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This Day in Labor History: February 17, 1992

[ 77 ] February 17, 2016 |

On February 17, 1992, graduate students at Yale University went on strike. This strike, one of the most prominent in the history of organizing graduate students, is a useful window into one of the most important sectors of labor organizing over the last three decades and indicative of the tremendous difficulty in organizing private workplaces in any sector in those same three decades.

Graduate student unionization has long been controversial on college campuses. Are graduate students primarily students or apprentices? The answer should be obvious that all graduate students getting paid for work are workers, but you would be surprised how many liberal faculty members simply cannot accept this idea. Graduate students are not only workers, but particularly vulnerable workers, in spite of their high levels of education. Especially in the sciences, where a lot of funding depends on the relationship with a single professor, students are quite vulnerable. That is especially true of women and the sexual harassment of female students has long influenced support for unionization among graduate student in the sciences.

The first move toward graduate student unionization took place in tumult of the 1960s, as a lot of politically active undergraduates went on to graduate school. Rutgers and CUNY were the first graduate school units to be covered by a collective bargaining contract, as they were covered by faculty contracts. The University of Wisconsin was the first graduate student union to negotiate their own independent contract in 1970. The University of Michigan and University of Oregon soon followed.

At Yale, the struggle would be and still is a much longer struggle. T.A. Solidarity was the original organizing group, founded in 1987. That turned into the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO) in 1990. Students began organizing to demand union recognition. Yale administrators rejected this from the beginning, refusing to recognize the union as a bargaining unit for the graduate students. Among the union leaders was Gordon Lafer, today one of the nation’s most respected labor economists and activists.

By the time it went on strike in February 1992, the GESO represented 1300 of Yale’s 2200 graduate students. Its demands were union recognition, a pay raise, a grievance procedure, and the expansion of time granted to complete the Ph.D. The strike was announced for three days . It received significant support from other unions, frustrating Yale administrators who hoped to isolate the strikers. 49 percent of union members at Yale refused to work in solidarity with the striking graduate employees, with much greater support among the maintenance and cafeteria workers (75 percent did not show up for work) than the technical and clerical workers (about 30 percent did not show up). Many faculty were of course opposed.

“They really are among the blessed of the earth,” Prof. Peter Brooks, chairman of the department of comparative literature, said. “So I sometimes feel annoyed at them seeing themselves as exploited.”

Never has an employer seen their workers as exploited and thus worthy of being granted power.


Despite these labor actions, Yale still refused to negotiate with the students. The 1992 strike ended without recognition although the administration did raise the pay of the TAs and provide teacher training, showing how strikes can create real victories for workers even when the union remain unrecognized as a bargaining unit. Strikes continued from time to time, including a 1996 strike that only ended when the administration threatened to fire all the strikers because they did not submit student grades as a bargaining tool, despite an overwhelming vote in favor of unionization among the students. In 2003, another strike took place but in that year, the GESO suffered a big setback as student/workers voted against unionization by a narrow margin, giving the administration much more ammunition in its continued determination to never recognize a graduate student union. But a 2005 strike again resulted in the administration providing a lot what the students wanted, including a pay raise for graduate student teachers and new initiatives on faculty diversity and child care.

Over the years, graduate student unionization has increased significantly at public universities in non-right-to-leech states, including at the University of Rhode Island. But graduate student unionization campaigns at private universities remains almost impossible to win. The only private school with a graduate school union recognized and with a contract is at NYU. 1951 and 1972 court cases ended with National Labor Relations Board rulings prohibiting the National Labor Relations Act from covering private school graduate students because they are primarily students and although that has been loosened with the 2000 NLRB case granting NYU graduate students the ability to organize, difficult barriers remain. In fact, NYU graduate students have struggled mightily with both their administration and the Bush-era NLRB to maintain recognition. In the end, university administrations are some of the best union-busters in the nation. Given the number of self-identified liberals with backgrounds in fields where they study race, class, and gender who are in administrations, it’s sickening to see them turn on treating graduate workers with respect and use the tools of oppression they decry in their own scholarship against exploitable workers, but they do it all the time.

At present, the Yale graduate students are continuing the fight to organize. Now affiliated with UNITE-HERE, major issues include mental health care, fairness in funding, and greater diversity at Yale.

When we think about the labor movement over the last few decades, we often tend to forget about the importance of the academy. Graduate students and, to a lesser extent, faculty, have proven some of the bright spots in American labor and with the collapse of the industrial unions due to capital mobility and the decline of the building trades, public sector workers of all types have risen in importance in the world of organized labor. In the case of schools like Yale, that are not public, major barriers remain to unionization but these campaigns have also developed many important labor scholars and activists, providing key intellectual support for organized labor at large. That in itself is a tremendous benefit of this organizing, even if Yale graduate students remain without recognition today.

This is the 171st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


Ecuador’s Indigenous People and International Solidarity Alliances

[ 8 ] February 16, 2016 |

Here is another story on how the oil companies are exploiting the Huaorani people of Ecuador. This is a story that might not be familiar to you, but is very familiar to me. That’s because it is a fairly unique success in transnational organizing, where western environmental and indigenous rights organizations have created meaningful alliances with indigenous activists in a globally poor nation in order to fight multinational corporate exploitation. This has been going on for 20 or more years and has seen real successes for the Huarorani and other Ecuadoran peoples in resisting their own government that doesn’t care about them and the oil companies that want to exploit the oil on their lands. This has long received attention from major western publications. The New Yorker has covered this issue since 1993. It has received enormous attention from scholars, as any Google Books search will demonstrate, with dozens of books mentioning this story over the last 25 years.

The question is why. I don’t know that I have a full answer here. The basic story is relatively easy to sketch out, which is that environmental organizations tend to romanticize Native Americans as living at one with the land, which is not accurate but does serve native peoples well in their struggles to control their own lands for their own purposes, which is often at cross-purposes with national governments and corporations. In this case, the combination of the evils of oil companies and an indigenous group fiercely resisting incursions on their lands caught the attention of green organizations and grassroots activists and a quite effective campaign was able to be launched to help out the Ecuadoran native peoples. The broader question here is why this issue and these people among all the others in the world. I suppose I am supposed to have a good answer here, but I really don’t. The effectiveness is well-established in the literature and with plenty of continued attention coming. But people around the world face the same oppression and they get little to no attention from rich world organizations. For someone interested in international solidarity movements, who calls for international solidarity as a key part of the answer to global labor exploitation, trying to figure out the answer to this question is important.

Perhaps some of you have insights here.

Utah Mining History

[ 4 ] February 16, 2016 |


Not for everyone, but for you historians and westerners, here’s a great collection of oral histories of the Utah mining industry on YouTube. Some really valuable stuff in here for some of you.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 19

[ 39 ] February 16, 2016 |

This is the grave of Andrew Carnegie, self-made man, steel capitalist, and terrible human who tried to buy love for his many, many sins, especially at Homestead, by building libraries around the country. Over half the towns in Pennsylvania rejected his libraries because they knew it was blood money from the dead bodies of his steel workers.


Andrew Carnegie is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Oddly, one can throw a baseball from his grave and hit the grave of Samuel Gompers. Why they are buried not only in the same cemetery, but right next to each other, I have no idea.

Bernie and His Revolution

[ 234 ] February 16, 2016 |


Maybe I am just cynical, but if Bernie Sanders’ primary critique of Barack Obama is that he didn’t bridge the gap between Congress and the American public (through what magic powers I don’t know) and that he will do this but it will require a “political revolution” that will bring “millions and millions of people into the political process in a way that does not exist right now,” I am pretty bloody skeptical of how this works. Because I don’t think it can.

I guess this means I’m being paid by the Clinton Foundation or something.

It’s Not Too Early to Shop for the Holidays

[ 95 ] February 16, 2016 |


Who needs a nuclear bunker? One is presently for sale!

In Northern Ireland, surrounded by lush green countryside, you can snap up a former nuclear bunker that was a state secret until 2007.

On the market at £575,000, the facility sleeps 236 and includes double blast doors and decontamination chambers.

Imagine the party you can throw for 235 of your best friends. And what a price!

From a commercial kitchen to power generators and oil storage, the facilities were designed to keep residents holed up for as long as 30 days.

The 3.7-acre site is east of the town of Ballymena, the heartland of firebrand Protestant cleric turned peacemaker Ian Paisley until his death in 2014.

Fixtures and fittings are included in the price of the two-storey bunker, which opened in 1990.

1990? Why would someone build a nuclear bunker in 1990?

Clearly, Paying Teachers Peanuts is the Way to Produce Good Teaching

[ 110 ] February 15, 2016 |


I can think of no better way to provide quality education for our students than paying teachers so poorly that they are forced to get 2nd and 3rd jobs to make ends meet, thus giving them no time to prep for class or rest.

Second and even third jobs are the norm for many school teachers in South Dakota, where teacher pay ranks lowest in the nation, according to a state education task force. Gov. Dennis Daugaard has proposed a half-cent sales tax increase to help raise teacher pay, but his plan needs two-thirds approval in both the House and the Senate — a tough proposition in a legislature with an anti-tax lean.

Mary McCorkle, president of the South Dakota Education Association, said teachers often give up their evenings by grading papers and preparing lessons, and second jobs lead to burnout.

“Something has to give, whether it’s your health, your sanity,” McCorkle said. “You just can’t do everything, and you want to be there for your students.”

The SDEA, which represents more than 5,000 teachers in the state, said Daugaard’s proposal is an acknowledgement that South Dakota schools are having trouble hiring and keeping teachers.

The Brookings School District used to get dozens of applications for each open teaching position but now receives resumes from just a handful of qualified candidates, said school board President Steve Bayer. The pool depth is likely dwindling as applicants look across South Dakota’s eastern border to better-paying jobs.

“When you can make another thousand dollars a month as an experienced teacher, it’s probably worth looking at a place in Minnesota,” he said.

South Dakota’s average teacher salary of $40,023 in 2013-14 lagged an average of six states that border it by $11,888 a year and was $8,643 behind the next lowest neighbor, North Dakota, the group found. In some of South Dakota’s more remote areas, that average salary drops quickly.

Looks like Kansas and Louisiana might learn some tips from South Dakota on how the next step of their wars to destroy their own middle classes.

Race, Class, and the Tea Party

[ 67 ] February 15, 2016 |


What drives the Tea Party? Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel suggest it is racial resentment, not class anxiety. That a reasonable conclusion as far as it goes, but it’s not like the two issues can really be separated among white working-class voters. Racism is a huge driver of American politics and society from the beginning of European occupation to the present. That racial resentment cuts across class lines, but it certainly has long been useful for employers and politicians to deploy in order to draw attention away from class-based oppression. So white workers see government programs as helping people of color and thus oppose them based upon racism, even as opposing those programs also hurts them. But then at the same time, the economic resentment is also real in an America where employers are moving good paying jobs overseas. The reason Trump is winning the Republican primary is because he is making those racial and class resentments real and interconnected. It’s the Mexicans and Chinese and Vietnamese stealing our jobs, not the rich employers stealing our jobs, but either way, Trump says he is going to stop it from happening. So does race trump class in Tea Party (or more usefully at this point, right-wing populism) support? I suppose it defends on the definitions, but I don’t think we should be asking these questions in this form. More valuable is to understand the variety of reasons why people are inclined to feel and vote this way, reasons that will always be complex.

How Previous Radicals Failed to Realign the Democratic Party

[ 16 ] February 15, 2016 |


Interesting long essay at Jacobin by Paul Heideman about how the left tried to remake the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s and why it failed. While I can quibble with some points–as one might expect at this publication there’s some downplaying of racist politics in favor of emphasizing that the labor movement wasn’t radical enough and I don’t really think Nixon won in 1972 because of his close ties to corporations–overall, I find this a pretty valuable essay in thinking about the limitation of the left in American politics. It certainly fits in with some LGM talking points around Jimmy Carter governing unacceptably to the right of his governing majorities in Congress and the important of organized capital in repealing key aspects of the New Deal state. Some conclusions:

American social democrats have also suffered from the failure of realignment. The absence of a real American reformism has left would-be social democrats largely holding on to the coattails of the unreformed Democratic Party. Again and again, this has occasioned the spectacle of committed radicals, including Harrington, campaigning for politicians, like Carter, who oppose everything they believe in.

The problem with this dynamic is not so much that radicals sully themselves with the impurities of compromise — some measure of compromise is necessary in any kind of electoral participation. Rather, it is that in arguing that workers should defend their interests by voting for progressive Democrats when possible (or neoliberals when there are no progressives), American social democrats orient politics on a sphere in which it is actually impossible to defend those interests.

The argument always goes, of course, that social struggles outside the electoral sphere are necessary as well. But as anyone who has ever been inveigled to support the lesser of two evils knows, somehow the emphasis on those forms of struggle never reaches the frenzied pitch of election year appeals.

Any political action comes with opportunity costs, and the costs of a strategic focus on electing Democrats have been grave — from the labor movement’s inability to defend itself against attacks from “their” party to antiwar movements that disappear when a Democrat comes to office. Configuring left politics around electoral action, in the absence of any kind of social democracy, inevitably results in a situation where, as Robert Brenner puts it, reformism doesn’t even reform.

The failure of realignment, then, contains lessons for socialists who fall on both sides of the old “reform or revolution” argument. Its history should not be taken as a verdict against reformism. Indeed, the story of realignment serves to clarify what, exactly, will be required for a successful American reformism. Because ultimately, the kind of grand strategic vision that animated realignment is a prerequisite for both those who wish to see, at long last, social democracy in the United States — and those who wish to go beyond it.

But even if you aren’t interested in building a socialist politics in the United States, the essay is worth your time.

How Capital Mobility Destroys Lives

[ 109 ] February 15, 2016 |

Now you can watch for yourself, as the furnace manufacturer Carrier announces to its workers that it is going to move 1300 union jobs from Indiana to Mexico.

I challenge every defender of the current system of global trade to speak to these workers directly and tell them why their jobs should go abroad. Supporters of unrestricted globalization are dooming these workers to poverty, to higher alcohol and drug use rates, to higher rates of domestic violence, and to all the social and economic instability that has hollowed out the American working class over the past 40 years. It’s hardly a wonder that white working-class voters are streaming toward Trump. They support his policy positions that they should continue to have jobs. None of the other Republicans support that. By not understanding this at the core of Trump voters, along of course with the racial resentment that is related to it, we can continue scratching our heads at why right and left populism are rising in this country. You can make a case that moving millions of jobs abroad is morally correct because it gives jobs to Mexicans and Bangladeshis. But the problem with that case is that it has massive domestic implications in the nation where you live. We are seeing those implications come to the fore in 2016.

And while you might also say that we should provide these workers with a slightly expanded EITC or better unemployment packages or retraining or a basic minimum income or whatever, the reality is twofold. First, all the jobs disappearing and none of these things are happening. Maybe we should stop moving jobs overseas until we have a real plan for these workers other than bootstrapism. Second, given that so many of these jobs are union jobs, each time a factory closes, unions lose more power which means that workers have less of a voice in politics and thus less ability to fight for some sort of fairer system when the jobs disappear. Instead, corporations fill the power vacuum and buy the political system. We have seen this develop over the last decades and to no small extent, both the Trump and the Sanders campaigns are responses to this. It has caused tremendous domestic instability that elites of both parties don’t want to talk about and neither do apostles of global capitalism on the internet.

Now, I understand that global trade has its benefits, etc. And as I wrote in Out of Sight, what we need is to build toward international labor solidarity by pushing to limit the incentive for capital mobility by establishing laws and standards American companies have to follow no matter where they move so that no matter where factories locate production, the workers there have the right to create a dignified life instead of see their lives ripped out from them when they start moving toward having a middle class. One of the reasons for Carrier to move those jobs to Mexico is that the nation doesn’t have real unions. We know that when Mexican workers fight for independent unions, American employers throw them on the street. Were Mexican workers to unionize, Carrier would probably start looking to move somewhere else again. Is this the world we want for the world’s workers? No, not if you actually care about those workers.


[ 146 ] February 15, 2016 |


Alan Grayson is an embarrassment. That some progressives still hold to him as some sort of model is also embarrassing. I mean, if you like your left-leaning politicians to be blowhard hedge-fund managers who hate paying taxes and have outsized egos, I guess he’s your man!

The hedge fund manager boasted that he had traveled to “every country” in the world, studying overseas stock markets as he fine-tuned an investment strategy to capitalize on global companies’ suffering because of economic or political turmoil.

But the fund manager had an even more distinctive credential to showcase in his marketing material in June 2013: He was a “U.S. congressman,” Representative Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Now he is also among the leading Democratic candidates for one of Florida’s United States Senate seats.

This highly unusual dual role — a sitting House lawmaker running a hedge fund, which until recently had operations in the Cayman Islands — has led to an investigation of Mr. Grayson by the House Committee on Ethics.

The whole thing is super sketchy–Congressman/hedge fund manager basing his operation out of the tax haven Cayman Islands while losing money. At best, he’s slippery. At worst, he’s a criminal. Either way, this is not a person progressives should look to as a candidate.

Who is Obama’s Immigration Police Deporting?

[ 63 ] February 14, 2016 |


One of Obama’s worst policies has been his aggressive deportation efforts. No president has deported more undocumented immigrants. Most of these people do nothing but benefit the United States. For instance, Lesly Sophia Cortez-Martinez.

A 32-year-old undocumented mother, who was granted temporary deportation reprieve under President Obama’s 2012 executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, was deported to Mexico after she tried to reenter the country legally with an immigration document allowing her to travel abroad to visit an ailing family member.

Lesly Sophia Cortez-Martinez, who has three young U.S. citizen children, was on her way back from Mexico through the Chicago O’Hare International Airport this week when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents prevented her from leaving the airport. As a DACA beneficiary, Cortez-Martinez was allowed to apply for advance parole, which allows some immigrants to travel out of and reenter the United States under certain circumstances for education, business, or a death in the family.

As Cortez-Martinez reentered the United States on Monday night, however, agents saw in the immigration system that she had a prior deportation removal order from 2004. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website, the government cannot issue an advance parole document if an applicant is “in exclusion, deportation, removal, or rescission proceedings.”

Cortez-Martinez insisted that she didn’t know about the old removal order, explaining that she went to Mexico for a death in the family and returned to the U.S. without documents, her lawyer Mony Ruiz-Velasco explained to ThinkProgress a day before Cortez-Martinez was deported.

Since he took office, President Obama has insisted that his administration would go after “felons, not families,” a refrain based on the idea that immigration officials would dedicate federal resources to prioritizing the detention and deportation of immigrants with criminal violations, rather than undocumented children or parents with long-standing U.S. ties. Obama’s DACA initiative has also helped divert federal resources to pass over undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as young children and have since maintained clean records.

But according to Tania Unzueta, the policy director at the immigrant advocacy group Not1More Campaign, Cortez-Martinez’s case proves that’s not always the case. Cortez-Martinez has three U.S.-citizen children and doesn’t have a criminal record, two qualities that the Obama administration has asked immigration officials to consider before taking people into deportation proceedings.

“The president keeps talking about going after people who are dangerous, and yet we know the people who are actually considered priority [cases] by Border Patrol and by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agencies are members of our community, like Lesly,” Unzueta told ThinkProgress.

Obama has been quite inconsistent throughout his tenure on undocumented immigrants, often implementing policies that both give undocumented immigrants breathing room on one hand while cracking down and deporting on the other. Obviously, the president would have liked to have signed an immigration bill during his term and of course that it didn’t happen is not his fault, unless you think it is what he should have spent his political capital on in 2009 instead of health care. But that doesn’t mean he’s been a good president on treating immigrants as useful and welcome Americans.

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