A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Friday, March 14, 2003
WAY TOO LATE TO THE PARTY: I realize that I completely shirked my duty as the only Yale-affiliated blogger, so far as I know, who was actually on strike last week (a.k.a. 7 million years ago in blog time). But let me give my overall impression as someone who actually walked the picket lines for a bit. I've broken this up into several posts to make it readable (maybe I'll change my middle initial to "D"?).

Some Slivers of Background

I should make briefly my position clear. I'm a (somewhat skeptical) member of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the group representing (most of) those Yale graduate and professional students who want to form a union. If you're at Yale, you hear all sorts of things about GESO. Some people think they're a bunch of thugs who use coercion and intimidation to organize; others think that they're as swell as the Peace Corps.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I'd say that there's around maybe a fifth of the organization that is pretty wild-eyed, and this fanatical bunch is overrepresented in the organization's leadership. This is par for the course, I think, for any grassroots organization that's engaged in a live, pretty much full-out conflict. And GESO has certainly been in a running battle for the past 18 years, as the administration at Yale has consistently and completely refused to negotiate and has publicly said that it would challenge any attempt to unionize all the way up to the Supreme Court, whatever the National Labor Relations Board or anyone else says. For, in the administration's view, graduate students aren't employees, not even when they're teaching, and so should never be eligible for collective bargaining rights (this assertion, I should add, is pretty much nuts, since the NLRB indisputably says that grad students at public universities are organizable employees, and there are no consistent relevant differences between public and private school grad students).

GESO, in response, has reacted to the roadblocks and strange logic the university has thrown in its way by becoming more and more embittered and shrill. That 20% I spoke of above tends to dominate the leadership, which has embraced a martial discourse and an organizing strategy based on house visits and probably several more phone calls and proposals for meetings a month than I think is prudent. In short, they are rather annoying, although probably not harassing.

Anyway, the bottom line is that I have not been terribly impressed by GESO's tactics. But the conduct of the Yale administration is significantly uglier. If you know anything about New Haven, then you know that it is a wretched and impoverished mess. Its long time mayor, who just died, once said, "if New Haven is America's model city, then God help America." There are a bunch of reasons for why New Haven is such a basket case, but it is undeniable that Yale's mismanagement and indifference as a major employer (somehing like 11% of all jobs in New Haven are now Yale jobs) is a significant one. Certainly, Yale labor relations have, in a word, sucked. Yale has fought every organizing attempt ever made tooth and nail--both Local 35 (service and maintenance) and Local 34 (clerical and technical) had to fight like mad to exist. So the struggles of both GESO as well as the contested-status workers at the Yale-New Haven hospital are continuous with an unprepossessing history. You probably shouldn't be surprised to learn that during the past 11 bargaining situations at Yale, 8 have resulted in strikes. And in every case, the people, activist groups, clergy, and politicians of New Haven have sided with labor.

Why I Went on Strike

I originally voted against a GESO strike but I changed my mind. By itself, I don't think that a GESO strike is yet warranted, since we now (as a result of a 2000 ruling by the NLRB that declared that grad students at private schools are, surprise, employees) have the ability to file for an election. Yes, I agree the admin will surely be a bunch of bastards and fight it in court in bad faith for years and years, but I think we at least owe the undergrads the courtesy of demonstrating the administration's bastardity before walking out on their sections.

But then I considered Locals 34 and 35 and the hospital workers. They have linked their cause to GESO’s and to the hospital workers’ not merely out of solidarity, but also because they see union growth as crucial to maintaining their members’ living standards. They see their relative wages and bargaining position slipping as Yale shifts more and more of its work to external contractors who employ poorly paid non-union labor. They also recognize that it’s much easier to temporarily replace clerical and technical staff than graduate teachers during a strike. For these reasons, the existing locals feel that a fair framework for unionizing graduate students and hospital workers is an important--although not an absolute--part of their demands.

Given the relationship between Yale and New Haven--a situation in which an institution shortsightedly continually builds on its reputation and enriches its members while taking advantage of its tax-exempt status and the surrounding pool of cheap labor--I think it is entirely appropriate for the workers at Yale to strike. A strike is the most powerful means of self-defense that American law gives workers to redress the imbalance that results from the disparity in the bargaining situation between labor and capital. Yale's administration has sadly historically demonstrated that it cannot be curbed from unjustly damaging the community without strong countervailing action; the continuing poverty of the community and its intransigence in the past 2 years of negotiations show that it has not yet done nearly enough to change. And so the workers are justified in defending themselves.

What the Strike Was Like

So I was a bit sick and only put in around 15 hours or so either marching around or going to demonstrations. It was cold. And, no, it wasn't a big vacation. I kept up with my reading for the classes I would have taught and did my own research, although I didn't use the libraries or the gym (no, I didn't fully go along with GESO's idea of an "intellectual strike"--that just seemed self-defeating). But there was a good deal of camaderie on the picket lines and lots of support from the townspeople in their cars and the other bargaining units. We grad students were usually accompanied by strikers from the other units--because Yale is a fairly spread-out urban campus, it's impossible to picket more than a few areas with a significant presence, so we would march around to different areas and join up with different groups of people. Most of us were fairly upbeat and positive and I sang the chants and banged on pots and did all that most of the time. Some of the songs were a bit silly, but I think every movement needs a few of those to make itself heard.

The most inspiring moments were the rallies. There were a lot of people at most of those. I'd guess that around 5,000 people attended the Jesse Jackson rally. Jesse was a pretty weak speaker, by the way, and singing "We Shall Overcome" at first seemed a bit weird, but when I realized that around half of the crowd was black or hispanic--a situation that generally only occurs for me at Yale when I'm late leaving the dining hall--it felt a lot less weird. Cornel West was fantastic--that entire "Education in the Streets" event was pretty incredible, since it managed to attract close to 1,000 to hang out in the street for an hour in a freakin' raging snowstorm. I know the undergrad organizers must have been really worried about that, but I think they did a splendid job, considering the circumstances.

The only complaints about anyone's conduct I have is that the unions were sometimes a bit disorganized and a tad inconsiderate when they had a big parade of us crossing a street. That caused unnecessary consternation at times, but other than that, everyone's conduct, including that of university security, seemed commendable. It's very sad that there were no negotiations during the strike, though.

The Ethics of Crossing Picket Lines

Again this is way too late, but over the past few weeks, smart Yale law bloggers such as Kate Malcolm and Steven Wu pondered the ethics of crossing picket lines. My take is somewhat different from both positions. I agree with Steve's general argument that one's affiliation with an institution means that one cannot avoid being implicated in it. Thus, you cannot argue that continuing to go to class through picket lines is neutral, since you are only doing this by doing what you used to do. As students or consumers or whatever of an institution, your affiliation with it makes you more than a third party and the only way you claim neutrality without attempting to make a judgement is through willfully ignoring what's going on; to me, this is worse than being on the wrong side. Kate's attempt to parry this assertion by drawing distinctions between which actions (paying tuition or attending class) actually render one complicit can be seen to fail in the last line of her post: if crossing picket lines symbolically supports the employers, then a crosser is being complicit in the employers' actions to the extent that his or her action lend support. Only if the crosser is ignorant that his or her actions lend support in this way can he or she be cleared of moral culpability.

Yet, perhaps in Kate's defense, I think it is entirely possible to cross picket lines and remain neutral or support the workers. First, crossing a picket line is not a deontological absolute. You don't deliver measurable quantiles of psychic energy to Yale every time you cross. You can, for example, cross picket lines and "make it up" by supporting the employees in other ways. Second, enrolled university students are a captive market. As they have no other choice of institution to attend and the university refuses to give them a refund, the degree to which their crossing (in order to attend class) is voluntary decreases greatly, and so too does the symbolic support implied by this crossing. Yes, students can still always choose not to go to class, but their choice to do so has been recognizably constrained by the university's unwillingess to cancel classes and stated intention to punish students for not attending. In this respect, the students' academic careers are being held hostage. Third, there are many different ways to cross a picket line. One can show active disrespect or uncaring for those on the line or one can display empathy and support. I want to suggest that someone who crosses a picket line while giving the workers dirty looks without making any effort to find out about their plight is being complicit in their exploitation, and that this person is very different from a student who spends some time looking into the situation of the workers that are a constitutive component of their shared community and institutions and as a result decides to say a kind word while crossing (of course, a different case is the student who decides to give the workers dirty looks as a result of doing some research into their cause and finding them corrupt or unjustified).
Grads and Undergrads

One last point regarding teaching: I wasn't impressed by this David Adesnik generalization in response to another (implied) generalization by Prof. Corey Robin's NYT op-ed:
CR: The university's administrators like to claim Yale has changed. And it has — thanks in part to the unions, which do as much as any professor to teach students about the dignity of work. But old habits die hard. On Wednesday, an undergraduate columnist in Yale's student newspaper ended her essay with a message to Anita Seth, the leader of the graduate students' union: "Oh, and Anita? Go teach a section."
How do students so young exercise such breezy command? Where do they learn such imperial disregard, talking to teachers — and dishwashers and janitors — as if they were personal servants? I don't know, but I don't blame the students. They've just learned a lesson from Yale.

DA: Typical. For whatever reason, pro-union grad students at Yale delude themselves into believing that Yale's undergraduates are the heartless scions of an American plutocracy, rather than the middle-of-the-road middle-class liberals that they actually are.
I won't lean hard on the point that Prof. Robin does not explicitly argue that this attitude characterizes all Yale undergrads; I can see why some of them might be offended by the implication, though.

But David's breezy generalization does little to help things. I and a lot of pro-labor grad students I know think most Yale undergrads are wonderful, generally liberal people, and it was hard us to decide to stop teaching. The misunderstanding between grad and undergrad students at Yale actually is a big problem, although not exactly in the way in which. Prof. Robin or David characterize it. The Yale Daily News has for some reason taken a consistently anti-GESO stance over the years, perhaps looking at the situation through the simple division-of-resources lens of pluralist politics: the more the grad students get, the less for undergrads. But this is a blinkered view, and I think the result of the real and just slightly sad separation that is a reality of life at Yale. Most undergrads live a frenetic and enveloped life that is almost completely separated from the goings-on of much of the rest of Yale and I generally don't fault them at all for doing so: there's seems to be too much going on in Yale College for any human being to taste even a fraction of it. But if the editors at the YDN knew grad students a bit better, they would know that many members of GESO, as well as many grad students who loathe GESO are so deeply vested in the issue precisely because they care deeply about their teaching. From my (loosely) pro-GESO perspective, a great part of the reason I support the union is because of its support for smaller class sizes, more extensive teacher training, and more recognition for good teaching. At the moment, PhD students have almost every incentive to spend as little effort as possible at teaching and as much as they can at doing professional research, and I think this is a huge problem for all Yale students who view themselves as part of a common academic community.

REPLIES: David Adesnik says, yeah, most of the pro-GESO grad students he knows are OK to the undergrads; it's just that a majority of the ones that get quoted in the press have the attitude he describes. Fair enough, perhaps. Brett Marston shares some similar thoughts to mine.
Thursday, March 13, 2003
WHO NEEDS ALLIES? Clearly necons such as The Corner's Katherine Jean Lopez don't think the U.S. needs any. Otherwise she wouldn't have been so flip about this article about a platoon of Canadian troops headed to the Gulf to join the several ships and transport aircraft already deployed to assist the U.S.

"Um. This is a typo right? EIGHTEEN troops deployed?" Ms. Smart-Aleck asks.

Well, yes, Snarkella, although there were around 800 more in Afghanistan, until a couple of pilots on their own side dropped a bomb on a company of them.

Oh, and that's not counting the 2,000 who will be there in a couple of months.
YOU MIGHT AS WELL SEND BACK THE STATUE OF LIBERTY WHILE YOU'RE AT IT: OK, so Freedom Fries and Toast were just sort of randomly silly, but this Congresswoman's proposal to enable the disinterment of American soldiers buried in France and Belgium is an idea that:

(a) displays the maturity and sensitivity of a vengeful 9-year-old;


(b) is rather gross, frankly.

Could any of you just stop and think for a moment about what you are doing, people? Please?

I think Get Your War On puts it best when it asks "Would somebody act like a ****ing grown-up for once???"

(via CalPundit)

NOTE: Yes, I'm going to post something more substantive soon...
Wednesday, March 12, 2003
TOUCHÉ: I'd also thought I'd note that the prolific Prof. Reynolds, or "He-Who-Would-Judge-Other-Countries-By-Their-Reaction-to-American-Tragedy" has, as of this time, uttered not a peep about the assassination of the Serbian PM on his usually extremely timely blog.

Not that ths shows that Prof. Reynolds is lacking empathy for the citizens of Serbia or that there's anything wrong with his worldview, of course. I mean, the assassination of some political leader in the Balkans isn't anything that Americans should care about because it may be of world-historical significance or anything.
DAMN: Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was just assassinated by a sniper.

I know there's lots of relevant disanalogies, but it's hard not to draw the comparison to another assassination in the region that happened earlier last century. That he was pro-Western and helped lead the revolt against Milosevic are almost certainly important. And worrying.

Just for the memory's sake, I saw this first on Demosthenes' site.

Yeah, the pace of blogging has slowed for me...but I will make the occasional contribution.

A thoughtful Paul Wells, from a week ago -- he neatly sums up the despair that many of us feel when we flip to the daily op-eds.

And Toronto's favourite son returns home. All we need now is to lure Wendel Clark out of retirement -- hell, we've already discovered where Bill Barilko is hiding.
Monday, March 10, 2003
IS MARCUS GEE TODAY'S H.L. MENCKEN? I'm not even going to bother to invoke Godwin's Law on this one.

Marcus, buddy, if the editors at The Globe wanted Krusty the Clown to write its op ed pieces, they would have asked him.
Sunday, March 09, 2003
GROUP PROJECTS SUCK: Among Dubya's other many other sins-in-progress, his incompetence on the world stage may be destroying Tony Blair's health, according to The Observer's Andrew Rawnsley:
One visitor to the Prime Minister's office reports seeing bottles of pills and an inhaler on the desk, medical crutches to keep the man on his feet. It's said that Tony Blair has been looking so strung out because he has got a nasty dose of the flu. I suspect that the reverse is the case. He can't shake off the flu because he is so utterly exhausted....

The pressure on Tony Blair has been even further increased by the inability of the Americans to sell their President and their case for military action to the rest of the world. George Bush has not travelled outside the United States since last November. That may be just as well given the trail of diplomatic wreckage left in his wake when Donald Rumsfeld went rampaging through Europe.

In the months that the American President has been grounded at home, Tony Blair has toured the Middle East, gyrated around Europe and crisscrossed the Atlantic. He invited the jibe from Nelson Mandela that he has become the American Foreign Secretary. He has become that because he has had to be.

It has fallen upon Mr Blair to be the allied ambassador to the Arab World, the chief advocate in Europe and - his newest responsibility - spokesman to yoof. He spent three hours recording that question-and-answer with an international audience of young people for MTV's global pop channel.
Blair is so getting the classic college "damn-I-got-assigned-to-do-this-group-project-
with-the-frat-boy-screwball" shaft.

Mr. Bush, please stop napping and acting like a tool before you kill your most significant friend in the international arena!
HEAT: Tony Blair is being threatened by what Agence France-Presse calls "a wave of resignations" by backbenchers and even cabinet members should he help invade Iraq in the absence of UN approval. If you don't trust a Gallic source, then try The Guardian instead:
Tony Blair hopes that by relying on evidence supplied by the UN itself to push through the vital second resolution on war, Britain and America will avoid accusations that they will act against Iraq whatever the UN says. He also wants to head off a growing rebellion of backbench MPs and the threat of resignation by up to 30 Ministers if no second resolution is achieved.

Last night a number of junior Ministers were named as being ready to resign if there was no second resolution. Anne Campbell, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Patricia Hewitt, the Trade Secretary, Andy Reed, aide to Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, and Michael Jabez Foster, who works for Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, have all said they would consider their position.

More than 200 backbench MPs are also likely to rebel if a vote is taken in the Commons on conflict with Iraq without a second resolution.
This is one of the reasons why I'm much warmer toward Blair than the rest of the left. Unlike the "he's Bush's poodle" crowd, I don't mind the position Blair has put himself in, because think it's clear that Blair knows he won't be able to survive the Labour uprising that will occur should he send troops into Iraq without UN Security Council approval. And at this pointBush (if he has even a shred of sense left in him) realizes that he drops to absolute zero credibility on Iraq without the UK's support. So in a much more direct way than anyone would have dared to dream 18 months ago, the neocon zealots in the White House have become constrained by the pinkish Labourites in Westminster. The irony of this is almost worth of price of admission to this crazy world. Almost.

For this reason, among a few others (although I have to admit that those others are quite few), I am perhaps the only semi-intelligent person of any political persuasion in Blogtopia who's willing to give even odds that there will be no invasion of Iraq until at least next fall. It may sound nuts given that there's a hundred thousand troops doing jumping jacks in Kuwait, but most people didn't predict that the U.S. would've failed to buy off Turkey cooperation (OK, I didn't exactly predict this either, but it's in line with my general position). So any takers?