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Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9712101539.A27224-0100000@bluestem.prairienet.org>
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 15:00:50 -0600
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Dennis Grammenos <dgrammen@PRAIRIENET.ORG>
Subject: Pssst! Get a load of this one...

Yale's Labor Strife Leads Some of Its Ph.D.s to Abandon Academe for Union Organizing

By Courtney Leatherman, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 December 1997; The Faculty Section, pg. A16

Does trend say more about divisions at the university, or the naivete of its teaching assistants?

If she hadn't gone to Yale University for graduate school, Ivana Krajcinovic figures she'd be an economics professor right now. Thank God I went, she says.

Ms. Krajcinovic, who earned her Ph.D. in economics in 1993, is instead a union activist. She organizes dishwashers in Monterey, Cal., for Local 483 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees.

She credits Yale for her change of heart. Ms. Krajcinovic started graduate school there in 1987, intent on becoming an academic, like her father, an engineering professor at Arizona State University. But during her six years in New Haven, Conn., she grew increasingly turned off by the academic enterprise and turned on by the labor movement. She got a feel for organizing as a leader in the continuing drive by teaching assistants to gain recognition from Yale for GESO, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.

Yale is like boot camp for organizing, she says. They run a real good program there.

Ms. Krajcinovic is not the only recruit labor has won from Yale in the past few years. While the university has a long tradition of launching the careers of corporate chiefs, Supreme Court Justices, even U.S. Presidents, more recently it has proved to be a starting point for a wholly different kind of leader: a union leader.

Over the past five years, nearly a dozen graduate students and twice as many undergraduates have pursued jobs in labor after leaving Yale. Many of them had worked for GESO or two affiliated unions, which represent maintenance and clerical workers. All three unions make up a federation affiliated with the hotel and restaurant employees' union. And all three have had bitter, protracted disputes with Yale that have led to strikes and arrests.

Critics of GESO say the idea that graduate students can be compared with janitors is a delusion. People with the most advantages have the need to go out and identify with the huddled masses, says Donald Kagan, a Yale historian and classicist.

Of the students who have abandoned academe for the labor movement, some earned their Ph.D.'s, and others quit. Some are now organizing bartenders and garment workers; some are working with graduate students on other campuses.

One of the things the Yale administration has unintentionally done is make Yale into a breeding ground for experienced, tested union activists, says Gordon Lafer, who was a GESO leader and earned his Ph.D. in political science in 1995.

Dr. Lafer is now an assistant professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center. He works with nurses, loggers, and construction workers, teaching them the ropes of collective bargaining.

To be sure, Ph.D.'s from other institutions, like the Universities of California, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, also have joined the labor movement. Under the new, more-aggressive leadership of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., labor and academe have been trying to make stronger connections -- many of the teaching assistants' unions are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers -- and many graduate students have responded.

Those at Yale who have answered labor's call account for only a tiny fraction of the roughly 300 Ph.D.'s that the university produces every year. Still, the academics-turned-activists are noteworthy, for what their career moves mean for labor and say about Yale.

Many of these students were drawn to Yale precisely because of its prestige and their desire to teach at such an institution. Along the way, however, many graduate students experienced what one who was there, Trip McCrossin, describes as a gestalt shift. He and others came to feel not like the chosen few, but like a bunch of badly treated workers.

Yale spends about $130,000 in tuition waivers and stipends for each of those workers. Yale invests heavily in its graduate students, realizing that they are the next generation of scholars, Thomas Appelquist, dean of the graduate school, has said (The Chronicle, April 18).

As it has turned out, some in the next generation were more interested in organizing bottom-rung workers. Their turnabout reflects something of Yale's own reality -- prestige tarnished by a long, very public history of labor unrest.

Labor relations is not something you can ignore at Yale, says Robin L. Brown, who became an organizer for the hotel-and-restaurant-employees' union in Santa Monica, Cal., after leaving Yale's comparative-literature program last spring. At most universities, labor relations takes more of a back seat. At Yale, certainly in my lifetime as a student and a teacher, it's always been at the forefront.

Students who have worked with GESO since its inception in 1990 have pushed the issue of teaching assistants to a pivotal moment now. A grade strike they held in 1996 has brought before the full National Labor Relations Board the question of whether graduate students who teach at Yale are students, as the university argues and the labor board has stipulated since the '70s, or employees, as the students maintain. The board may take up the matter this month, and its decision could change the rules for graduate-student unionization on every private-college campus in the country. A lot of eyes are on the case.

I think a great deal -- even the future of graduate education the way we understand it -- turns on what happens at Yale, says Steven B. Smith, a political-science professor there who deeply opposes GESO's activities. Mr. Smith had been Gordon Lafer's adviser until the student shifted from political theory, Mr. Smith's specialty, to labor relations.

The professor didn't consider Dr. Lafer's career shift a betrayal. Not everybody who enters the academic program is cut out for the academic life, Mr. Smith says. Some go into consulting, some go into public service, some go to law school, some go into the labor movement.

He has no problem with that. What I think is inappropriate, he says, is using the graduate-school experience as a way of trying to unionize and mobilize graduate students as a labor force. I think that's wrong, and destructive of the intellectual climate of the university.

Many professors and administrators at Yale don't buy the notion that there is something singular about the Yale experience that propels students into union work. The skeptics believe that such students lack the calling for academe. As a result, they are more susceptible to the frustrations and loneliness facing graduate students on most campuses.

Jerome J. Pollitt, a professor of classical archaeology, served as dean of Yale's graduate school from 1986 to 1991. He was deemed an enemy by graduate students who said he ignored serious problems, like the low salaries paid to teaching assistants. He suspects that some of the most vocal GESO members already had a proclivity for that sort of thing and probably wanted to do it, deep down, more than they wanted to be scholars.

Yale has frequent and noisy negotiations with its clerical and maintenance workers, Mr. Pollitt says. Students have been drawn to what he calls a festival of confrontations because it was kind of exciting to go out and demonstrate.

Some union observers beyond Yale believe that graduate students there get involved in the labor movement out of a sense of noblesse oblige. It's almost like the powerful class is going to step down and help the masses, says Joel M. Douglas, a professor of public administration at Baruch College of the City University of New York. And if I were one of the masses, I might be a bit concerned about the motivations.

Dr. Douglas, a former director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at Baruch, explains: If I were going to be a graduate student and it didn't work out -- for whatever reason -- and I needed a new identity, union organizing is an interesting identity. It's much more interesting than being an account clerk for an ad agency. It's jazzy.

As an undergraduate at Yale, Eve S. Weinbaum helped support a clerical workers' strike. When she returned in 1989, to do doctoral work in political science, she had no interest in organizing graduate stuents. I was interested in looking at much more serious issues, like poverty.

But Yale made it increasingly difficult for her to focus on her work, she says, and she joined the union. Teaching assistants weren't being trained to teach and were encouraged to cut corners in grading papers, to keep up with the load, she says. Members of GESO held walkouts in 1991 and 1992 to win support for a teacher-training program for graduate T.A.'s.

Ms. Weinbaum insists that she did have the calling. She was supported by a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, and she sought academic posts. But she grew disillusioned with faculty members who seemed to be on the right side when it came to empowering the oppressed but on the wrong side when the downtrodden were graduate students.

So she changed her plans and wound up as political director of the Southern region of UNITE, the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees.

Many Yale professors think the fact that graduate students wind up working in labor organizing is an indictment more of the academic job market than of Yale.

The indictment has two counts, responds Tamara Joseph, who left Yale in 1994 before completing her dissertation in English literature. As a member of GESO, she began to find academia becoming less attractive -- partly because of the ghastliness of the job market, she says, but also because of the ways in which the institutions were intensely hierarchical and anti-democratic.

Organizing, on the other hand, gave people a way to exercise control over their lives and was incredibly exciting. Now, she says, I know more people from Yale who are union organizers than in any other single area of employment.

Ms. Joseph has taken the GESO brand of organizing on the road. GESO aims for one organizer for every five union members, to insure lots of personal contact. She taught that approach to union members at the University of Michigan, before moving on to the University of Minnesota, where she is an organizer for the Council of Graduate Students. Her husband, Trip McCrossin, is working on his dissertation in philosophy and is an organizer for the T.A. union on Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus.

Some Yale students who were active in GESO have pursued academic careers. Kathy M. Newman, who will receive her Ph.D. in American studies this month, has taken a job as an assistant professor of literary and cultural theory at Carnegie Mellon University. Recalling the support for GESO provided by two Yale political scientists, Michael Denning and David Montgomery, gives her confidence in her decision to stay in academe. I can't imagine what Yale would have been like without them, she says. I want to be that person for students and colleagues wherever I am. Dr. Newman still calls herself an intellectual worker.

Mr. Kagan, the Yale history professor, snickers when he hears such descriptions. A former dean of the college, Mr. Kagan was reviled by union activists for his attitude and his actions toward their union efforts. He finds their transition now from academe to labor trendy, affected, and, ultimately, hypocritical.

Students who try to paint Yale's graduate school as a horrible place have no basis for comparison, he argues. Unlike these guys, I've been to other places. Mr. Kagan earned his Ph.D. at the Ohio State University. These guys wouldn't be seen dead at Ohio State. It's beneath them. They're Ivy League types.

They fought like tigers to get in, he says. For every one who got in, seven, eight, nine didn't. They get here -- most provided with financial assistance that allows them to do their work -- and they're proteges. Then to complain that they are exploited workers is ludicrous.

Scholars who believe that graduate school is a training ground for academe are bound to oppose efforts to convince folks this really is like a coal mine, he adds.

As it happens, though, the problems of coal miners may end up helping Yale workers. Ms. Krajcinovic, the union organizer who works with dishwashers, published her dissertation, From Company Doctors to Managed Care: The United Mine Workers' Noble Experiment (Cornell University Press), last month. That proves she was a scholar, she says, and a loyal worker: Proceeds from her book will go to a strike fund for Yale employees.