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The Fast Against the Slow: Local 33 Hunger Strike Outside Woolsey

Across from the austere, stone building of Woodbridge Hall, home to the offices of Yale’s top administrators, a pop-up shelter has been erected by members of Yale’s graduate student union, Local 33. The gambrel-roofed structure, equipped with a faux-grass patio and decorated with stylish orange and green furniture, opened the morning of April 26, and is the headquarters of a hunger strike that eight Yale graduate students are undertaking in an attempt to encourage Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, and other Yale administrators to negotiate with the graduate union.

According to the union’s chair, Aaron Greenberg, a graduate student in the Political Science department, the group has been attempting to meet with Yale’s administrators for years, and has turned to a hunger strike as a last resort.

Graduate students in nine of Yale’s departments voted on February 23 to unionize, with only the Physics Department rejecting unionization. As a result, Greenberg said he expected Yale to agree to meet with the union and is disappointed that this has not happened.

“[I expected] that after we won our Union elections and after two thousand people signed letters, that the University would start negotiating with us but they decided not to,” he told The Politic. “In my time here, the university administration has been delaying, stalling, and fighting our campaign and we have tried everything that a union could do.”

According to Robin Canavan, co-chair of Local 33 and a participant in the hunger strike, each member of the strike is participating for different personal reasons.

Canavan, a graduate student in the Geology and Geophysics department, said that for her, these reasons center around Yale’s inaction on many problems faced by women in science.  

“Particularly in this moment, I feel like both science and women are sort of at risk and I think that Yale has a chance to decide to be a leader and change these things,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “I think the kind of casual sexism that is pervasive still, the offhand commentssome that aren’t meant to be hurtful, some meant to be hurtful, the whole gamutbuild up over time, so women are falling through the leaks in the leaky pipeline.”

Another hunger strike participant, Comparative Literature PhD student Julia Powers, said she is participating in the fast for similar reasons.

Powers highlighted the sexism she has observed within her department and others and Yale’s lack of response to these concerns.

“There’s no formal grievance system for when there are incidents of sexual harassment, and sexism and discrimination,” she said. “I’m tired of Yale basically letting perpetrators, some of them serial perpetrators of sexual harassment, off the hook for decades, while they say they’re looking into it and then nothing ever comes of it.”

According to Greenberg, these issues are examples of Yale’s repeated unwillingness to work with graduate students or with the union to address fundamental issues.

He also said it is reminiscent of a larger trend throughout Yale’s history of the university’s hesitance to take steps that will make the school a more inclusive space.

“Unfortunately, this is the kind of action that one needs to do to change this university’s mind,” he said. “In the past, the University has said no before it has said yes about all kinds of thingsabout admitting women, about recognizing Local 34 in the 1980s, about changing the name of Calhoun Collegeand I think we are in one of those moments.”

Greenberg added that in the first few hours of the fast, he has already noticed the community coalescing around the hunger strikers, with some supporters coming by to join the fasting graduate students in their location on Beinecke Plaza.

But although Local 33 won in eight departments, many graduate students do not support the union or its tactics.

According to a PhD student in one of the unionized departments who asked to remain anonymous due to the highly partisan nature of the unionization debate, the hunger strike is a good example of Local 33’s misguided approach to negotiation.

“The idea that a bunch of folks getting $30,000 a year plus benefits for teaching, which is essentially part time work, are responding to a legitimate appeals process by going on hunger strike in a fancy tent, comparing themselves to Gandhi, and suggesting they’re a crucial part of the anti-Trump resistancethat’s about the most bougie delusion of grandeur I’ve ever heard,” she told The Politic.

She added that union members have tried to align their organization with party politics, painting those who do not support their cause as right-wing.

The PhD student said that this tactic has allowed Local 33 to conflate those who critique the union’s tactics with those who oppose unions in general.

“I was alarmed at how quickly any skepticism of their tactics or their rhetoric was immediately interpreted as being anti-union,” she said. “Everywhere else in the country, they think I’m a Communist; it’s only on campus at Yale that I’m accused of being the far right sleeper agent.”

The union has also been criticized by a group of women, LGBTQ grad students, and grad students of color, who published a letter in Down Magazine on Jan. 25, 2016, voicing concerns about structural organizing issues that contribute to the union’s lack of sensitivity towards underrepresented graduate student groups.

In the letter, the group called out alleged harassment perpetrated by union members, citing instances in which organizers following students to their homes and manipulated students using personal information about their lives or relationships.

The letter concluded that “the union’s hierarchical and opaque structure…undermines the ability of members like ourselves to make demands for better inclusion of women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.”

Despite these concerns, union organizers say they have received lots of support in the first few hours of their fast, and will continue the strike as long as is necessary to obtain a meeting with Yale’s administration.

“We’ll be here and we’ll be here fasting until the University sits down to negotiate with us,” said Greenberg.

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