If a student has to stop fasting, another union member takes his or her spot. Four of the students have had nothing but water for 14 days.

The measures these graduate student teachers are taking are dramatic. But their cause — a fight for decent, secure wages and comprehensive benefits — has implications for the entire labor market.

Like many colleges and universities, Yale relies on graduate students and other low-paid contingent faculty members, like adjunct professors, to teach much of its coursework. Contingent faculty members make up about 70 percent of the teachers in higher education in the United States. They work entirely on contract. They are poorly paid and lack access to affordable health care, job security or a voice in their working conditions.

It is not shocking that these teachers have turned to unions. What is shocking is how a lot of universities have responded.

Last August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate teachers at private universities are employees and therefore, have the right to collective bargaining. Graduate students in eight departments at Yale voted to unionize, seeking better wages and health care, as well as access to a legal grievance process and better accountability for problems like sexual harassment.
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But Yale refused to acknowledge the union. Instead, it hired Proskauer Rose, a high-powered law firm that specializes in union-busting, to harass and intimidate the students. Lawyers forced students into a labor board hearing and badgered graduate teachers on the witness stand for hours, demeaning their knowledge and skills. The lawyers argued that for many of the courses they teach, these graduate students “have no subject matter expertise” and therefore don’t qualify as professors. It would, of course, be very odd if such a prestigious school let inept graduates teach students whose families pay some $50,000 a year in tuition. That Yale would besmirch its own student teachers this way to keep from bargaining with them is appalling and detrimental to its educational mission.

Graduate students have been fasting as part of their protest. Credit Robbie Short

Despite the legal challenge, a regional panel of the labor board reaffirmed the right of Yale students to unionize, and following elections, Local 33 of the national union Unite Here became the teachers’ certified bargaining agent. Yale still refuses to come to the table. The administration is stalling until President Trump appoints new members to the National Labor Relations Board, because the appointees will almost certainly be anti-union and more likely to overturn the current ruling.

Yale is not alone in using high-priced consultants and law firms to block unionization of graduate students or adjunct faculty members. Harvard, Columbia, Duke, New York University, Emory and Barnard — to name a few elite schools — have all retained firms to undermine their nontenured teachers. The schools argue that graduate students are essentially apprentices, as they are training to become professors or perhaps museum and archive curators. But the National Labor Relations Board made clear that graduate students are also professional teachers and advisers, and are therefore employees as well as students.

American universities have become increasingly dependent on this cheap labor. Tenured and tenured-track jobs have declined significantly, with only about 30 percent of faculty members in such positions in 2016, down from about 40 percent in 2013. There are also a lot fewer job openings. In 2015, for example, 1,183 English Ph.D.s graduated, but there were only 361 openings for assistant English professors in all of academia. Job postings with the American Historical Association — the nexus for history professor job listings — declined by 45 percent over the past five years.

This has created a perpetual backlog of aspiring assistant professors, all competing for fewer jobs. It is not the case anymore that a graduate student teacher can scrape by on meager wages, taking on debt that will be paid off by a steady job in the future. More and more, contingent faculty members are stuck as just that.

At Yale, graduate student teachers tried sending letters, gathering signatures for community petitions and holding rallies to bring the school to the bargaining table, without result. So, two weeks ago, union members erected a lofty shelter on Beinecke Plaza facing the offices of Yale’s president, Peter Salovey. They furnished the area with sofas, chairs, tables, lamps, a bookcase, turf and picnic tables. The graduate students who are fasting take posts there each day, wrapped in blankets. Some use wheelchairs as they have become too weak to walk. At night they sleep inside the First and Summerfield Church.

Two of the fasting graduate students. Credit Robbie Short

The university has demanded the students remove the structure. But for now, it still stands, transforming a gray plaza of marble and concrete into a communal space. Passers-by now stop to talk. Workers from other unions on campus offer support and solidarity. Ministers, imams and rabbis have all visited, as have politicians including New Haven’s mayor, Toni Harp, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Richard Blumenthal.

The way universities treat employees is important at a time when living wages are scarce in the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. When universities deny their employees secure wages and classify them as contractors or temps, it puts graduate student teachers much more in line with workers in the service sector, where over 90 percent of all job growth is expected, and where incomes have stagnated because of the rise of corporate power and the weakening of labor unions.

The university is nothing if not a place that should foster critical inquiry and civic engagement. That so many schools have mimicked corporate America in preferring greater profits to fair wages for their employees — quashing democratic participation in university decisions — says a lot about the role the university now plays in society.

Jennifer Klein, a history professor at Yale, is the author of “Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State.”

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