The Chronicle Review

Why I’m Fasting With Other Graduate Students at Yale

Robbie Short

Yale graduate-student teachers and supporters plan their protest at Yale's Beinecke Plaza.
May 12, 2017

For 17 days, grad students who teach at Yale have been fasting. Eight began the fast on April 25, over two weeks ago; when those eight were no longer able to continue, others stepped in to carry the fast forward. That is because we are not on a hunger strike. Our intention is not to starve Yale out or close down discussion by inflicting violence upon ourselves. Quite the contrary: We are fasting to draw attention to Yale’s continued refusal to sit down and have a conversation with us about our union, our issues, and our contracts. This is why I joined the fast.

We do not take this action lightly. We’ve asked Yale to engage in such a discussion many times. Pace Dean Amy Hungerford’s essay, "Why the Yale Hunger Strike Is Misguided," we have been organizing, discussing, persuading, researching, and arguing for nearly three decades. In the past few years, we have submitted petition after petition and marched time and time again, asking each time for what Hungerford says we are thwarting: an honest conversation with Yale about the conditions of our work. Instead, Yale has ignored us for years. When we finally filed for National Labor Relations Board elections, Yale hired the notorious union-busting firm Proskauer Rose to take us to court, where they spent a month arguing their case. The NLRB ruled against them. We held our elections and voted to unionize in eight departments nearly three months ago.

So now Yale, having lost in both the court of law and in elections, is trying to delay until a powerful ally steps in to save it: Donald Trump. With the resources — $25 billion and counting — to pay legal fees into eternity, they can wait out the clock until Trump appoints anti-union members to the NLRB’s two open spots.

We voted to unionize in democratic, federally supervised elections, and now it is time for Yale to come to the negotiating table.
Hungerford’s arguments about privilege will very likely ring false with graduate students who cannot afford child care for their families; with the 54 percent of graduate- and professional-school women who have been sexually harassed since arriving on campus, according to a 2015 campus survey; with the graduate-student teachers in their upper years whose pay was recently cut to $16,000 for doing the same work as their colleagues in lower years; with the grad-student teachers who are told they are apprentices for a minuscule and rapidly shrinking number of tenure-track positions. Regardless, the federal labor law that classified grad-student teachers as employees does not mark distinctions between workers who "really deserve" a union and those who do not. It is certainly not up to the employer — Hungerford, President Peter Salovey, or the Yale Corporation — to decide whether we are too privileged to assert our lawful rights to organize and be recognized. We voted to unionize in democratic, federally supervised elections, and now it is time for Yale to come to the negotiating table.

But Yale wants to play by the book only when it’s useful to Yale. The NLRB has certified our unions, and Yale is obliged to bargain with us — whether or not it continues to appeal. But the university knows, as we do, that our only recourse to its refusal to comply with the law is for the union to file an unfair-labor-practice charge — which Yale could, and surely would, also appeal. That would send our case to the federal courts, as Hungerford acknowledges.

Yale has long indicated that it would go all the way to the Supreme Court to fight our union. So what Hungerford describes as a reasonable process of negotiation is actually a long march through the federal court system all the way to a Trump-appointed, antilabor Supreme Court, which would almost certainly overturn the labor law that protects not only us but many other workers.

To us, that sounds less like a good-faith disagreement than a duplicitous way to slow-roll our union — and workers’ rights — to death.

We know a lot about the history of protest — many of us have studied it, and all of us have lived it these past few years. We have great respect for those who have fasted in the name of their principles. We are fasting for a principle: that everyone deserves a voice.

We are taking a stand for ourselves, and for each other — but also for contingent and insecure workers whose numbers are growing in academe as well as in other industries, and whose rights are threatened under the Trump administration. We are appalled that our university is prepared to help that administration trample workers’ rights and protections in order to defeat our democratically elected unions. We think that our actions are not diminishing the power of fasting for other struggles, but honoring them.

It turns out that a lot of people agree with us. The most powerful experience of participating in the fast has been meeting and speaking with the many people who are deeply moved by our actions. Hundreds of people — undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, workers on campus, people in the New Haven community — have come to visit 33 Wall Street, our encampment on Beinecke Plaza. We have spoken with people in churches and mosques and synagogues across New Haven, in their neighborhoods and their homes.

They have told us time and again that they are inspired by our actions and that we have their support. So have thousands of people across the country who have written, called, and messaged us in support. Perhaps if Dean Hungerford or President Salovey took the time to come speak with us, they would understand why.

Alyssa Battistoni is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Yale University and an editor at Jacobin.