On Strike at Yale

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When I was a grad student at Northwestern University, I made about $23,000 per year. Some additional pay went to university-provided health insurance, and my tuition was covered by a grad student scholarship, but my take-home was $23,000 before taxes. When I completed coursework and was working as a Teaching Assistant, I was scoring papers, leading discussion sections, and calculating grades for the same $23,000/year rate. After I left Northwestern, some members of my cohort supported the establishment of a Graduate Students’ Union. As I understand it (I hope one of my classmates will correct me in the comments if I’m getting this wrong), part of the impetus for that was that the University raised rates on the health insurance it provided, but didn’t raise grad student stipends accordingly.

That is not very much money, but the actual amount was never what bothered me (well, sometimes it did bother me, but I was pretty used to living on not very much money). The striking part was that my classmates and I were living on about half of what undergraduate tuition cost at the time. Meaning, the undergrads in our classes were paying more than $40,000 per year to be taught by graduate students who were being paid $23,000 per year by the same university. Furthermore, we as graduate students had little-to-no teacher training—the training we did receive was homegrown, meaning it was supported and developed by grad students who received no extra remuneration for doing so.

Anyone working as a PhD student knows this story. And so do the graduate students at Yale University, currently on hunger strike, demanding that the University recognize their efforts to unionize. As the New York Times reports, Yale has not responded by supporting its grad students, who teach the undergrads that currently pay $47,900 to attend the prestigious institution. Instead, it’s hired a massive corporate law firm to bully the resource-poor grad students into submission.

This closing line from the Times article struck me:

The university is nothing if not a place that should foster critical inquiry and civic engagement. That so many schools have mimicked corporate America in preferring greater profits to fair wages for their employees — quashing democratic participation in university decisions — says a lot about the role the university now plays in society.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but a very clear way to read this is: a large, well-endowed, corporate institution is not only quashing democratic participation, but it is also profiting off of the labor of unrepresented and financially strapped laborers. Yale’s endowment exceeds $25 billion. Can it not afford to practice a bit of what universities are supposed to preach?

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