Labor leader links unions, democratization

Speaking shortly before the start of negotiations between Yale and its unions, labor leader John Wilhelm ’67, discussed globalization and Yale’s labor unions as part of Sunday night’s installment of the “Democracy, Security and Justice” series.

Wilhelm was invited by organizers of the series, which was started after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. He delivered his talk, entitled “Work, War and Democracy,” in front of a captivated audience of nearly 80, composed largely of union members and GESO organizers.

Wilhelm, the president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, the parent of Yale’s two largest unions, began his remarks by discussing unions and globalization since Sept. 11. But he soon turned to a familiar topic for his talks at Yale — the University’s work environment and the importance of organizing efforts by graduate students and hospital workers at Yale. His references to the organizing efforts of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and hospital workers elicited frequent applause from the audience in the Law School auditorium.

He also referred to Yale’s tumultuous labor relations history, one of the most acrimonious in the nation, and his years as a lead organizer and negotiator for locals 34 and 35.

“I’ve been associated in one way or another with Yale University for the last 38 years,” Wilhelm said at the beginning of his talk. “Over that time I’ve given a lot of speeches, but this is the first one I can ever remember Yale inviting me to give.”

Wilhelm’s visit came days before Yale and its largest recognized unions, locals 34 and 35, begin negotiations on contracts for nearly 4,000 Yale workers. Though he no longer lives in New Haven, Wilhelm maintains strong ties with local union leaders, and is considered a near-mythic figure among labor leaders and union members in New Haven. Local 35 President Bob Proto has said Wilhelm will be an almost constant source of advice throughout the negotiations.

In the last 30 years, seven of the 10 contract renewal processes have led to strikes. University and union leaders have made overtures toward creating a new, friendlier tone in labor-management relations this year, but a long history of bitterness between the University and its workers — and tensions over the recognition of graduate students and hospital workers — remain.

Acknowledging the efforts toward a new tone in labor relations, including the decision by both sides to work with a hired consultant during the negotiations, Wilhelm said he and others were nonetheless skeptical that both sides could reach a common understanding.

Throughout his speech, Wilhelm emphasized the alliance between the two recognized unions and the two groups trying to unionize, representative of the partnerships between different unions that have come to characterize his organizing efforts throughout the country.

He likened Yale’s unions’ organizing efforts to the Solidarity movement in Poland, and noted that recognition of the right to unionize would be increasingly important for workers as the economy becomes more globalized.

Toward the end of his remarks, Wilhelm introduced members of locals 34 and 35, who each spoke about the organizing efforts by the graduate students and hospital workers.

Virginia Harris, an editorial assistant in the Chemistry Department, spoke about GESO members feeling threatened by faculty members and administrators, and Mark Wilson, a custodian and Local 35 executive board member, talked about the strong links between members of the recognized unions and workers at the hospital.

Wilhelm drew several rounds of applause during his talk, most after mentioning the organizing efforts of GESO and the hospital workers, and received an impassioned standing ovation at the end.

Professor John Gaddis, who leads the series along with professor Cynthia Farrar, said he liked the talk, which he noted had oscillated between global and local issues.

“He made a very appropriate connection between national and local conditions,” Gaddis said.

John Wilhelm '67
Arielle LevinBecker
John Wilhelm '67

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