Twenty years ago, to the day, I participated in a strike. My very first one. I suspect that as human beings, we have the capacity for one, maybe two, genuinely radicalizing experiences in our lives. This was mine. As I wrote in a New York Times op-ed years later (read first page here, second page here):
How did a university founded in revolt against old Boston come to practice such lordly rule? Because it can. Unlike Harvard, which must compete with large private employers, other major universities and cultural institutions, Yale is by far the largest employer in New Haven. In 1965, Yale accounted for one out of every 20 jobs in New Haven. Today, because of a combination of Yale’s growth and New Haven’s decline, Yale employs more than 11,000 workers — one out of every five jobs in the city.
I used to have one of them. In 1990 I arrived at Yale as a graduate student. Some of my colleagues had begun to unionize, but I thought they were silly. We aren’t workers, I said, and I didn’t come to Yale to join a union. Yes, graduate students do a lot of teaching and grading — but that was an honor, not a burden. True, one dean had compared us to rats. Still, I resisted.
A year later, graduate students went on strike. I did, too — reluctantly. But on the picket line, something happened to me. As we marched around the freshman quad, an undergraduate yelled out his dorm window, ”Get back to work.” For the first time in my life, I felt like a maid. And suddenly I realized that this was how other workers at Yale — in the dining halls, the labs, the offices — routinely felt. I kept marching, determined never to forget what it’s like to work at a place like Yale.
This headline from the Yale Daily News on the day after we walked out captures the spirit of the day. And this look back, from today’s New Haven Register by my friend and former comrade Kathy Newman, provides some lovely testimony from other friends and former comrades.