Consultant’s report may overestimate labor tension

In the days after a consultant’s report condemned the relationship between Yale and its unions as “dysfunctional,” union and University leaders uniformly praised the findings as accurate.

They described it as “sobering” yet not surprising; others described it as “holding a mirror up to Yale.”

Only the report’s author seemed to have reservations.

John Stepp, who presented the report on behalf of the consulting firm Restructuring Associates Inc. after 120 interviews with union and management representatives, said he thought the report presented a more negative picture than reality.

“My guess is things aren’t as bad in reality as this report would suggest,” Stepp said.

Stepp said a negative bias was to be expected from such a report, because people interviewed tend to focus more on what makes them unhappy than things with which they are satisfied.

Whether the picture the report painted was accurate or not, leaders from both sides have been following Stepp’s recommendations as they prepare for the next steps of what has become a protracted pre-negotiation process for the renewal of contracts for locals 34 and 35, the unions representing Yale’s clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers.

The next official step will come next month, when negotiating team members from both sides will meet with Stepp for training in “interest based bargaining,” an approach he suggested might help settle contracts in a friendlier manner than has been traditional in the unions’ and University’s historically tumultuous relationship.

Yale President Richard Levin said the accepting reaction to the report and Stepp’s suggestion that the report was more negative than reality could be reconciled.

“It was accurate in portraying problems in the University and unions,” Levin said. “I think if you talked to lots and lots of individual workers and managers, many [would have] much more positive personal experiences than in the document.”

Levin added that the union members interviewed were all active in the union, and therefore particularly aware of problems in labor-management relations.

Local 34 President Laura Smith, who noted that every union member she had talked to had responded to the report with a “yes, that’s us, that’s Yale” attitude, said Stepp was correct in saying the report focused largely on the problems.

“I do think if we’re looking to make things better we’re going to be talking about … the actual problems, because only by getting those out into the open and acknowledging those as our mistakes can we move forward,” Smith said.

Smith said union leaders have been preparing to go forward by communicating with bargaining unit members about the report and the contracts, which officially expired Sunday. Union and University leaders agreed to extend the contract until March 1, after which point they could renew it on a month-by-month basis.

“Everyone is a little nervous because as much as our labor relationship, as the report said, has been nonproductive and dysfunctional in the past, it was what we knew,” Smith said. “When you’re looking at changing the process in any significant way — it tends to make all of us somewhat uncomfortable, but I think everyone recognizes there is a need for a change.”

Smith said union leaders were preparing ideas gathered from surveys of bargaining unit members over the last two years. Smith declined to comment on the types of changes they would like in the contract.

Levin said he hoped the contracts would reflect the consultant’s recommendations and include provisions to improve day-to-day interactions.

“What I’d like to see in the contract is built-in processes to have constructive interaction, not every four years [when contracts are renegotiated] but everyday changes in culture and attitude. It takes years to change culture, the way people interact, it’s a process.”

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