The Guardian 20 April, 2005

Australians in Ivy League battle

Australian students at two top Ivy League US universities, Yale and Columbia, are playing a key role in a five-day strike in support of bargaining rights.

The Bush-run National Labor Relations Board recently stripped the graduate teaching and research assistants of their legal protections for organising unions at private US universities.

In a partisan 3-2 decision, the three appointees of President Bush denied these workers union rights and struck a major blow to the freedom of association enshrined in the US constitution.

This dispute which is becoming a high-profile fight involves several Australians playing key roles in the union-rights campaign. Among them are Brangwen Stone, a graduate student in the Yale German Department and a graduate of the University of Melbourne and Daniel Mulino, a graduate teacher in the Yale Economics Department and a graduate of ANU (Arts/Law) and Sydney University (Master of Economics).

"My mother is a member of the NTEU [National Tertiary Education Union], so I know first-hand how important unions are in defending university workers", Ms Stone said.

"I think that Australians should care about this fight because it seems like the US approach to labour is becoming more prevalent throughout the world."

Australia is certainly on Yale's radar screen. There are 31 students in Yale graduate schools from Australia the 12th largest number of international students per population at Yale including those from the Australian National University and Melbourne and Sydney University. Most of them are signed-up union members.

The two US union locals at the centre of this strike are GESO at Yale and GSEU at Columbia. Both are part of the progressive activist labour unions famous for their successful and forthright organising drives.

These unions are reaching across the globe to help win these fights at Yale and Columbia because these two Ivy League universities promote themselves as global institutions.

"Yale and Columbia are marketing themselves to the world in order to get cheap graduate labour", Ben Begleiter of UNITE-HERE GESO said. "We want the world to know the real working conditions on campus."

In recent weeks UNITE-HERE has informed the leadership of the NTEU in Australia about the dispute. The NTEU has asked all their university branch activists to mount campus actions across Australia this coming week to show their support for the struggle.

The NLRB's decision to cut down union organising drives complied with the wishes of Presidents Levin of Yale and Bollinger of Columbia University. President Levin has been a leader in opposing the unionisation of graduate teachers while at the same time steering his university towards close alliances with for-profit corporations.

Levin is particularly close to the Bush administration. He was the first overnight guest of the Bush White House and was appointed by Bush to the WMD Commission.

On both campuses, strong majorities of graduate employees have made their decision on how to deal with these employment issues by forming a union and bargaining for a contract with their employer.

This majority preference in favour of unionisation on both campuses has been certified by public officials in New York and Connecticut. "Democracy has a place in every workplace", Bob Proto of UNITE/HERE Local 35, which represents service and maintenance workers at Yale, said.

"The goal of this job action is to convince administrators at Yale and Columbia to respect the rights of their own teachers."

The key issues in the dispute:

  • A living wage for graduate teachers. Without a living wage many lower income students cannot afford to attend graduate schools. This is especially critical for married international students who, because of US labour law, are the sole source of financial support for their families

  • Affordable healthcare for union members and their families

  • Visa reform to enable international students to travel to and from their home countries more easily

  • The banning of racism, sexism and discrimination of all sorts. See how rights are being undermined in the Yale Union's most recent report on women and minority hiring in Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton etc) at http://www.yaleunions.org/geso/reports/Ivy.pdf

    Act now: Show your support for this dispute send an e-mail to the Presidents of Yale and Columbia with this special LabourStart campaign: http://www.labourstart.org/cgi-bin/solidarityforever

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