“Building Better Partnerships at Yale”. Aside from settling contract negotiations, one of the main issues on the table between Yale and Locals 34 and 35 was this very phrase. One of the many possible solutions was the idea that Yale and its unions should submit to binding arbitration, with a mediator appointed by the NLRB. But how can a partnership be built by removing the partners?
An arbitrator would have been a detached third party with no sense of the history between Yale and its unions. The history of this acrimonious relationship is an integral and emotional part of the conflict that should be embraced by both parties. Yale was not always the relatively benevolent employer that it is today, and both the strong initial resistance to unionization and the harsh strikebreaking tactics that Yale used in the early years after Locals 34 and 35 formed are factors that support the importance of the unions. An outside negotiator with only a brief chance to catch up on this complex history could not possibly understand all the variables playing a role in the settlement process. His ignorance would be a sure-fire recipe for poor decisions.
The phrase “working to build better labor relationships at Yale” permeated much of the dialogue between Yale and Locals 34 & 35 before actual contract negotiations began. A better working relationship between the unions and Yale can only be achieved by mutual consent and unhindered negotiation. Binding arbitration is completely antithetical to this goal. In requesting a binding arbitrator, the university and its unions would have been agreeing that they could not work out labor problems on their own. A truly better working relationship cannot be built by force, and binding arbitration would be simply a forced solution to a short-term problem - the issue of contracts - that would not address the driving force at the heart of the labor dispute, the relationship between Yale and its workers.
The bottom line is that the binding arbitration proposal was a sorry excuse to avoid negotiation. The leadership of both Yale and the unions was intelligent enough to find a solution; after all, no one is better informed about the emotional and practical issues at stake between two parties than the parties themselves. Binding arbitration would have been an immature and temporary measure that would have lasted just as long as one, or both, of the parties was willing to contain its dissatisfaction. Given that the decision would inevitably have felt like an external compulsion, that would not have been a long time.