Grad Workers: Choose Solidarity with New HavenRoundup
tags: Yale, labor, graduate students, inequality, New Haven
ADOM GETACHEW Ph. D. ’15, is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago. She is a political theorist with research interests in the history of political thought, theories of race and empire and postcolonial political theory.
SARAH HALEY Ph.D ’10, is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. She has research interests in the history of gender and women, carceral history, Black feminist history and theory, prison abolition, and feminist archival methods and is the author of No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity.
When you arrive at Yale as a graduate student, you are asked a question, again and again, implicitly and explicitly, by everything in the environment of the University: how will you relate to the stark racial segregation and stratification of this place? Will you ignore it? Does it trouble you? Does it mean something about your own place here?
Living off campus, relating to the University as a workplace more than a home, you might wind up traversing some of the boundaries that divide the city. Maybe you live somewhere west of Dwight Street or west of Science Hill, or make some friends outside the Yale community or get involved in some kind of community activity. These things might give you a perspective on how Yale looks from the outside.
But even without this, the segregation and inequality of New Haven will make themselves felt. It’s not just out there in the distance, it’s present right on campus: the contrast between the racial composition of the dining and maintenance staff, who are largely Black and the largely white scholarly spaces; the heavily policed edges of the University that Black and Brown workers (including TAs and instructors), students and community members must traverse to their disproportionate risk.
All graduate students are confronted in some way by these questions, although they have many choices about how to react. But for both of us the experience of navigating Yale and New Haven’s racial geography was especially jarring, as it often is for Black graduate students. When one of us arrived at Yale there was only one Black woman at the full professor rank in the entire university and as recently as 2021 only 4.24 percent of Yale ladder faculty self-reported as Black or African American. We saw faculty who were working on topics concerning race in disciplinary programs leave Yale, with some citing racism, bullying, or a lack of institutional support. The lack of support and funding for programs devoted to the study of race and ethnicity has been such a long-standing source of frustration for faculty leading these programs that some have submitted letters of resignation in protest.
For us, as for thousands of other graduate students over the years, the graduate student union — GESO then, Local 33 now—provided the space to find a meaningful answer: to confront this environment and even to exert some agency over it. By coming together through the union, we were able to confront and end Yale’s investment in the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America and we conducted research that provided the foundation for campaigns to diversify the faculty. Over the years, the combination of intense racial and economic inequality and the domination of the city by a single major employer has compelled the workers of the University and many other New Haven residents to band together to an unusually high degree. At no other university that we know of are academic workers, custodial workers, food service workers and clerical and technical workers all affiliated with the same union. What this means is that when you join Local 33, you are making a choice about where, and with whom, you belong. In a very real way, Local 33 is the instrument by which the people of New Haven reach into the heart of the University and invite graduate students to cross over, to think of themselves as coworkers and community members who share something important with the custodians who clean their offices, the lab techs and librarians who enable their studies and the neighbors who share their communities.
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