Ivy League graduate teachers strike

News Analysis

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Refusing to be silenced by the Bush administration’s National Labor Relations Board, graduate student teachers at Yale and Columbia went on strike last week in the first ever Ivy League coordinated job action.

The extraordinary week of actions in opposition to last July’s ruling — that graduate teachers are not workers and, therefore, do no qualify for unionization — has received national and international support.

“If they don’t teach,” John Wilhelm, president of the Hospitality Division of UNITE HERE, said at a rally on the New Haven Green April 19, “the educational process grinds to a halt.”

Wilhelm emphasized the contribution that graduate teachers can make to the labor movement.

“The labor movement needs your energy, your ability to teach about unions in this country, your ability to reach out across the globe and become a global labor movement. You need us and we need you,” he said.

Solidarity took on new meaning as organized workers at Yale expressed their appreciation to the Graduate Employee Student Organization (GESO) for support during their own strike in 2003. Members of UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35 boarded buses during their lunch breaks to attend daily strike rallies, along with retirees, workers seeking recognition at Yale New Haven Hospital and community residents demanding a benefits agreement from the hospital as it seeks to expand.

Perhaps the highest level of solidarity came from the graduate teacher organizations of 14 countries that held support actions April 22 and sent letters protesting the refusal of union rights for their U.S. counterparts.

“We condemn this clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which declares that the right to form a Union is a basic human right,” a Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations statement said.

“You are changing the common sense of the university,” said American Studies professor Michael Denning, praising the strikers’ courage.

The strike was successful in bringing the cause of graduate teachers to the national foreground. Unions at campuses across the country, as well as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the presidents of UNITE HERE, the United Auto Workers and American Federation of Teachers, along with elected officials, have signed a “declaration of principles” related to collective bargaining at universities.

“We are particularly alarmed that access to affordable, quality higher education has diminished and that the right of workers in higher education to unionize and bargain collectively for a living wage has eroded,” the declaration stated.

At a joint rally held at Columbia University on April 20, Sweeney praised strikers for “drawing a line against higher education greed” and said that “jobs in higher education should be real, full-time jobs that workers need to live.”

Linking the strikes to the attacks on workers rights by the Bush administration, Jesse Jackson received cheers at Yale April 21.

“If you spend $5 billion a month in Iraq for killing and then preserve the tax cut permanently for the top 10 percent, then there is no money to pay workers,” Jackson said. “I say let’s reinvest in America, let’s pay workers, let’s end poverty. That’s our fight.”