Graduate students fight back at Yale: "I’m trying to support myself and my son ... but it’s not working"

Yale's administration should grant a neutral election, two graduate school student-employee organizers tell Salon

Published October 20, 2015 4:48PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>f11photo</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(f11photo via Shutterstock)

“I should not have to fight for Yale to respect me but I will keep fighting until they do."

That's what Grant Mao, a Chinese citizen, who claims his struggles with depression precipitated his expulsion from the university last April, told the New Haven Register during a recent on-campus demonstration in support of graduate student-employees' right to form a union. Mao told the Register that the university's administration "did nothing" to help him with his illness, but was quick to inform him that his health insurance was no longer valid — and that he had 15 days to leave the country. "I’m fighting because I want to get reinstated," Mao said, "but also because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else."

According to graduate student-employees and organizers, Mao's story is not unique. And the allegedly brusque manner with which the administration treated him is, they say, not unusual, either. That's one of the reasons why those urging Yale to recognize its graduate student-employees' union are calling on the university to stop an anti-union campaign intended to "intimidate and confuse" graduate school faculty and students, and to agree to a neutral — or "no intimidation" — vote.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with two members of the organizing drive, Robin Canavan and Michelle Morgan. Canavan GESO–UNITE HERE co-chair and fourth-year in the Geology and Geophysics Department, while Morgan is a graduate student-employee. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

So let's start with the obvious question: Why are graduate employees at Yale organizing?

Robin Canavan (RC): The graduate employees and student organisation have been organizing in the last 18 months over a variety of issues. Members join for a variety of reasons. We’ve got members who’ve had issues with teaching and funding in their upper years, issues created with health coverage and mental health care, child care availability and affordability, racial and gender issues on campus.

We really gained a lot of steam after NYU. In the last 18 months, we’ve had four major demonstrations, delivering a petition to the administration showing a majority of support for a union from grad student-employees.  We’ve had two-thirds of the nearly 2,000 graduate employees of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences show their public support by taking a photo and saying that they want a union. 

Michelle Morgan (MM): My name is Michelle Morgan. I’m an upper-year in American Studies. I’m also a mom. I have a 15-year-old son who lives with me in New Haven.

Last year, I was teaching an American Studies junior seminar. I’ve done teaching assistant positions, but this was my own course that I designed myself. Then the university announced it was going to cut upper-year teaching pay by 40 percent. There was nothing that any of us could do about it.

So, this year, I’m teaching my own class and I’m also teaching another seminar in American Studies — and I’m doing it for 40 percent less pay, even though it is the same amount of work. Or more work, even. I’m trying to support myself and my son on this pay, but it’s not working.

When you've made these complaints to the administration, what has been their response?

MM: They’re just like, this is the way it is. I wish I could elaborate, but the response is just like — decisions are made and they’re going to stand by them.

How has the pay cut affected you? Are there any kind of either/or decisions that you have to make now that you didn't have to make previously?

MM: I’m working several part-time jobs, which I would not be working if I didn’t have this pay cut, so I can pay my rent. I think [Yale's] logic is, We’re going to get you out faster if we’re not supporting you financially, as well as with your teaching. But it makes it harder for me to work on my dissertation. And paying my bills is difficult.

Has the administration's stance changed at all as the organizing drive has ramped-up?

RC: Recently, they started an anti-union campaign, which included posters that are meant to confuse and intimidate the graduate employees and researcher-teachers on campus. It is exactly why we want the sort of neutral election agreement that NYU had.

And what worries about the consequences of unionizing have graduate employees expressed as a result? 

MM: Many people are concerned that they’re going to lose their visa status; that they’re going to lose funding; that there’s going to be repercussions for standing for what they think is right. Also, something that seems to happen a lot is the question of whether we’re students or workers. That comes up over and over again. There’s been some fear about that, too.

And what's your answer to that question?

For me, there’s no doubt that I can be both at the same time. I can be a mom and a student and a teacher at the same time. I do the work of a teacher; I independently teach my classes, I run sections, I run courses or seminars, I grade.

Is there any reason to think that, if the resources recently taken away from graduate were restored, students would be affected negatively? In other words, is this zero-sum?

MM: I don’t come across that at all. I don’t know about you, Robin, but my students are super-supportive of unionization. I don’t think they see it at all as affecting their resources. There a lot of resources. I don’t think that’s such a problem.

RC: Yeah, I can’t really answer that. I haven’t come across that in my conversations.

Lastly, how do you balance between making the campaign Yale-focused and making it more about a broader trend of what some people call the neoliberalization of the academy? NYU's graduate organizers made that a pretty central theme in their efforts; are you doing the same in New Haven?

MM: It is very inspiring that it seems to be a national movement, for sure. I know I’ve been inspired — and our members have been inspired — by the fact that it’s not just us. After NYU, there were a lot of campaigns that sprung up at other universities; Harvard, Columbia, the New School. All of that keeps motivating us and our campaign.

RC: Yeah, and I would add, too, that I think some of the things that happened at Yale are hyperlocal in one sense but indicative of larger problems: the neoliberalization of the academy, the racial diversity of faculty, faculty wage gaps — things like that. They’re very much local problems, but they're part of an across-the-board trend as well.

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By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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