Snapshots from the picket line

NEW HAVEN – Nearly 5,000 workers are back on the job and negotiations have resumed at Yale University after a history-making five-day strike. It was the eighth in 35 years, and was remarkable in the unity amongst dishwashers, graduate student teachers, secretaries and lab technicians, represented by three Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) locals and Service Employees International Union (SEIU)/1199. They stood up against a corporate giant that trains the nation’s ruling elite.

“It rained. It snowed. It froze. And through it all, four unions at Yale, joined by the entire New Haven community, found new strength, new solidarity, new determination and new confidence that all of us will win the contracts, the respect and the future we deserve,” concluded the union newsletter. “We return to our worksites with the will and the power to succeed” in winning good contracts and union recognition.

This strike was different from previous ones. It’s early morning. Despite temperatures in the single digits and a bitter North wind, central New Haven has become a giant street theater. Striking graduate students beat pots and pans; clerical workers – mainly women of all ages – stomp to the beat around a picket line. Down the street, Local 35 custodians stand in groups and call to friends. One worker later noted the diversity of the strikers, adding, “but everyone had the same look of pride.”

Organizers move amongst the groups of workers, explaining today’s program and passing out the latest strike bulletin. In the bitter cold (or the rain, or the snow – always one or the other) one picket line moves off down the street and joins another. Soon, hundreds of workers have joined in a march. They spill into the street stopping traffic, but the cars are honking support, not impatience. Faculty and managers look out the windows and, sometimes, wave support.

At the end of the morning, all the thousands of strikers join together in a defiant rally, listening to words of support from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, or SEIU President Andy Stern, or Princeton Professor Cornel West.

Monday – the first day, the coldest day – the New Haven community showed its support. At five o’clock, over a thousand people joined the mile-long march to the Yale campus. Groups from each neighborhood, often in congregations with their pastors, marched behind Rev. Jesse Jackson.

As the community marched up Elm Street into downtown, they were joined by the cheering strikers. Coming around the corner, the thousands on strike and from the community filled College St. in the heart of Yale. Jackson addressed the crowd, which joined in chanting, “Wages in New Haven, Not War in Iraq.”

“Workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital can’t afford health insurance. We need a national health system,” said Jackson, adding, “Yale is too rich to pay its workers so poor.”

“Everywhere we look in New Haven, people are lending a helping hand,” said one organizer. Community support ranged from the grass roots through City Hall. Cars displaying the colorful “On Strike” signs were often immune from parking tickets. New Haven police worked with the unions, making it possible to have daily marches and rallies in the streets. Many of Yale’s own police, bogged down in separate contract negotiations with the university, were supportive of the striking workers. “Pinkertons,” hired by Yale to patrol their parking lots, were unable to intimidate the picketing workers.

The 150 dietary workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital played a special role in the strike. Members of District 1199, they have been the only unionized group in the hospital since they first organized in 1973. They are now in the forefront of the struggle to win recognition for the other 1,800 non-professional workers at the hospital. Every single one of the dietary workers was on strike, with the loudest, most spirited picket line.

“It’s been a lifetime struggle for us at the hospital, and we’re going to see it done,” said Ray Milici, a 43-year veteran. Co-worker Mamie Evans was inspired by the “new level of support” in the simultaneous job action by the four locals. “The unity – it’s been like a family,” she said. “We are fighting for something that’s right!”

The strike ended Friday, March 7, on a celebratory note with a giant march and block party in front of Yale’s administration building on Wall Street. (New Haven’s Wall St., not New York’s, though both are the seat of financial power.)

Later that weekend, union workers spoke at area churches, thanking the congregations for their support. At a strike support supper held by the New Haven People’s Center, workers, organizers and supporters talked about their experience on the picket lines and their determination to keep fighting. HERE Local 34 organizer Pat Carta summed up the optimism generated by the week’s activities. “We’ve already won. Yale just doesn’t realize it yet.”

The author can be reached at arthur.perlo@pobox.com



PDF version of 'Snapshots from the picket line'