Yale President Richard Levin has attempted to appear flexible when it comes to union negotiations by hiring Restructuring Associates, Inc. (RAI), consultants who will try to improve labor/management relations. This transparent PR move demonstrates the unwillingness of the Yale administration to appear not to hold the politically correct, admiring view of unions commonly embraced by New Havenites and Yale activists alike as well as their unwillingness to give in to additional union demands.
Yale labor relations have been contentious throughout the years, usually culminating in a strike every five years or so, when the two sides are at the bargaining table negotiating a new contract. Local 35, the union of dining hall, custodial and other manual employees, and Local 34, the union for clerical and white-collar workers, demand at every negotiating cycle even greater compensation, cushier contract terms, and more concessions from the university. Despite their attempts to gain support from already sympathetic Yale students, the unions’ demands and negotiating tactics have often conflicted with the best interests of the entire university community, especially the undergraduates.
In November, President Levin announced that Yale had hired RAI to analyze the current status of Yale labor relations and to make recommendations on how to make the contract negotiations less adversarial. According to a joint press release issued by Yale and Locals 34 and 35 on January 14, RAI noted that those it interviewed believed that “the labor-management relationship and the collective bargaining process for decades have been typically adversarial, unproductive, noisy and not terribly helpful to the University, the Unions, or the entire community.”
These latest attempts by the University to appear union-friendly come at great cost not only to Yale students but also form a barrier to understanding labor/management relations more fully. The RAI report acknowledges the often bitter relationship between Yale’s employees and their managers. The root of this problem lies in the theoretical claim of the necessity of government-protected unionization itself—the assumption that the capitalist system is unjust and exploitative. Unions inculcate in workers the idea that they need to constantly protect themselves from systematic managerial abuse and that the union’s special status with the government is necessary to fight the capitalist oppressors.
In this view, the employer-employee relationship is inherently adversarial. Rather than cooperating to succeed, labor and management view each other as oppositional participants in a game-theory exercise, each attempting to prevent the other from gaining its objectives.
Given the union’s perception of abuse, it is no surprise that Yale and the unions share a rocky relationship. A brief history of Yale’s interactions with unions will help to illustrate the kinds of attitudes union workers have historically held towards Yale and its students.
The Local 35 union of mainly blue-collar employees formed in 1941. It doubled in size in 1955 when dining hall workers joined the union. In 1983, Local 34 formed, unionizing the clerical and technical employees. The current trend of a bitterly contentious Yale union relationship began in the early 70’s when Vincent Sirabella became president of Local 35. The efficacy of Sirabella’s hard negotiating tactics became apparent in 1971, when the worst strike in Yale’s history occurred.
Fresh from the mayhem surrounding the Black Panthers trial, Yale was under siege, crippled in its physical and intellectual functions. Dorms had neither heat nor hot water. Some Yale students joined in solidarity with the unions, dumping all of their food trays onto the floor in Commons. Many went to then-President Kingman Brewster’s house demanding food.
One of the main talking points during that strike was the union’s claim that Yale was admitting too many financial aid applicants. The unions reasoned that these students were taking vital jobs in the University from union workers so they urged the University to admit fewer of these students. Had the egalitarian students of Yale fully understood the position of the unions, it seems unlikely that undergraduates would have supported the unions as they did.
An evaluation of the current union contract reveals how Yale treats its workforce. For Clerical and Technical employees, the average wage is slightly above $30,000 per year. For Maintenance and Service employees, the average wage is more than $33,000 per year. Although the national average for all Americans is about $32,000, it is the non-wage benefits that are especially generous. By comparison, junior faculty make $39,000 per year.
For example, all employees have access to free health coverage for themselves and their immediate family at University Health Services with no deductibles and no co-payments. Furthermore, they receive free health-care benefits after retirement, provided that they have worked for Yale for at least 10 years. Yale also subsidizes the tuition costs of children of employees paying up to $10,700 per child per year as long as the child attends an accredited 4-year institution and if the employee has had at least six years of service with Yale. Yale will also subsidize up to $25,000 of the cost of buying a new home in certain New Haven neighborhoods. Few other employers in the country offer these kinds of benefits, yet these boons have been insufficient to silence the allegations of worker exploitation voiced by union leadership and their undergraduate sympathizers.
Unskilled laborers, those organized in Local 35, earn more than white-collar workers in Local 34. Their leverage is due to the fact that Yale would be more crippled by the loss of the manual workers of Local 35 than by the loss of the clerical and technical employees of Local 34. After all, trash piles in the entryways are more immediately hazardous than unfulfilled transcript requests on Barry Kane’s desk. The unions have thus been able to use bargaining power to privilege one class of workers over another, with complete disregard to their varying skill and education levels.
The current negotiating process does not just revolve around the contracts of the Locals 34 and 35 themselves. The unions also demand that Yale maintain an official stance of neutrality on the referendum that will decide whether there will be a graduate student union at Yale.
The merits of the neutrality proposal are dubious at best. The proposal would forbid Yale administrators or professors to discourage students from voting for a union. But no such bounds would exist for GESO. In other words, GESO could do whatever it wanted and Yale would not be allowed to respond. The proposal would also not allow Yale to seek the services of an attorney or other such representative in regards to the GESO vote. Again, GESO would be bound by no similar restrictions. Yale would be forced to stand on the sidelines while GESO ran the show. Such an imbalance of power makes it clear that a neutral stance on Yale’s part would be tantamount to concession to GESO’s demands.
GESO claims that its proposal is the most democratic possible, yet continues to insist on “card counting” as the method for determining whether there is graduate student support for GESO over the use of a secret ballot. Card counting consists of personally collecting signatures on cards for or against unionization and then delivering the ballots to an impartial election observer to count. This invites rampant fraud and intimidation, since GESO members have access to the actual ballot cards before they are seen by anyone else. Numerous allegations of intimidation of graduate students who disagree with unionization plans have appeared in print in years past. In 1995, many GESO members physically threatened and assaulted graduate students who refused to comply with the so-called “grade strike,” during which TAs ceased to grade papers and refused to return exams to professors.
The alternative to “card counting” would be the secret ballot employed by most democracies. However, GESO opposes the secret ballot initiative, claiming that it would be insufficiently democratic and would allow Yale to intimidate graduate students into voting against unionization. GESO has yet to provide evidence to support such fears or adequately explain how a secret ballot would fail to prevent intimidation by either side.
Regardless of the merits of GESO neutrality, one should ask why Locals 34 and 35 are concerned about this external matter when they should be negotiating their own contracts. Blanket ideological partisanship is not a new thing for the unions. Last summer, Locals 34 and 35 employed several Yale GESO organizers and paid them to write a report regarding Yale and slavery that has been called misleading and historically irresponsible by many scholars. The unions paid for the distribution of 2,600 copies of the report. The unions also joined other Yale activists in agitating for the release of the patent to an AIDS drug vaccine developed by a Yale professor. Locals 34 and 35 have seized every opportunity to disgrace or challenge the university.
The Local 34 and 35 unions are now banding together with GESO, Undergraduate Students at Yale (the proposed undergraduate student union), and Hospital Employees, so that they can synthesize all of the pro-labor local sentiment around themselves. This would earn them respect in the eyes of the local power elite and of residents of New Haven, given city’s history as a pro-labor zone. Supporting Yale students’ bid for unionization could give the unions invaluable leverage against the University in town-gown relations. The administration will be isolated from students and workers alike since both will be in a union coalition with Locals 34 and 35.
The pending contract negotiations are bound to fail. The unions are not going to give in or change their attitude towards Yale management, for that would defeat everything that they have worked for over the past 30 years. The University is operating as if the only remaining option is to give in. If it does that, however, the doors will be wide open to a graduate student union, an undergraduate union, New Haven residents on the Yale corporation, and all sorts of inanities that Yale activists have been clamoring for over the past year or so.
The right approach is simple: sit tight. The last strike—in 1995—was
largely a failure for the unions. Students relished their $105 checks and
the unions’ complaints gained little ground. The dirty little secret is
that dining hall strikes are not nearly as effective a tactic as they need
to be, and if Yale waited out the unions they would get a better deal.
A stalemate is preferable to capitulation.
Yevgeny Vilensky is a junior in Trumbull College.
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