University, unions seek new approach

Union and University leaders announced Monday that they would try a new approach to negotiating for union contracts this winter, hoping to replace the historically acrimonious process with one likened to a marriage.

Next month, negotiators from the University and locals 34 and 35, which represent Yale’s clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers, will attend training sessions on “interest–based bargaining,” a process they hope will improve what has been one of the worst labor-management relationships in the country.

The decision to pursue the new strategy comes after months of meetings with labor-management consultants from Restructuring Associates, Inc., who interviewed 120 representatives from both sides to suggest ways to better structure negotiations and the relationship between Yale and the unions.

Consultant John Stepp presented the findings in a report Monday, describing the union–University relationship as “highly adversarial and dysfunctional, non-productive at its best, but often destructive, and ultimately demoralizing.”

The report described frustrations of union members, managers and administrators, and noted that the tensions between unions and management could prove nearly irreconcilable if the upcoming negotiations do not represent a change in tone.

Union and Yale leaders described the report as “sobering,” yet not surprising.

“It’s a wake-up call for change,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said. “I wasn’t surprised we have a ways to go — Having someone like a consulting firm come in, someone who has expertise taking a look at it sort of gives both union and University a wake-up call to change the way you do business.”

Yale President Richard Levin said he thought the report was fair and accurate in its picture of the relationship, but that the reaction to it made him hopeful for a change.

“I really think there’s great potential for taking something that’s been a liability here at Yale and making it an asset,” Levin said.

The report included four pages of observations on the relationship between the union members, managers and administrators. It described what some interviewees called “an apathetic and disengaged work force,” and what employees perceived as a “caste system” at the University.

“Yale is described as deferring its investment in human capital, much as it did 10 years ago with its physical plant,” the report said.

The observations were particularly critical of contract negotiations, seven of the last 10 of which have led to strikes. “Problem solving is an oxymoron in both contract administration and contract negotiations,” Stepp said in the report, and he added that negotiations often make the campus a battleground and damage New Haven’s economic development.

Stepp’s report concluded with three recommendations, two about the long-term relationship between Yale and the unions, and one about the upcoming bargaining process.

Following one of the recommendations, negotiating team members from both sides will meet with Stepp next month to learn about the interest-based bargaining process, which Stepp described at the meeting as like a friendship or a marriage. Rather than both sides entering negotiations with demands, both would first discuss their needs to come to an understanding on what they would have to accomplish.

But leaders on both sides noted the lessons of the report were more about the overall relationship than the negotiations themselves.

“What I think is most important — is changing our relationship on a day to day basis,” Local 34 President Laura Smith said, “really changing labor relations at Yale, because labor relations isn’t just about the bargaining table every however many years. It’s about day to day interactions in the workplace between workers and management.”

Levin said that for all the observations, truly mending the relationship will be up to the individuals involved.

“The report was long on diagnosis of the past history and current problems and very rather short on specifics about how to go forward,” Levin said. “[Stepp] was really called in to do an organizational diagnosis, and Mr. Stepp seems to believe, and so do we, that the path to a solution is something the parties themselves are going to need to work out.”

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