On this day in 1996, graduate student teachers at Yale University finally turned in final grades for the classes they taught during the previous semester — a deceptively simple action that ended what had become an incredibly tense standoff over teacher compensation and labor rights that was closely watched by students and university administrators throughout the country.
Since 1990, a majority of Yale’s graduate students, many of whom worked as instructors teaching introductory-level undergraduate courses, had expressed an interest in organizing a formal union to better represent their interests, claiming that their long work weeks and instructor status earned them the right to be recognized as full-fledged Yale employees. The university countered that its graduate instructors were students first and foremost, and were amply compensated for their time with a modest stipend and tuition waivers, commensurate with graduate instructor arrangements at similar elite universities across the United States.
Hoping to ultimately gain the right to bargain for better working conditions and benefits like less expensive health care plans, Yale graduate students finally voted to unionize in April 1995, a move immediately denounced by Yale University officials. Several months later, in December, the newly-formed Graduate Employees Students Organization voted to go on a grading strike and withhold the final grades from the fall semester until university officials formally recognized them as a union. Tensions between the two parties increased sharply after the deadline for the final submission of student grades came and went in early January of 1996. Yale undergraduates students were split in their support of their graduate instructors, with some resenting the disruptive daily protests and holds on their transcripts, while others threatened to sue the university for a disruption in services out of solidarity with the striking instructors. On January 10, hundreds of students held a massive rally in support of the graduate student union on Yale’s downtown New Haven campus, which concluded with the peaceful arrests of 138 protestors charged with blocking access to public streets.
As the ongoing grading strike threatened to become one of the more disruptive student disturbances in Yale’s modern history, university administrators put increasing pressure on the striking graduate students to concede, threatening the non-compliant instructors with a loss of their jobs, tuition reimbursement, and even expulsion from their graduate programs. On January 16, 1996, a majority of the striking students decided that the university’s threats of retaliation were too great to risk, and submitted the final fall semester grades for their classes. Even though the 1996 Yale graduate student strike ultimately failed in its objectives, it served as a harbinger of the increasing labor disputes and debates about the ethics of American universities’ increasing use of adjunct instructors that has only grown louder in the ensuing decades.
Andrea Ahles, “Yale Grad Students Rally in Support of Peers,” The Daily Pennsylvanian
George Judson, “Yale Student Strike Points to Decline in Tenured Jobs,” New York Times