Aldermen consider backing Yale union drives

The New Haven Board of Aldermen has taken a leap into two longstanding labor disputes involving Yale and the Yale-New Haven Hospital. The board is considering passing resolutions in support of unionization by graduate students and health care workers.

Both resolutions, proposed last month, call for Yale to maintain an atmosphere of neutrality and avoid creating an “atmosphere of fear” of union participation among workers. They also call for Yale to grant the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and District 1199, a healthcare workers’ union, immediate recognition as bargaining units when a majority of students and employees have signed union membership cards.

Alderman Philip Voigt, a Yale employee and Local 35 member, was among the sponsors of the resolutions.

“Graduate students need a voice and a chance to negotiate — they shouldn’t be subject to whatever the University wants to give them,” Voigt said. He added that the 10-year struggle for graduate student unionization has already dragged on for too long.

Voigt said he expects the measures to gather enough support to pass in both the Human Resources Committee and the full Board of Aldermen.

GESO chair J.T. Way GRD ’05 said unions play a critical role in the city’s economy.

“City officials understand how important GESO and 1199 are to the city. That’s why so many of them are supporting us,” he said.

But it seems unlikely that Voigt and the other sponsors will get the unanimous consent they hope for.

Nancy Ahern, one of two Republican aldermen, has come out against the legislation, saying it is hypocritical.

“The resolutions take pro-labor sides, although they purport to be asking for neutrality,” Ahern said.

She also disputed their appropriateness.

“It is not the legislature’s place to interfere with private labor disputes,” she added.

Ahern added that despite their complaints, the graduate students are extremely well-compensated for their services to the University, including free tuition and health coverage.

Deborah Chernoff, a representative of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, which has been trying to unionize Yale-New Haven since January 2000, said her organization is happy to get support — especially the political kind. She called the resolution right on target.

The aldermen “are in touch with their constituents beyond just the University and hospital and understand the wider context and implications of unionizations,” Chernoff said. Among those widespread effects are a more stable economy, a lower crime rate and an improvement in New Haven’s image, she added.

Hospital spokesman Katie Krauss countered that the resolutions are “regrettable.”

“By urging the hospital to accept [District 1199] without a secret ballot election, the resolution denies Yale-New Haven employees the informed choice and ignores one of the sacred principles of our Constitution, the right to a secret vote,” she said, adding that the hospital believes such an action would violate federal labor laws.

Several incidents have fueled the controversy over unionization at the University and Yale-New Haven.

District 1199 filed a complaint last summer with National Labor Relations Board alleging that on two occasions, hospital police threatened workers participating in union-related activities. Yale’s long-held contention that graduate students are not employees was overruled last November by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled graduate student teachers are employees and have a federally-protected right to unionize. Since that ruling, GESO has filed two complaints with the regional NLRB against Yale.

While resolutions aim to stem this alleged intimidation by the University and hospital administrators, their strength is primarily symbolic.

“The resolution will pass, but it can be ignored,” Ahern said.

The resolutions were proposed to the board at its March 5 meeting and subsequently referred to the Human Resources Committee, which will hold a public hearing to discuss them as soon as April 5.

Mickey Mercier, legislative aide to the board, estimated that the final vote on each resolution will occur by May 5, but that they could come to the floor as early as April 17.

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