Unions may vote to allow strike

Frustrated by the slow progress of recent contract negotiations, Yale union leaders said they may hold a strike authorization vote at a membership meeting Sept. 4.

If union members vote to authorize a strike at the meeting, which would be held on the first day of fall classes, union negotiators would be able to call for job actions, including strikes, if they believe negotiations have deadlocked.

Yale’s unions are also planning a rally Sept. 27, said Virginia Harris, a member of the Local 34, who serves on the job growth committee in negotiations.

Other union members indicated that union leaders are considering holding a three-day strike in late October if contracts are not settled by that time.

“If we haven’t achieved something the members can accept, we’re going to go ahead and set a plan B,” Harris said. “At this point it’s sensible to put together a calendar of events that would increasingly put pressure on the University to settle this.”

Union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said the decision to hold a vote is “not 100 percent clear,” and that a final decision will depend on the state of negotiations in September.

Union leaders scheduled the special membership meeting as they continue to negotiate with the University on contracts for nearly 4,000 Yale employees. The contracts expired in January, and union members have been working under the old contracts, which have been renewed on a month-to-month basis.

Among the major issues still unresolved are wages, pensions, and job growth, training and classification. Both sides offered substantially different proposals on economic issues including wages and benefits early this summer.

Union leaders said Yale’s proposed annual across-the-board raises – 4 percent for Local 34, and 3 for Local 35 – were not sufficient, and said Yale’s pension proposals were too low. Yale administrators said the unions’ proposals of 10 percent raises for Local 34 and 7 percent for Local 35, with increased funding for pensions, would be too costly for the University.

Locals 34 and 35 represent Yale’s clerical, technical, service, dining hall and maintenance workers.

Despite early optimism that contracts could be settled without the bitterness and strikes that have characterized past labor negotiations, union leaders said recent negotiations have proven unproductive and have diminished hopes of achieving contracts peacefully.

Chernoff said union leaders would continue to negotiate in good faith regardless of whether they held the strike authorization vote. But she warned that union leaders had been discouraged by the tone of recent bargaining sessions, and said the differences between the two sides was more complex than differences in salaries or benefit levels.

“The whole spirit and the whole concept of really trying to change the work culture at Yale, that’s in danger of being set aside or lost,” Chernoff said.

The University is still optimistic.

“If the report [of the potential strike vote] is true, we’re disappointed,” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said. “We are still hoping for a new cooperative relationship with our unions.”

Yale President Richard Levin has said repeatedly that he is committed to settling generous contracts for union members, and that he hopes to improve Yale’s troubled labor relations history. University leaders have followed a policy of not commenting on specific negotiation issues throughout the bargaining process.

University and union leaders began negotiations in February with hopes of settling negotiations peacefully and fostering a friendlier era in the historically troubled relationship between Yale and the unions.

Negotiators held several bargaining sessions throughout the summer, and will return to the bargaining table Wednesday following a brief recess.

Harris, the union job growth committee member, said the strike authorization vote is intended to demonstrate union members’ support for its negotiating team. She said University leaders may have doubts that union leaders represent the members’ concerns, and that a vote was intended to correct such perceptions.

Harris added that members are being notified about the potential for a strike well in advance so they can prepare for the possibility of lost income during a strike.

Andrea Kaiser, a Local 34 member who works in Information Technology Services, said she was frustrated by the lack of a contract, and that she was disappointed in Yale administrators for turning back on promises to mend the relationship.

Kaiser added that many union members she had talked to were worried a strike might be the only solution to floundering negotiations.

“We’re afraid that it might have to happen,” Kaiser said.

Harris and Chernoff said members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and Yale-New Haven Hospital workers trying to form unions were also considering job actions in the fall.

Locals 34 and 35 have formed an alliance with the groups trying to unionize, and the right of both groups to form unions has been a major point of contention between the recognized unions and Yale. Union leaders have warned that conflicts over the groups trying to organize could spell labor trouble for the University.

“We would not cross their picket lines,” Harris said. “If we’ve settled a great contract and they go out, we’re prepared to support that.”

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