On May 22, Yale held its 316th commencement. In attendance in addition to the usual parents and dignitaries were thousands of people invited not by Yale itself but by the people who work there. We had warned Yale we would come.
Three months ago, on February 23, graduate teachers in eight departments at Yale University, including my own, voted to unionize with Local 33-UNITE HERE. On April 25, eight union members began fasting in protest of the university’s refusal to begin negotiating a contract. Since then we have acted every day to pull back Yale’s genteel veneer and reveal the $25 billion corporation beneath—the union-busting boss beneath the president pleading for civility, the payday loans and fracking projects fueling endowment growth, the rampant sexual harassment that belies the loud affirmations of gender equality, the institutional racism lurking beneath paeans to diversity. And looming at the end of the semester, we made clear, was the prospect of a demonstration at Yale’s most treasured event, the day when the university puts its venerability, its prestige, its influence on full display: commencement.
But at commencement, Yale did the work for us. The university’s panic was tangible. They barricaded the space around 33 Wall Street, our Beinecke Plaza occupation, and patrolled it with police dogs; they tried to stop the hoisting of a sign reading Congratulations!. On the eve of graduation, a crowd of graduate teachers and queer young community organizers had gathered to listen to the LGBTQ-labor activist Cleve Jones speak about his mentor, Harvey Milk. Multiple police vehicles pulled up to the plaza.
On Monday morning 2,500 people—members of Yale’s three unions, New Haven residents, labor unions and progressive activists from across the East Coast—put on orange union T-shirts with matching mortarboards and marched along a previously agreed route, some of us pushing wheelchairs carrying fasters, all of us holding balloons and reciting our most anodyne chants (“We’re certified! Negotiate!”). At every turn we were flanked by an absurdly large police detail—three times that of the usual commencement assignment. From behind a barricade of police motorcycles stacked three deep we clapped and cheered for the procession of undergraduates, many of them our former students. About midway through, the commencement stopped so the administrative figures who usually lead the way could make their way to Old Campus hidden from view by a line of graduates. The labor-community coalition organizing for economic and racial justice in New Haven sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” as President Salovey scurried past on his way to fêting John Lewis for his contributions to civil rights and Stevie Wonder for his protest songs. That was the real Yale, all right.
In 1984, the Yale clerical workers’ union Local 34—then in a fight for its life like we are now, and today lauded by Yale as an example of the good union that we are not—silently observed that year’s commencement procession (Yale’s 283rd) during their own contract campaign. Bayard Rustin, who was receiving an honorary degree, met with union members and lent his support. Undergrads pressing Yale to divest from apartheid South Africa wore ribbons on their robes; the next year they built their own occupation—a shantytown—in Beinecke Plaza.
TA Solidarity, Local 33’s predecessor, was founded three years later. Now, three decades later, Yale continues to squeeze wealth out of the most exploitative forms of capitalism, the city of New Haven, and its own workers. They have $25 billion and 315 commencements on us, at least officially. They also now have Beinecke Plaza: early Thursday morning a non-unionized construction crew destroyed 33 Wall Street under heavy police guard. But we are here to stay, and we are just getting started.
It is a near certainty that the advent of bargaining with graduate assistants will irrevocably damage graduate education in the private sector, and potentially undergraduate education as well.
Can you guess which elite university issued this dire pronouncement? Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t—it’s a trick question. The statement comes from an amicus brief filed by Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, and Stanford, all of whom were standing with their peer institution, Columbia, in fighting the labor rights of graduate student workers.
Since the latest groundswell of graduate organizing began, elite universities have collaborated in distributing misinformation, intimidating workers, and massaging reality. They have trotted out nearly identical—and uniformly bogus—FAQs about unionization. They have twisted straightforward words like “work” and “teach” right out of their lexical sockets. They have invited us to scoff at unions that represent uncouth trades like hotel housekeeping and auto manufacturing. And they have unanimously prophesied that unionization will mark the demise of higher learning as we know it. If elite universities compete for students, faculty, and U.S. News rankings, they evidently stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to defending their fiat power over the lives of graduate workers. Solidarity forever.
The graduate union movement, by contrast, began with little coordination across campuses. Early on at Columbia, we had our hands full building solidarity among colleagues at our own school. Meanwhile, unlike the administrators, who have followed a standardized playbook developed by high-priced union-busting law firms, graduate workers have organized in response to the specific needs and concerns of their communities; the resulting unions show a vibrant diversity of philosophies, organizing styles, and even aesthetics. But as we learned more and more about each other’s campaigns, it became increasingly clear that graduate workers throughout the country face similar and sometimes identical challenges. Most unions, for example, have been working to redress universities’ egregious culture of sexual harassment. We have also fought for populations whose needs are typically neglected by the university, such as international workers, LGBTQ workers, and workers with families. And nearly all of us have sought to improve on incompetent or inadequate health services. But the election of Donald Trump has magnified the underlying problem that we all confront daily: university administrators who feel emboldened to violate both the letter and spirit of US labor law, smirking all the way.
Nowhere is this more evident than at Yale, whose administration will clearly do or say anything to avoid bargaining with Local 33. This naked abuse of power has only galvanized the growing unity of graduate unions across the country. I felt this vividly when I arrived in New Haven on Sunday night with a group of friends from Columbia. Our first stop was 33 Wall Street, which union fasters and their supporters occupied for a month before it was torn down by Yale on Thursday morning. When we walked in, we felt a palpable sense of warmth and welcome. It has come to feel like the Yale workers have been fasting, protesting, and occupying for all of us. This visceral feeling of solidarity was present that night, the next day at the march, and in the strategic and social gatherings that followed. I met organizers from Duke, Emory, NYU, and CUNY; the protest also drew workers from Harvard, Princeton, The New School, UConn, and UPenn. I felt an overwhelming sense of hope and resolve, a commitment to holding power accountable. There was the sense of a movement.
With a Trump-appointed NLRB creeping closer by the day, where does this movement go now? Given that we may well lose the tenuous labor rights we have only just won, how will our unions survive? I don’t think the answer has emerged yet, but I started to see the outlines of one in New Haven. There has been a constant stream of rhetoric from both the universities and the conservative media seeking to hive graduate workers off from the rest of the labor movement—from the rest of society—deeming us special cases or privileged snowflakes. Marching through New Haven on May 22, nothing could have seemed further from the truth. The fact is that people from outside the graduate community were reaching out to hold us together with them. We marched with clerical, technical, service, and maintenance workers. We marched with professors and undergraduates. At one point I was startled to see a troupe of teenagers merging with us—a high school class along with their teacher. I met a recent college grad from New York who had come up not only to support graduate workers but also to dream and scheme with us; in a strategy meeting he introduced himself by saying “I’m not a grad student yet, but I will be soon.”
In joining with Local 33, all of these people crossed a series of powerful but ultimately imaginary lines—between unions, institutions, professions, generations. We would do well to follow their example. As graduate students, we are very good at drawing distinctions, but if we want our movement to survive we will need to focus on dissolving them. Our unions must be schools of solidarity, teaching us to stand with the broader struggle for equity and self-determination. We’re not there yet, but we will be soon.
Hannah Arendt comments of Cecil Rhodes that the imperialist baron “thought in continents and felt in centuries.” In the better part of a decade I’ve spent at Yale, I’ve often transposed this thought onto the institution: Yale moves through time in its own way, and distorts time around it as it does so.
One sees it politically in Yale’s relationship to the state—the university’s tax exemption is enshrined in the Connecticut state constitution, since Yale of course antedates Connecticut. Yale’s 20th-century gothic is similarly an aesthetic bid for the kind of timelessness to which the university transparently aspires. Harkness Tower was infamously washed with acid to make it appear older than it actually is. As if to render the point explicit, Harkness is 216 feet tall, one foot for every year since Yale’s founding at the time of its construction. Financially, too, Yale has a weird time signature: the endowment can absorb a different risk profile than equivalently sized hedge funds, because it lacks the same quarterly performance pressure.
On the human scale, the result is a sense of temporal overdetermination. Yale is so timeless that it will surely reproduce itself in the future as it has done over the preceding decades and centuries. For those who want to alter the direction of the institution and the larger academic system, I’ve always thought this is the largest obstacle: the future belongs to Yale, as it always has.
This is no less true of its relationship to our union, Local 33. On any given workplace issue in the Yale Graduate School, the university weaponizes the future. It’s always looking into the problem of endemic sexual harassment, without ever resolving it—an eternal postponement. A 2015 wage cut was explained by the hit to the endowment in the 2008 financial crisis, but a recovery that reached the investments office years ago has yet to make itself felt for the rest of us. The lack of faculty of color is constantly the subject of five- and seven-year plans, none of which have meaningful effects. Most of all, graduate students are portrayed as ingrates for not accepting our half of the time-honored academic bargain: grueling apprenticeship now, security and prestige later.
So when we voted to unionize in February, Yale of course set about stalling. As a Yale dean commented in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale might negotiate with our union after fully litigating all relevant questions through not only the National Labor Relations Board, but the federal court system. If Yale loses in court repeatedly for a decade, in other words, it will consider obeying the law.
When Local 33 members launched a fast in April, it was aimed against this use of the future. Each of the original eight fasters declared, “Yale wants us to wait. So I am waiting, without eating.” Over the course of a month of protest, new chants emerged: “Yale don’t hesitate / sit down and negotiate”; “how much longer / how much longer?”; “1, 2, 3, 4, we won’t wait anymore / 5, 6, 7, 8, Yale should negotiate.” At one rally, the chief steward of the service and maintenance workers’ union—an ally of Local 33—addressed the administration: “I’ve seen a lot of you come and go. You’re the ones who are temporary.” Similarly, the power of the union’s occupation of a central plaza on campus came precisely from the jolt of contemporary life that the encampment—complete with strings of orange lights and a small garden—gave to the open-air granite-and-marble mausoleum, adorned with the chiseled names of World War I battlefields, that is Yale’s Beinecke Plaza.
Yet Yale’s self-obsessed permanence—its willful immobility—renders it unable to recognize transformations as they are happening. The university cannot face change even when it is a fait accompli. This was true in Yale’s reluctance to rename the odious Calhoun College. It is true as well for its graduate workers. The university has yet to acknowledge that the nature of academic training and labor has permanently changed—to an extent that voids the terms of the bargain of graduate school and requires a renegotiation. This is why Yale has yet to grasp that it has already lost the struggle against Local 33.
In these last months, we have repeatedly taken Yale by surprise. This was clear with the announcement of the fast, with the series of acts of civil disobedience, and with the success of the occupation. But it was clearest at the massive demonstration at commencement. What has been revealed is the reach that Yale graduate teachers have into other worlds—that we are less cloistered than the university might imagine or hope. Yale seemed shocked that we were able to narrate our struggle in the pages of national publications—a product of the connections maintained by precarious graduate workers who know better than to bank on a vanishing academic future. And the university seemed shocked again that our story resonated, that workers of many other kinds could recognize themselves in our struggle for secure pay, a stable career, and protection on the job.
This, to me, was what was thrilling about the commencement demonstration. It dramatized the ways that graduate work no longer stands alone—still a distinctive island, perhaps, but one in a larger archipelago of precarity. The thousands of orange-clad protesters articulated a commonality characteristic of our historical moment, the long aftermath of 2008, and transverse to the university’s attempt to link past and future. What better stage to make such a point than commencement, the moment when the university, with robes and maces and Latin diplomas, declares itself to be as it has always been and always will be? “Just the beginning, Yale,” read the protesters’ signs on Monday. The specific referent was the inevitability of the union’s victory, but there’s another, richer implication at work: a reassertion of our claim on our future. Yale may be 316 years old, but Local 33 is also the longest continuous union campaign in the country. The union has its own history and trajectory. It will go, as Yale professor Michael Denning warned at the commencement demonstration, “as long as it takes.” It was, it is, it will be.
As we began to march on Dixwell Avenue on Monday morning, a middle-aged man next to me pointed out the site where the local Black Panther Party headquarters had once stood. He remembered 1970, when Yale students and community members shut things down in support of Bobby Seale, who was then on trial for murder in New Haven. “I used to live across the street,” he said. “Chills.” During the official speeches, Cleve Jones, in from San Francisco, led the crowd in singing happy birthday to his mentor Harvey Milk, who would have turned 87 on Monday. UNITE HERE official Maria Elena Durazo, in from Los Angeles, led the crowd in chants of si se puede. Historian Michael Denning—whose Wikipedia picture shows him marching on a GESO picket line back in 2005—read from a letter Chávez wrote to Yale’s president supporting workers on strike in 1971.
These invocations had something to do with the union to which the graduate student workers belong: UNITE HERE’s style of organizing owes much to Chávez’s United Farm Workers, and its hotel worker members have worked with Jones to encourage LGBT travelers to stay only in union hotels. They were also a response to Yale dean Amy Hungerford, who charged the student workers who went without food with appropriating a tactic “whose power belongs, by right” to “the millions on whose behalf Mohandas K. Gandhi, César E. Chávez, and others sacrificed.” But it was also, I think, to evoke Chávez as a symbol of broad coalition politics, the farmworker at the head of an army of liberal boycotters, embraced by RFK, told by Martin Luther King that “our separate struggles are really one.” This has never been completely true, of course. But it is impossible not to be impressed by the variety of workers who make up UNITE HERE in New Haven—clerical, technical, custodial, dining, maintenance, and (now) academic. A labor movement as weak as ours needs many more unions like it.
On Monday, Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, strode down the tree-lined streets of downtown New Haven, garbed in voluminous robes, a massive pendant, and a velvet cap with a gold, dangling tassel. Before him walked a scowling bulldog puppy that strained against its leash. Handsome Dan XVIII, the university’s mascot, was processing in his first commencement, and both figureheads were being very, very good boys.
Salovey’s refusal to negotiate with Local 33 has been an act of fealty to the Yale Corporation, the cadre of trustees who control the university. So the administration’s approach to our union has thus far been one of brutal monomania gussied up in rhetorical convolution—a specialty of technocrats. Armed with arguments supplied by the notorious union-busting firm Proskauer Rose, Salovey himself has aimed to project a sense of chin-stroking judiciousness, a scrupulous sensitivity to the specifics of the law. (That we won an NLRB-approved secret-ballot election is curiously irrelevant to him.) But beneath the bland waffling and spurious concerns about our tactics lies a desperate, unarticulated attachment to the academy’s current arrangement of power. At stake is not merely a set of material benefits—though we want, need, and will get them—but the future of the whole profession. The casualization of academic labor has revealed what was always there: a fiercely hierarchical machine, one lubricated by nepotistic favors, casual racism, and a smirking misogyny. To build power among the academy’s youngest workers—in an industry that makes a fetish of seniority—is therefore to challenge the university’s very understanding of itself. The deans are rattled.
Which is perhaps why our march on Monday was trailed by such a large number of cops. It’s a sign, surely, of the university’s pearl-clutching attitude toward the city that we were separated from commencement proper by a cordon of helmeted police. Our march had left from two locations, both groups advancing toward a point downtown, so that when we combined, we formed a single, massive train of protesters in orange shirts and orange mortarboards holding orange balloons. I was a marshal, one of the many people tasked with keeping the procession organized and leading chants: What do we want? CONTRACTS! When do we want ’em? NOW! By the end of the day I was hoarse and soaked in sweat, my palms raw from all the clapping.
It’s hard to relate (without lapsing into cliché) the particular pleasures, the rough loveliness, of collective action—but when solidarity is enacted so forcefully in the bodies of a marching mass of workers, a strange thing happens. Your consciousness of yourself, and what you do and think and intend and contribute is broken open for a moment; you vibrate with the thrill of the group, emboldened to scream louder, walk longer, be looser and more uninhibited—but also sharply attentive. You start to feel the crowd’s little ecstasies and confusions; you’re moved, for the thousandth time, by its visual extravagance. And you relish its implicit menace. The banner at the front of the march, held aloft by people who had, until a few days ago, refused to eat, read Just the beginning, Yale. It’s a good motto; I like its seizure of the future. Absent from that sentiment, however, is something that perhaps goes without saying after a decades-long fight against a centuries-old institution as it celebrated its most regal, feudal, pompous day: that yes, the struggle is today, the struggle is tomorrow—but it’s also that most precious, cherished thing to the grand old Ivy League: a tradition.
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