Yale unions & community unite

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – As snow fell here at noon on Jan. 27, hundreds of Yale workers rallied for a new union contract outside the hotel where negotiations were taking place.

“We retire into a life of poverty,” said Laura Smith, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union Local 34, representing clerical and technical workers. Better pensions and job security are two of the main issues in negotiations that have dragged on since the contracts expired a year ago. Speaking to the growing impatience and determination, HERE Local 35 President Bob Proto called on the workers to carry the message back. “Everyone here is an organizer in your department,” he said.

John Wilhelm, HERE international president, warned of the threat to job security posed by subcontracting. “Yale is trying to divide us,” he warned. “We all rely on each other for our future and our security.” Wilhelm, who led the successful 1984 strike that established Local 34, has moved back to New Haven to help lead the struggle.

Yale has adopted an increasingly hard line in its communications to faculty and management. On two important issues – pension improvements for those who have already retired, and the right to organize for over 4,000 Yale graduate teachers and service workers at Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH) – Yale delivers a flat “No,” saying, in effect, they are not required by law to bargain over these issues, and will not discuss them.

Yale’s refusal to discuss “non-mandatory” issues is also important because the unions are supporting community demands that Yale provide aid for New Haven public schools, and improve hiring and promotion of Latino and African-American workers. Yale has responded with a massive public relations campaign – full-page ads in local papers at least every week, often boasting of how much they do for their workers and for the city.

The answer to Yale’s campaign to divide the community from the union came the day after the union rally. Unity was the theme at a remarkable community meeting held in St. Rose Church. Five hundred people filled the church basement. Lillian Daniels, pastor of Church of The Redeemer, welcomed the participants. “We’ve come here the hard way. We’ve tried to do good things alone or in small groups.” Her theme reflected the banner over the stage: “In Unity there is Power.”

New Haven residents who are members of the five unions seeking recognition or new contracts testified to the common issues. Hospital worker Monica Osborne said, “Many of us can’t afford health coverage while working for one of the country’s top 100 hospitals. We need to teach people to stand up and fight.”

Gahodery Rodriguez, a graduate teacher at Yale, brought cheers when she said, “In every part of the United States workers are coming together to fight for a higher standard of living. New Haven is setting an example. I believe in the power we have in this room. We will win.”

The climax of the evening came when representatives of more than 50 congregations and community groups came to the front. Joelle Fishman, representing the New Haven People’s Center, said, “We stand in solidarity forever. We will not rest until equality, dignity and justice are won at Yale, in New Haven and in the world.” Each of the leaders gave a similar message, repeating the need for unity in the common struggle, and each closed by saying, “We’re gonna roll the union on.”

Calling attention to representatives of the Yale administration’s Office of New Haven Affairs who were in the room, Bea Dozier Taylor told them to bring word back to Yale: “The people are standing strong to do what they have to do.”

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