May 10, 2017

Yale Hunger Strike Challenges University’s Resistance to Unionization

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT–Since April 26, a group of eight Yale University graduate student employees has staged a public fast in a mobile shelter on the university’s Beinecke Plaza to pressure the university administration into returning to the bargaining table and approve the vote in favor of a graduate student union determined in February. The graduate student employees have not publicly called their protest a hunger strike, but the action has been labelled as such. Students will change spots fasting if a doctor considers the action detrimental to a student’s long-term health. Four have consumed only water for the last fourteen days.

For the New York Times, Jennifer Klein, a history professor at Yale, examines the terms of the hunger strike in a broader sense and the continued movement to unionize by graduate student employees at private universities across the United States. Yale graduate student employees qualify as contingent faculty members, a group that also includes adjunct professors, and one that does not have access to affordable healthcare, long-term job security and tenure, or contract negotiations. Contingent faculty members are estimated to fill seventy percent of teaching positions in institutes of higher education nationwide.

Yale administration responded to February’s union vote by hiring Proskauer Rose, a high-powered law firm known for assisting corporate clients in “union avoidance.” Proskauer Rose has also been retained by Duke University to arbitrate a pro-union vote by graduate student employees on that campus. Lawyers for the university allege that graduate student teachers “have no subject matter expertise” to merit professorship, despite serving as teachers and teaching assistants in many of the university’s undergraduate departments.

In 2016, tenure and tenure-track positions comprised only thirty percent of all faculty appointments, a decrease of ten percent over three years. Fewer full-time teaching positions have been created as tenured professors remain in their positions for longer while departments and programs are consolidated, thus creating a surplus of applicants. Recent graduates from masters and PhD programs also hold a larger share of student loans—debt that could hypothetically be paid off more quickly with a full-time, tenured salary. Graduate student employees at Yale received an annual stipend of $30,000 per year; average annual tuition at Yale’s graduate programs is just under $40,000.

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