[Marxism] Trade unionism at Yale leads to radical scholarship (lengthy!)
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Fri May 6 11:29:45 MDT 2005
Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2005
Look for the Union Label
Veterans of Yale's graduate-student strikes are forging their experiences
By DAVID GLENN
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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."
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
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
* 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
* Diana Paton (Ph.D., history, 1999), No Bond but the Law: Punishment,
Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870 (Duke University
* 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)
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