A watershed year for labor relations

For most Yale undergraduates, the ins and outs of daily of life on campus during the last year was rather routine. Students ate in dining halls, solicited advice from their college administrative assistants, and called maintenance workers when their rooms needed repairs.

To the workers, union leaders and University officials who have lived the long, bitter history of labor relations at Yale, however, the seemingly routine year was anything but.

Instead, the relative calm between Yale and its unions reflected a major effort to avoid the tensions and strikes of the past as contracts for nearly 4,000 Yale workers ran out in January.

In the process, the two sides both avoided major battles and strikes, and began what leaders and workers hope can be a lasting era of cordial labor relations.

But with no final agreement on contracts yet, as well as continued disagreements over the future of graduate student and hospital workers’ organizing drives, leaders on both sides acknowledged uncertainties about the future of the relationship.

“It’s been a watershed year, certainly in what people are trying to accomplish and in the very real efforts I think both parties have made to reshape the way they related to each other,” union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said.

The efforts over the past year have included the hiring of a labor-management consultant to evaluate the relationship, a new process for less contentious bargaining, and commitment from leaders on both sides to keep bargaining table issues from spilling over to inflame the community.

“I think we’ve made real progress,” Levin said. “The way in which the University and the unions’ negotiators have engaged at the bargaining is qualitatively different and better than in the past.”

But with wage and benefit issues, as well as the highly contentious issue of graduate students and hospital workers trying to organize unresolved, union and University leaders say they are also mindful of the challenges ahead.

“I am cautiously optimistic about the possibility of us creating a real partnership here with Yale,” Local 34 President Laura Smith said. She said her caution stemmed from what she called the University’s refusal to talk about the organizing efforts, and the lack of progress in changing the way Yale manages its work force.

Union leaders have said it is too soon to know when contracts can be settled, and emphasized that there is much work still to be done on contracts for locals 34 and 35, which represent Yale’s clerical, technical, dining hall, service and maintenance workers.

“The fear that I have is that the University is looking for a quick fix in negotiations, and I’m hoping that they take just as seriously as we’re taking not only the recommendations, but looking at the big picture — of what it means now to change the course we’re on,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said.

But Levin said he was worried that the current momentum toward improved relations could be lost if contracts are not settled by the end of the summer.

Since contracts expired in January, leaders have extended the contracts on a month by month basis. Workers who received annual raises under the old contracts have not received raises this year, and negotiators have yet to determine whether they will receive raises retroactively once contracts are finalized. Many workers have indicated that they are concerned about the contracts taking much longer to settle.

The current tentative agreement on subcontracting would allow Local 35 members to staff all new buildings under “demonstration projects” to guarantee standards of performance. But if the contracts are not settled by the time the renovated Timothy Dwight College opens in late August, the work would be outsourced, according to the agreement, Levin said.

The subcontracting agreement reached last month for Local 35, as well as a job security settlement for Local 34 represented major advances in bargaining, settling two of the most contentious issues. Levin said the settlements were encouraging signs that contracts could be completed in the next month, but union leaders said they expected a longer process.

Negotiators also have yet to discuss wage and benefits issues, including pensions, which union leaders said are a major concern. University leaders have said economic issues will not prove difficult to resolve, since the University is in a secure financial position and willing to offer generous contracts.

But issues over graduate students and hospital workers trying to organize also remain major points of disagreement, the resolution of which union leaders say is necessary for a new partnership.

But Levin said he thinks it is possible to resolve the locals 34 and 35 contracts without addressing the issue of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and the hospital workers. University leaders have said they oppose graduate student unionization and do not control the hospital.

“We think it’s possible to separate and continue to have separate relationships with locals 34 and 35, even as they participate in other organizing efforts,” Levin said. “I still hold that view.”

But Proto said a settlement that did not address the other organizing drives could undermine the new partnership.

“I think Rick Levin is sincere in wanting a new partnership, but he has to understand that it just can’t be narrow,” Proto said. “It has to include all workers.”

Farther from the bargaining table, several reports critical of Yale released by union-affiliated groups drew criticism from Yale officials who recalled past negotiations, when anti-Yale publicity campaigns were common. In August, three GESO leaders wrote “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” which emphasized ties between former Yale leaders and slavery. The report, criticized by slavery history experts, was distributed with funds from the unions.

Union researchers also wrote three reports for the nonprofit advocacy group the Connecticut Center for a New Economy. The final report, “Schools, Jobs and Taxes,” included a “social contract” calling for Yale to fund New Haven public schools, and claimed that Yale owed the city money. CCNE and union-affiliated clergy members have led several community meetings in recent weeks to promote the “social contract” and support the graduate student and hospital workers’ organizing drives.

Tensions between Yale and the unions also flared in recent months over the candidacy of the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93 for the Yale Corporation. Lee is a vice president of CCNE, and community leaders said they asked Lee to run for the Corporation as a way of winning a community voice on Yale’s highest decision-making body. University leaders have said the funds would make Lee beholden to the unions — an implication union leaders dismissed as representative of traditional anti-union attitudes among University leaders.

Levin characterized many tensions as “unfortunate side effects” in line with public relations battles against Yale during past negotiations. But Levin also noted that this time, public battle critical of Yale have not addressed Yale as an employer, which Levin said indicated union efforts to keep negotiation efforts inside the bargaining room.

Beyond the current negotiations, however, leaders from both sides emphasized that the new relationship will truly be tested in day-to-day labor-management interactions.

Proto, who said his first memories of Yale as a boy were standing on Local 35 picket lines with his father, said the new tone leaders were trying to achieve this year would be difficult, but also a long-awaited change.

“Now our fight is for a new direction. It’s not like fighting the old fight all the time. Now the fight is amongst everyone, the workers and management, administrators and labor to have an attitude change,” Proto said. “[It's] not like just get ready for some combative old-fashioned labor-management head-butting. This is actually just as difficult, but we’re willing to do the hard work that it takes to get through it because Yale’s going to be here for a long time, and it’s going to be the dominant employer for a long time.”

The 2001-2002 academic year figured to be difficult for Yale and its unions, with contract negotiations presenting several divisive issues, but a new tone has slowly emerged.
Alyson Sudow
The 2001-2002 academic year figured to be difficult for Yale and its unions, with contract negotiations presenting several divisive issues, but a new tone has slowly emerged.

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