Labor calls for Yale strike support

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – As spirited picket lines and marches fill the campus at Yale University, national support and unity continues to grow for striking service-maintenance, clerical-technical and hospital dietary workers.

Several thousand striking workers received a big boost this week as financial contributions poured in from around the country, enabling a substantial increase in strike benefits, and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney declared a major labor mobilization for noon on Saturday, Sept. 13, on the New Haven Green.

“The Yale leadership must understand that the union movement is united in making sure the Yale workers build a better future for themselves, their families, and their community,” said Sweeney. “This is a fundamentally important struggle for all of labor.”

The striking workers are members of the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), and Service Employees International Union District 1199.

The university has sought to undermine workers’ unity. The administration has spent over $2 million on daily full-page newspaper ads and other propaganda to create the impression that union workers are greedy and already have excellent benefits. Yale’s administration claims “business as usual,” but daily pickets and rallies, 280 classes being held off campus, and “Yale Settle” buttons worn by non-unionized staff tell another story.

Yale’s tactics backfired Sept. 9 when the university, whose workforce is less than 4 percent Latino despite New Haven’s large Latino community, used campus police and vehicles to transport across picket lines dozens of immigrants employed by a temp agency. Anger and horror at the escapade brought a large group of the city’s African American, Latino and white clergy and community leaders together to denounce this practice at a noon hour press conference.

“We are shocked and dismayed that Yale would actually do such things,” said Rev. Agustin Rojas of St. Rose of Lima Church in Fair Haven. “It is not right that they use Hispanics to make themselves richer and bring division between African Americans and Hispanics.”

Speakers called upon Yale to sign a union contract that includes decent wages, pensions and job security, and to hire Latino and immigrant workers into unionized jobs with full benefits. The Yale strike has highlighted the need for union organization among immigrant workers, an issue already under discussion in local grassroots organizing for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

“We are Black, Latino and white pastors, and we stand in unity with all workers,” said Rev. W. David Lee of Varick AME Zion Church. Addressing the immigrant workers directly he said, “We want to help you join us on the picket lines, and become entitled to the financial help and other assistance all striking workers receive. Don’t be used by Yale.”

At the time of the 1996 strike at Yale, casual workers, many homeless, were hired for some custodial and ground keeping jobs. Casuals were not eligible for union membership, but HERE Local 35 members convinced many to stay out and join the picket lines. In the midst of the strike they voted to join Local 35. As a result, about 200 casual workers, many African American, have become permanent Yale employees with union benefits and protection.

Yale’s attempt to bypass union wages and benefits by hiring temporary workers and subcontractors is ongoing. Whole departments of clerical and technical workers are threatened, and entire buildings have been contracted to outside custodial companies as the university and hospital complex continue to expand. Last week, hundreds of Yale strikers marched on newly renovated Sprague Hall on the central campus during an opening night performance, to protest the use of subcontractors there.

A huge medical research facility which opened last spring is maintained by non-union contractors who pay minimum wage to the largely Latino immigrant workers. During a strike rally at the Yale medical center, custodian and union leader Mark Wilson pointed to the building and vowed to cheers that New Haven would not be divided on racial lines and the union would organize the subcontracted workers. For Latino workers, a union contract means an average pay increase of 32 percent.

The Yale administration suffered further setbacks last week in its efforts to dominate the city of New Haven. Union members and supporters defeated Yale administration-backed candidates in Tuesday’s primaries for several seats on the New Haven Board of Aldermen.

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com