The Yale Grad Student Strike

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

an interview with Cynthia Young

Cynthia Young, a graduate student at Yale and a team leader in the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), played an active role in the Fall 1995 “grade strike.” She taught American Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit during the spring semester. She is writing her dissertation on the role of Black cultural politics in the formation of militant community and union organizing in the 1960s and ’70s.

She was interviewed by David Finkel of the Against the Current editorial board. For additional background on the graduate student and campus worker strikes at Yale this past year, see Cynthia Young, “On Strike at Yale,” forthcoming in Minnesota Review, and Gordon Lafer, “Solidarity Marks the Strike at Yale,” New Politics,Summer 1996.

Against the Current: By way of introduction, what was your union role as “team leader”?

Cynthia Young: In our union there are organizers, who are the direct link between members and union structure; coordinators, who work on the departmental level; and what we call team leaders, who work in more than one department and do a lot of the strategic coordination. Then there’s the GESO staff of four or five people.

I was a team leader, and one of three people brought up on disciplinary charges by the dean of the graduate school for our grade strike [the withholding of grades by graduate student teaching assistants to back up the union’s demands –ed.]. I had to go through a formal trial and appeal process. Ultimately I have a letter of reprimand in my file.

ATC: Ironically, the head of the Yale School of Management stated recently in the Christian Science Monitor that capitalism is entering a new, “softer” phase. How did this friendly face of capitalism manifest itself in the behavior of the Yale administration?

CY: Well, capitalism is at its harsh extreme right now. That’s what we saw at Yale during the grad students’ strike. It was a defining moment, certainly for me, in the way I see institutions.

Yale has always functioned toward graduate students as an iron fist inside the velvet glove. First, we do more of the teaching than full-time faculty, for pitiful wages compared not only to other Ivy League schools but even to some state grad schools.

There’s this paternal talk about how we’re going to be the best and the brightest. But the graduate student strike and everything leading up to it showed that we are thought of as an expendable labor force, convenient to have but not worth compensating adequately.

And when push came to shove, Yale faculty and administration were quite prepared to trash people’s careers over this. Graduate students’ faculty advisors warned them they wouldn’t get letters of recommendation, meaning they’d never get jobs.

One of the big arguments was: You’re not workers, you’re going to be “professionals.” Yet when we went on strike they were very willing to collapse those categories — not just take away your wages but threaten to refuse recommendations, even to expel you. That’s the biggest lesson for me from the strike.

So rather than moving from a harsh extreme to softer relations, it was exactly the opposite in the case of the grade strike.

ATC: How many students took part in the grade strike, and what were the issues?

CY: The key issues included:

* A living wage. Yale itself estimates the cost of living in New Haven at $11,000 for nine months. They pay us $9500.

* Health insurance, which we currently have to pay a significant amount for.

* Guaranteed teaching opportunities for four semesters.

* Improvements in diversity, where Yale is at the bottom of all the Ivies. In the grad school and tenured faculty it’s 93% white — they don’t even give you accurate numbers.

* A teacher training program to be fully funded.

* Smaller class sizes, because they’ve been pushing up the section size to around 20. We wanted it at 15.

* An impartial grievance procedure, which doesn’t exist now: If you file a grievance, say, against the dean, he or she will be the one who decides whether it even goes to the grievance committee.

As to the grade strike: One of the difficulties, as opposed to, say, a job action, was that there weren’t formal picket lines to respect or to cross. You couldn’t see who was participating.

We announced we had authorized a grade strike after we took the vote on December 7. But the grades weren’t formally due till January 2, so there was a gap between the vote and the actual “strike action.”

We had over 200 members who said they weren’t going to turn in grades, out of 330 TAs in humanities and social sciences. But pressure immediately started, people went away on winter break,they got individual calls from faculty members.

At least 150 people held back their grades through January 2. But then the administration announced they were putting the three of us on trial, and extended the deadline till the 9th and then again until January 15. In many ways it was an astute intimidation tactic.

By the time the 15th came, in fact, we had voted by a very close margin to turn in the grades. People were divided because the trials had already started. Only 70-80 people took part in the vote on January 14; the margin was just one or two votes.

My trial happened the day the grades were turned in. A second trial, Di Paton’s, had already been held. The third was canceled.

ATC: So the strike was defeated — but did any concessions come from it?

CY: They set up a committee to “investigate” TA grievances. I heard from several of my friends at Yale that one of the committees, the Cameron Committeee, recommended, in fact, several changes, but the Executive Committee (the Dean’s advisory committee) simply dismissed all the recommendations. We’re in the same position we were before the strike.

ATC: Now, was this graduate student strike effort all separate from the strikes of the two campus workers’ locals?

CY: Yes and no. We escalated our efforts during the past year because the other unions’ contracts were coming up in January.

We’ve always had a tri-local organizing structure with the three unions: Locals 34 (clerical and technical workers) and 35 (service and maintenance) and GESO, all affiliated through the Federation of University Employees (FUE).

We went on “Corporation”  visits with members from the other two locals. Yale is governed by what’s called the “Yale Corporation,” a group of influential alums who basically decide policy.

We literally went to visit people at their offices — including, for example, Mayor Schmoke in Baltimore and other notables. We did all this before even deciding to take the grade strike vote.

ATC: What was the feeling among the undergraduates whose grades you were going to withhold — the next people down the academic food chain, so to speak?

CY: In general most undergrads were highly anti-strike, for ideological as well as their own practical reasons, or else indifferent, e.g. freshmen who just felt they didn’t need their grades yet.

The reaction isn’t surprising, given that Yale is preparing the next generation of economic and political elites. Yet in the class I taught, “Introduction to Post-Colonial Literatures” — taught by professor Sara Suleri-Goodyear, who turned my name over to the Dean and testified at my trial — my students were incredibly supportive.

Some of them were seniors who needed their grades. Some agreed to testify at my trial, feeling I had made a political decision, nothing that reflected any lack of caring about their education.

ATC: You mentioned previously how you were changed by the experience. How about the effect on other participants whom you know?

CY: Well, I left…In any case I think people were definitely intimidated. The jury is out on whether they’ll ultimately be radicalized. It has that potential, because it revealed to people what’s really underneath these paternalistic relations with their professors — but the short-term consequence was that it terrified them.

It became a choice between having a union, which they knew could bring certain benefits, and their careers. And it really did become a matter of “I may never get a job if I don’t kowtow to my professor.” Without a letter of recommendation from your dissertation advisor, you won’t get a job.

People felt it wasn’t worth risking being expelled and not getting into another graduate school. So that’s why many people turned in their grades.

It also made people eager to try other solutions other than union organization, like these “committees” that were set up. But seeing that these have come to nothing may ultimately start to radicalize them.

In spite of my own disappointment about those who had said they wouldn’t turn in grades and then did so, there were also people I didn’t expect who said they wouldn’t turn in their grades until we voted to do so, or while I was on trial.

ATC: Well, sometimes in a strike you have to retreat.

CY: Yes, and that was the argument, but it was a very close vote. I personally thought it was a great strategic mistake to turn in our grades.

When we went on strike, all of us team leaders and coordinators knew it was a do-or-die situation. We knew that when we went on strike, and on that basis we’d organized over 200 people within two weeks — before the December 7 vote we hadn’t even planned on doing a grade strike.

We found ourselves in an untenable position. If you have eighty people who won’t turn in their grades while the rest will, you can separate out the radicals and have the organization destroyed.

But I felt that there were the two other unions that didn’t have their contracts settled, which could reinforce our struggle. Turning in the grades was a loss. We’d been in a very strong position, with majority support, a contract program, the other two locals; I don’t think we’ll be in that strong a position for a while.

In every union struggle there comes a moment of pure will. That was the point where we faltered. I didn’t think we would ever be in a better position. But the coming Fall may be another moment, especially if the other two unions haven’t settled, because it doesn’t appear that the University will give enough concessions to the TA grad students to dissipate their grievances.

ATC: You summarized your contract issues, but can you put some flesh and blood on them to convey why feelings ran so strong when people voted for the grade strike?

CY: A couple examples. A woman studying in the music department had taken her oral exams. She happens to be married to an assistant professor. She was told, during her orals, that she should find another line of work. Then they ended up failing her, without telling her why.

Then she was told they would recommend she be kicked out. This is the kind of thing that can happen where there’s no grievance procedure, even though normally you get more than one chance to pass your orals. It took a group of people from GESO to tell the Dean they couldn’t kick her out after failing just once.

In another case, a student in the African-American Masters and then Ph.D. program left after one semester in the Ph.D. program when he lost the credit earned for his Masters degree, because one of the three people who replaced someone else on his thesis committee did not approve his thesis.

The input of his Thesis Director and the other specialist in his field was discounted in favor of someone completely outside his field of study. As a result of scholar of African-American music was discouraged from pursuing his Ph.D.

There an arbitrariness that pervades the paternalist relations between professors and graduate students. That’s one result of calling graduate teachers “apprentices,” instead of workers. You discount the valuable and irreplaceable work that graduate students do on college campuses.

ATC 63, July-August 1996