Yale workers set to strike

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Over 5,000 Yale workers are set to strike March 3. That day, they will be joined by a community march and rally led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The one-week strike may be the first time that graduate student teachers and researchers will join service, maintenance, clerical, technical and health care workers in a simultaneous job action. The different groups of workers share an understanding that they can achieve their goals only if all work together.

The 2,200 graduate students at Yale teach 40 percent of the undergraduate classes and do a substantial part of the research. In an organizing drive lasting more than a decade, they have made gains in pay and health care. But Yale refuses to recognize their union, and has threatened to tie up any National Labor Relations Board union election in legal appeals. The members of GESO, the graduate teachers union, have authorized strike action over the demand that Yale agree to a neutral, binding election process.

A union victory for graduate teachers at Yale would be a national breakthrough. the casualization of university work, relegating PhD’s to temporary appointments, low pay and no job security has given rise to an upsurge in unionizing on many campuses.

If graduate teachers are the newest unionized workers at Yale, the service and maintenance workers of Hotel Employees and Restaruant Employees (HERE) Local 35 have the longest history. A series of hard-fought strikes in the 1960s and 1970s established the nation’s best union contracts for these workers. In the 1980s, they helped to organize HERE Local 34, the first Ivy League union of clerical and technical workers. The Local 34 and 35 members have been without a pay raise for two years, and little progress has been made on many key issues in over a year of negotiations and contract extensions.

For Locals 34 and 35, pay and pensions are important issues, as is increasing opportunities for hiring and promotion of African-American and Latino workers. But perhaps the biggest issue is the increasing use of casuals and subcontractors. This has affected all categories of workers, most visibly the use of outside contractors for custodial work in major new buildings. Yale offered a no-layoff provision for current Local 35 workers. But 25 percent of the union workers are likely to retire during the next contract. Their replacement with contractors would tend to marginalize the remaining union workers, undermining their future bargaining power.

Also voting to authorize a strike are the 150 dietary workers at Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH). Although Yale University and YNHH are technically separate, Yale’s president serves on the hospital’s board, and appoints 20 percent of its members. The 150 YNHH union members are part of District 1199/Service Employees International Union, which has joined with Locals 34, 35 and GESO in the Federation of Hospital and University Employees (FHUE). In turn, the FHUE is conducting a joint drive to organize the 1,800 additional service, maintenance and patient care workers at the hospital. Sixty-five percent have signed a petition calling for a neutral union representation election, but YNHH has refused, responding with a campaign of intimidation against union activists and arrests of workers distributing leaflets to their fellow workers.

The long campaign of Locals 34, 35 and 1199 for new contracts, and of GESO and the remaining hospital workers for union recognition, have generated widespread community support and participation. Yale and YNHH now account for 25 percent of the jobs in New Haven, so the outcome is important to almost every family and institution. And the democratic right of workers – be they graduate teachers or hospital workers – to choose or reject union representation without interference has struck a deep chord.

A broad coalition of congregations and community organizations has been organized in support of the workers. They have been joined by an array of state and local political figures. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), along with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and other state elected officials met with Yale President Richard Levin. They presented a letter signed by 44 members of the Connecticut General Assembly, calling on Yale to recognize “the right of graduate teaching assistants and hospital workers to have a union. ... We especially urge you to discuss a voluntary agreement that will bring about a fair process for Yale workers who are organizing.”

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano has issued a similar call, and Sens. Chris Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, in a separate letter, encouraged the workers “to continue their valiant efforts to organize and negotiate a fair labor contract.” Daily rallies during the strike will feature national speakers, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.

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