Local 33, Yale, and the Spirit of Conservatism

GESO, the graduate employees’ union at Yale, took a quantum leap forward this week when it was chartered as Local 33 of the UNITE-HERE international union. It now joins Yale’s two other unions: Local 34, the clerical and technical workers’ union, and Local 35, the service and maintenance workers’ union. Though Yale has yet to recognize Local 33, this is a big step.

As the Washington Post reports:

On Wednesday evening, something happened that generations of graduate students at Yale University had awaited for nearly two decades: The founding of a union. With about 1,500 members present, amidst New Haven’s other unions and with the support of a who’s who of Connecticut public officials, the international president of UNITE-HERE arrived to certify their majority support and grant them a charter.

“It’s a really historic and amazing event, and something that will bring a new local to the UNITE-HERE family at Yale for the first time in 30 years,” says Aaron Greenberg, a graduate student in political science who chairs the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. “We’re not waiting for the administration to come to the table.”

The only correction I would add is what my friend Kristi Starr said on Facebook: the grad students at Yale have not been “awaiting” this move for nearly two decades. They’ve been fighting like hell for this move for nearly two decades. The grad union drive began in the late 1980s, and if all goes well, it will come to a conclusion in the coming year.

Speaking of the union’s history, my friend Nikhil Singh, who’s now a professor at NYU but who was one of the founders of GESO, sent the founders of Local 33 a letter on this historic occasion. This excerpt really captures what’s so special about the unions at Yale:

The relatively small group of us committed to the unionization path began to pursue the issue with very little knowledge of what we were doing. We started researching other graduate student unions, mostly at public universities, and interviewing prospective unions to work with us, starting with the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW offered us a lot of resources — right up front — an office and an organizing budget. It was flattering, but also a little scary to be honest. Did I say, we had no idea what we were doing?

The following week we met with representatives from Locals 34 and 35, unions whose histories many of us knew well and admired. I don’t remember exactly who was in the room, but I’ll never forget what the 34 and 2 35 leaders told us that day. “We won’t make you any funding promises. And, anything that we agree to in terms of support will be contingent on ratification by our members. But the one thing we will teach you how to do is to beat Yale.”

Just because it’s a cliche, doesn’t mean it’s not true: the rest was history. After that meeting, we had no doubt about the union that we needed to work with going forward. To our immense credit, we understood very well, that our success hinged upon the success of all Yale’s workers.

From that day, I don’t think I ever worked so hard, or so systematically, and (less proudly) I have not worked that hard or systematically since! As you know, your union is no joke when it comes to organizing. Nothing is left to chance and you can never hide. Everyone must be talked to, repeatedly. You have your numbers for every meeting, for every rally, for every action. And, it is the one instance in life when taking no for an answer, is always provisional. Correction: you never take no for an answer.

I learned a lot of what I know about politics from being an organizer at Yale. In fact, there’s a whole generation of us who did, and it’s influenced the kind of intellectual work we’ve gone on to do, in a variety of fields: history, political science, English. We’re scattered across the country—at Berkeley, Oregon, Carnegie Mellon, U. Mass., NYU—and there are now several generations of scholars that have come after us, at Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago and elsewhere. This, I’d like to think, is the real “Yale School” of scholarship. About ten years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Ed even wrote a profile of a group of us.

The Post also mentions that Yale, along with a bunch of other schools, is fighting the union movement in court. There’s a NLRB case brewing (it comes out of Columbia University), and Yale, Harvard, Cornell and Company have joined together in an amicus brief. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but this bit from the Post‘s description caught my eye:

The elite schools also worry that granting grad students collective bargaining rights would interfere with academic freedom, since changes to teaching loads — even something as small as adding an essay to exam — could become the subject of extended negotiation, decreasing the flexibility of instruction.

That’s a pretty stunning statement. What it means is that Yale and these other universities believe that the relevant academic freedom in question is that of the professor, not the graduate student, and that the freedom in question—the right to make assignments in a classroom—is critically dependent upon the availability of a pool of labor that will simply execute the task of grading that assignment without questioning the professor’s decision to make the assignment. Should that right to make the assignment “become the subject of extended negotiation,” the right of the professor—and thus, her academic freedom—would be diminished.

Graduate student TAs are paid a certain amount of money per year to do these grading tasks for professors. On Yale’s accounting, the only limit on how many and how much of these tasks the professor can ask the TA to perform is…the judgment, discretion, decision, whim—call it what you will—of the professor herself. Any limit that might be imposed by a discussion with the laborer who carries out the task would be a limitation on the professor’s academic freedom.

Five years ago, I wrote a book on conservatism called The Reactionary Mind. You may have heard me talk about it here. There’s a passage in the book that seems pertinent:

Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom. “We are all agreed as to our own liberty,” declared Samuel Johnson. “But we are not agreed as to the liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose. I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern us.”

I never quite realized it till now, but that describes Yale’s position to a tee.

In fact, in his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, which I didn’t talk about in my book, Edmund Burke, the founder of conservatism, has to this to say:

It is the interest of the farmer, that his [the agricultural laborer who works for the farmer] work should be done with effect and celerity: and that cannot be, unless the labourer is well fed, and otherwise found with such necessaries of animal life, according to it’s habitudes, as may keep the body in full force, and the mind gay and cheerful. For of all the instruments of his trade, the labour of man (what the ancient writers have called the instrumentum vocale) is that on which he is most to rely for the re-payment of his capital. The other two, the semivocale in the ancient classification, that is, the working stock of cattle, and the instrumentum mutum, such as carts, ploughs, spades, and so forth, though not all inconsiderable in themselves, are very much inferiour in utility or in expence; and without a given portion of the first, are nothing at all. For in all things whatever, the mind is the most valuable and the most important; and in this scale the whole of agriculture is in a natural and just order; the beast is as an informing principle to the plough and cart; the labourer is as reason to the beast; and the farmer is as a thinking and presiding principle to the labourer. An attempt to break this chain of subordination in any part is equally absurd.

In the same way that the beast is “an informing principle to the plough and cart” and the “labourer is as reason to the beast,” so is the professor, on Yale’s lights, “a thinking and presiding principle” to the TA, who in this scenario is little more than the beast, the plough, and the cart.

Yale is a place that prides itself on its liberal learning. Its professors style themselves as progressive; its administrators do, too. I’m sure they all vote Democrat, and are horrified by the spectacle of Donald Trump and the Republicans. Yet here we have these very same liberal sensibilities arguing a position that comes straight out of the right-wing precincts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.



  1. troy grant March 11, 2016 at 6:10 pm | #

    Conservatives are said to be people who have wealth/power/tradition to conserve. Rich/powerful/traditional “liberals”, like the academic hoi polloi, are neoliberals, or conservatives in liberal drag.

    Real liberals like Jesus, Gandhi and the Buddha were poor by choice. Money is Mammon, the root of all evil.

    • Raven Thomas March 23, 2016 at 12:23 pm | #

      while I do not disagree with your comment, I would note that it is in fact “the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil.”

      • troy grant March 23, 2016 at 8:53 pm | #

        Thanks Raven. But since it takes money to love it, I still think it is the root of all evil.

  2. M. K. BRUSSEL March 11, 2016 at 11:13 pm | #

    It might be useful to outline what the tasks of a professor are and those of the students in his class. Are the students to be he arbiters of what is taught and how? Do we need a union for that? What is the nature of teaching in these graduate classes? Why do these students come to Yale?

  3. Roqeuntin March 11, 2016 at 11:17 pm | #

    I tend to view freedom as dialectical concept, something which can be turned into it’s opposite – oppression – or more accurately contains the very concept of oppression within itself. Conservatives operate on just such an inversion. Freedom really can become freedom of the owner to do as he pleases with his subordinates. Adorno and Horkheimer do a good job of identifying this in the Dialectic of Enlightenment when discussing the Marquis De Sade. Whatever else you want to say about Sade, he took the concept of freedom to its most extreme logical conclusions, a freedom which included intentionally harming others for ones own personal gratification. In many ways, it is a zero sum game, and emancipation of the lower orders means a reduction in the liberties of those above.

    There is also a particularly good portion of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, where he illustrates the close relationship of the concept of liberty in ancient Roman jurisprudence with ownership, private property, and slavery (one took liberties with his or her possessions). This is all to say that the concept of freedom was never pure. It included this contradiction in its very conception.

    Long story short, try as one might, class conflict cannot be reduced down to discussions of freedom.

  4. CP March 12, 2016 at 1:02 pm | #

    Great post. Of course, establishment liberals played important roles in anti-union activities throughout the Progressive years. They joined the Citizens’ Alliances, promoted the rights of the so-called “free worker” against “union dictation,” and endorsed T. Roosevelt’s pro-open shop “Square Deal.” Check out chapter 2 for more on this: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15458.html

  5. troy grant March 12, 2016 at 1:38 pm | #

    “Conservative” is another, better sounding word for “authoritarian”, the true opposite of “liberal”.

    There is a conservative behind every atrocity and every violent criminal and CEO calls him or herself a conservative. The oligarchy’s gargantuan megaphone spreads fear and calls for self-serving and violent authoritarian or conservative “solutions”. Key to its strategy is to demonize liberals and glorify conservatives, even here.

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