Union strife looms over the horizon

A chef in Commons flips a burger on the grill, hoping the line of students does not become any longer. A clerical worker answers a nervous freshman’s question because the college dean is swamped. A graduate teaching assistant listens to a jam-packed lecture, preparing for the section she will soon lead. And a hospital employee tends to a patient with an affinity for pushing the call button.

Nothing appears out of the ordinary for a late summer day in the heart of the Elm City. Anxious students have invaded their colleges, classes have resumed, and Yale continues to thrive in its 300th year.

But summer is quickly cascading into fall, and, by January, life at Yale may not be on such an even keel. In fact, it could become downright ugly.

Jan. 20, 2002, will mark the expiration of the University’s contract with its two recognized unions, which represents custodial, dining hall, clerical, and technical workers. As contract negotiation time approaches, Yale and its unions are preparing for a serious, potentially explosive confrontation.

Yale’s two recognized unions, Locals 34 and 35, are now in an alliance with groups of Yale-New Haven Hospital workers and graduate students who have long been seeking to unionize. They vow, as the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, to stick together and insist that Yale must bargain with all four labor groups.

To date, the University has expressed no intention of recognizing graduate students, who are represented by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, or of influencing Yale-New Haven Hospital to recognize some of its workers, who are associated with Service Employees International Union District 1199.

“We’ll make every effort to resolve our contracts with Local 34 and 35 in a reasonable set of negotiations,” Yale President Richard Levin said, noting that action on GESO was up to the members of GESO and that the law does not require the University to bargain with Yale-New Haven Hospital workers.

Union officials view the situation differently.

“It’s a mistake for Yale to think we can be separated,” Local 35 president Bob Proto said. “It doesn’t work when you only want to get along with two of the four pieces.”

Consequently, what would have been a relatively simple negotiation year between Yale and its recognized unions could prove to be the most difficult and complicated go-around yet. With the legacy of decades of poor labor relations looming over the heads of administrators and labor leaders, ominous signs are pointing to a winter of discontent.



The issues

The viability of the labor federation will likely be tested early. At issue is the seemingly tenuous link between members of Yale’s established unions and Yale graduate students and hospital workers.

Unionization efforts by the two groups have escalated because of what are perceived as low wages, reduced benefits, and a stagnant academic job market. One of the federation’s slogans, “This Is Our Time!” is no small indication of expectations for the alliance’s two fledgling labor groups.

While it remains unclear if rank-and-file union members would be willing to endure a strike for hospital workers, early indications suggest that Yale is betting that long-standing union members will not agree to suffer through a work stoppage to benefit graduate students.

Raising the stakes, administrative sources say privately that the University is prepared to offer Locals 34 and 35 very generous packages with high wages and benefits.

“Living wage will not be an issue,” said one administrator. “We’ll definitely be above that.”

Yale officials do not expect the same type and number of complicated issues with respect to Locals 34 and 35 that bogged down negotiations during the last cycle in 1995-96. Those negotiations lasted over one year, with both unions going on 10-week strikes that received national media attention and forced students out of dining halls and into local restaurants.

While the issue of outsourcing, or subcontracting projects using non-union employees, is expected to be a crucial issue again, as it was in 1996, that portion of the current contract does not expire until 2006.

“We’ve used [outsourcing] on a limited basis and done it judiciously,” Yale labor relations director Brian Tunney said.

Linsly-Chittenden Hall and Swing Space are the two most prominent central campus properties that have been subcontracted and are no longer serviced by Yale’s unions.

The University’s stance on the federation’s two proto-unions remains clear: Yale continues to question the role of a graduate student union in academia and maintains that only Yale-New Haven Hospital, not the University, can address the issue of hospital employee unionization.

Levin has stressed that the hospital and the University are different employers, contrary to the slogan adopted by the federation: “Four contracts, one employer.”

Levin appoints eight of the 28 members of the hospital’s board of directors, but the extent to which Levin can influence the entire board is a point of contention.

The prospect of a graduate student union has drawn steady opposition from Yale administrators for over a decade, but the subject has garnered significantly more attention in the last year, especially with a landmark National Labor Relations Board ruling last October in favor of graduate students attempting to organize at New York University.

GESO insists on card-count neutrality, which would lead to union recognition if more than 50 percent of the potential bargaining unit signed membership cards. Hospital workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital are also seeking card-count neutrality.

GESO Chair J.T. Way ’05 said his organization believes that neutrality would end the acrimonious relationship between graduate students and the administration.

Yale administrators object to the principle of card-count neutrality, saying it is impractical in an academic setting because all employees, including opinionated professors, would have to remain silent and could neither support nor oppose unionization.

“We have to decide whether an NLRB model is right for an academic community,” said Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer. “We have to keep an open and honest debate about that.”

Instead of card-count neutrality, University officials favor the long-established notion of a certified NLRB secret ballot election. Administrators frequently note that Locals 34 and 35 were both formed using this method.

Labor leaders including Proto, Way, Local 34 president Laura Smith, and District 1199 head Jerry Brown say that such an election is less democratic than card-count neutrality because of the inherent coercive power an employer holds over an employee.



Overcoming history

In addition to being far apart on critical issues regarding graduate students and hospital workers, Yale and its unions are being forced, once again, to confront history.

Since 1968, there have been seven strikes at Yale involving union employees. The Class of 2001 was only the eighth group of students within that time period to graduate without experiencing a strike.

An atmosphere of distrust of management still exists among the rank-and-file, despite administrative assertions that Yale’s labor relations have improved in recent years.

“It’s one of the most adversarial relationships at universities or even most companies,” Proto said. “We want to see a new model of labor relations at Yale, but we haven’t yet seen any significant change.”

Yale officials point to several improvements such as a decrease in union grievances filed against the University and an acceleration in the University’s processing of such grievances.

But even if Yale has taken steps in the right direction, the legacy of decades of animosity between unions and the University cannot simply be erased.

Hundreds of members of Locals 34 and 35 are veterans of labor strife, having endured multiple strikes, lost pay, and frigid mornings in a union food line. Some appear to believe that Yale will never truly care about its workers.

“It’s amazing what some people think about this place,” said Marvin Tillman, a former Local 34 member and employee in Sterling Memorial Library. “It’s just stuck in people’s heads. They hate Yale and they can’t get over it.”

Tillman, who had a dispute with his union, left Yale in the spring to take a higher-paying position at Duke University.

Animosity is not limited to the library or dining hall cooking space. Former union leaders continue to steam over prior conflicts with Yale, exuding bitterness years after the fact.

“Yale hides things,” former Local 35 president Tom Gaudioso said in March, answering questions about land management at the Yale Golf Course. “They’ll do anything to cover their tracks, and they don’t care about us.”

While GESO members and hospital workers do not exhibit similar signs of this institutionalized mistrust of Yale, frustration has been mounting. GESO first began attempting to organize graduate students over a decade ago. Hospital workers have spent much of the last three years embroiled in disputes and NLRB complaints with their employer.

Despite minimal progress, the formation of the federation and increased strength in numbers has given the two labor groups reason for hope.

“We know this is going to happen,” said Minnie Clark, a patient care associate at the hospital. “We’re all coming together, and it’s going to work this time.



Key players prepare

Negotiations have traditionally begun in the November before the January contract expiration date, and there is no reason to expect any significant change this time around, administrative sources said.

Most people involved in the negotiation process were present in 1995-96. That group includes top Yale officials and union leaders. The only major new face, other than those potentially at the table representing GESO or hospital workers, is Yale’s new vice president of finance and administration Robert Culver, who has prior experience with labor negotiations.

Veterans or neophytes, Yale officials are privately apprehensive about the upcoming ordeal, generally refusing to comment in detail. They all agree, however, that labor issues will dominate campus activity for much of the next year and do not foresee any other issues emerging that would overshadow the tense situation.

Administrative and union sources both say that Levin has a lot at stake. With the University’s infrastructure on the rebound, finances remarkably solid, and town-gown relations on the mend, labor relations remains as one of Levin’s last major challenges.

“I hope when he takes a look at this situation and the history of workers here, he sees this as an opportunity,” Proto said. “There doesn’t have to be this cloud of negativism every time we go through this.”

Levin, for his part, seems intent on making the best of a tenuous situation.

“Given our history, we’ve got a long way to go to get to the kind of labor relations I’d like to see here,” Levin said. “You tend to see the worst examples of the relationship rather than the best, but there’s a lot of behind the scenes problem-solving.”

In spite of all the talk of hope and optimism for the future, both sides have already strengthened their ranks for a drawn-out conflict.

Yale has hired Proskauer Rose LLP, a law firm known as a union buster with an extensive labor litigation practice.

The federation has bolstered its personnel, bringing in additional staff that includes Deborah Chernoff, a veteran of many Yale labor struggles, including the organization of Local 34 in 1983.

In July, a lengthy anti-Yale piece entitled “Yale Bites Unions” appeared as the cover article of The Nation. A Columbia University graduate student organizer wrote the article. Yale administrators, including Provost Richard, said that the reporter did not truthfully represent herself, and her inherent bias, before beginning interviews.

A media onslaught could develop in the oncoming months, especially if the labor situation deteriorates. Yale administrators know the feeling all too well.

“The University is always worried about its image,” said Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske, who experienced strikes while a student at Yale in the early 1970s. “We’ve had many [strike situations] in the past and they’re always unpleasant. — The community breaks down and Yale’s not a fun place.”



Predictions

What will actually happen as the winter months progress is anyone’s guess. Not surprisingly, administrators and labor leaders alike refuse to make any detailed predictions.

Both factions, however, are preparing for up to one year of prolonged conflict.

When one Yale official likely to be involved with negotiations was asked whether he would be taking any vacations in January, February, or March, he said obviously not, and that he almost certainly would not be doing so in either April or May.

Administrators are also watching the federation’s parent organization, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, headed by former Yale union organizer John Wilhelm. Sources say that the International would have to provide even greater support to the alliance if push came to shove, and how HERE approaches the struggle will go a long way in determining how troublesome the situation will become.

As with many disputes in American life demanding a legal resolution, the issues of which corporate entity is the “employer” of the hospital employees and whether graduate students can form a union at Yale may simply have to be litigated.

For now, tempered optimism reigns even as a storm brews on the horizon.

“We don’t know what shape it’s going to take,” Chernoff said. “We never say ‘never,’ but it’s a federation for a reason — it’s a reality, not just a name.”

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