Union contract at Yale based on history of struggle

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Four thousand six hundred union workers at Yale University here won a major victory last month. At a joint press conference with Local 35 service and maintenance workers and Local 34 clerical and technical workers, the university announced an early contract agreement including job security and expansion of union representation. President Richard Levin admitted the university’s poor labor relations policy was hurting the institution and had to change.

Yale, with its multi-billion-dollar endowment, has been notorious for arrogant anti-labor policies. The recent settlement breaks with a tradition of conflict at Yale marked by repeated strikes dating back to the 1960s. The resulting contracts, won through the struggle and sacrifice of two generations of workers, provide some of the best wages and benefits in the area.

Power of mobilization

At packed ratification meetings in April, union members were amazed and excited that their strength over many years had finally averted a strike this time.

A contract settlement of this scope “could only be done with hundreds of workers involved over many years,” said Unite Here national leader John Wilhelm, who started his union career 40 years ago with Yale’s Local 35.

“It is astonishing and a credit at a time when the country is in a mess economically because of a combination of greed and a period of disastrous leadership. I hope the country and the labor movement takes a look at this,” he said.

The last strike in 2003 ended with a multi-year contract and the formation of a “best practices” structure which required managers to take into account suggestions and ideas from the workers in their department.

Along with departmental best practices committees came a top level policy board that brought together union and administration officials for early negotiations in anticipation of the scheduled January 2010 contract expiration date.

Over the course of a year, the unions held meetings in all the departments and units across the university. A multi-media presentation revealed the gains that the workers and their unions had won, but also showed Yale’s financial position and plans for expansion into a new West Campus. The unions would be marginalized if they were excluded from new facilities. Three thousand workers signed a petition pledging support for the union’s positive role on campus.

The presentations created such a buzz on campus that top administrators asked to see it. Local 34 president Laura Smith said, “We invited them and we even served popcorn.” It became a critical point in negotiations, demonstrating that the union was in touch with its members and that the members were engaged.

In the midst of the devastating economic crisis, the workers were able to negotiate contract language that ties the growth of the university to the growth of the unions. New campuses and new buildings are to include union workers, breaking the current subcontracting pattern, especially significant for Local 35. At a time when Yale has announced layoffs to reduce expenses, Local 34 won strong provisions that will allow laid off workers to stay on the payroll and maintain benefits for up to 18 months, along with strong language giving laid off workers preference for new job openings.

Workers maintained free family health care, and gained improvements in coverage for dependents and prescription drugs through the Yale Health Plan.

In return, the union accepted limited pay increases for the first year of the three-year contract, and a smaller vacation package for new hires.

The wildest cheers and applause went up when it was announced that workers already retired will get substantial increases in their pensions. A highlight of the last strike was a sit-in at Yale’s benefits office by a group of retirees who could not afford to live on the token amount they were getting. The sit-in resulted in improved pension benefits going forward, but those already retired had been left out.

Local 34 members also cheered the support and solidarity they have enjoyed from their sisters and brothers in Local 35.

Hospital-university connection

The bargaining strength of workers at the university is also intertwined with the workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital, who have been struggling for years to expand union representation from the dietary unit to include the entire workforce.

A year and a half ago, the hospital’s anti-union administration violated a neutrality agreement, for which it was fined a record $2 million. But the fine was essentially a slap on the wrist for the hospital because the union, which filed cards signed by a majority of the 2,000 workers after years of organizing, was not recognized.

Several worker-organizers from the hospital traveled to Washington in March to lobby for the Employee Free Choice Act in hopes that the rights of the workers can prevail with a more fair labor law.

A movement for change

The victory at Yale University comes in the midst of the movement for change and the election of President Barack Obama. Busloads of Yale union members campaigned for Obama in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and many became more active in mobilizing for the new contract, and have taken leadership positions in the union.

The press conference announcing the Yale contract settlement emphasized the cooperation and good will between labor and management.

But the real significance lies, as Wilhelm said, in the long history of involvement by the unions’ memberships, their solidarity with each other and with other workers trying to organize, with the New Haven community, and with workers everywhere through support for immigrant rights and political activity. This history, which has placed the Yale unions as part of a vital progressive movement, tilted the balance of forces in favor of a good contract settlement. The new contract puts the unions in a good position for further gains based on continued involvement and activism of the membership.

Joelle Fishman (joelle.fishman @pobox.com) chairs the Communist Party USA Political Action Commission and is also chair of the Connecticut Communist Party.