As workers at Yale University continue their quest for union recognition and fair contracts, support for their cause continues to grow.

Over 50 faculty have signed an open letter calling for Yale’s President Richard Levin to agree to a fair union election for hospital workers and graduate teachers. Twenty-three Catholic priests delivered a letter urging Yale to negotiate with the unions to overcome its “dysfunctional relationship” with its employees.

Undergraduate students have constructed a plywood “Better Way Village” outside Levin’s office. At the opening of the Village, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) explained its name, saying Yale needs “to understand that there is a better way” to conduct labor relations.

These actions follow a five-day strike in early March by over 5,000 clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers, hospital dietary workers and graduate teachers. The walkout, which spotlighted issues of wages, pension benefits and union recognition, received national attention.

The workers are represented by Locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), Health Care District 1199 (Service Employees International Union), and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, HERE.

For the established unions, Yale has offered a new contract proposal for the first time since last June. While little has changed in pay, pensions and job security, the proposal includes an unprecedented 10-year term for the life of the contract.

In a letter to the Yale community, Levin boasts that employees will “gain a security that is extremely rare in today’s economy,” including no layoffs for Local 35 members, and six-months’ notification of subcontracting for Local 34.

In response, the unions have demanded protection against subcontracting and outsourcing, saying that it is “absolutely essential to have real job security, protecting not just individuals” but ensuring that Yale work remains union.

Yale has offered annual wage increases of 3 percent for Local 35 and 4 percent for Local 34, making the claim that “this offer of ten years of wage increases of this magnitude has few parallels in U.S. labor history.” Levin, who is an economist, did not mention that his proposal barely keeps up with the cost of living, even if inflation remains low.

“The benefit [of] the 10-year contract is to the University, because it would mean that the Union has no bargaining power for 10 years,” said one union member. The unions want a 4-year contract.

In his letter, Levin calls for building a better relationship, “to break the habits of confrontation, and to demonstrate the futility of believing that ‘we can only win by struggle.’”

The unions responded, “Cooperation must and will start with a contract that addresses the very real needs [of union members].”

Union members are particularly angry at Yale’s offer of a $500 signing bonus, in place of full retroactive pay for the 15 months since the last contracts expired. Levin was quoted in the Yale Daily News as saying that agreeing to retroactive pay would be “rewarding bad behavior,” a comment viewed by many as paternalistic and insulting.

Nonetheless, Local 34 President Laura Smith believes that a settlement can be reached this spring. The five-day strike was only part of the unions’ strategy, she says. On April 30, there will be a membership meeting of Local 34, representing clerical and technical workers, the largest group on campus. The members will vote on Yale’s 10-year offer.

Smith explains why the vote is being taken at this time. “Yale is saying this is a good contract – the members would take it if offered a choice. So we are having a secret ballot to allow members to vote on it – this will completely disarm Yale. Our goal is to have a vast majority present. No one thinks it’s a good offer.”

Elections for union officers, which will also take place at the meeting, will test Yale’s statements implying that only the union leadership stands in the way of a contract settlement.

Yale is still stonewalling in its refusal to recognize the hospital workers’ and graduate teachers’ unions.

The day after the Local 34 vote, a public hearing is scheduled on Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH) and what some call its “uncharitable care.” According to the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, YNHH has adopted very aggressive tactics to collect debts from poor patients. Wages have been garnisheed, homes foreclosed, and bank accounts seized. Among the victims are people who work at the hospital but can’t afford family health coverage.

This story, headlined in the Wall Street Journal as well as Connecticut newspapers, has been another embarrassment to Yale.

Adding to pressure on Yale is proposed city legislation to calculate the money the city loses due to Yale’s tax exemption. This has been a major issue in New Haven, especially as the city is raising taxes, laying off workers and cutting services in the face of the current economic crisis. The May 14 public hearing on this proposal is likely to turn into a community rally for Yale to be a more responsible citizen – including settling its contracts.

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Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.