Members of Yale’s two largest unions will vote tonight on whether to allow their leaders to call a strike.
If authorized by their members, union leaders could order a strike if they believe contract negotiations with Yale are deadlocked. The votes follow eight months of negotiations between Yale and locals 34 and 35, which represent nearly 4,000 clerical, technical, service, dining hall and maintenance workers.
Tonight’s votes also reflect a major shift in tone by union leaders and University officials, who months ago forecasted a peaceful resolution to bargaining. Negotiations nearly ground to a halt over the summer, and the parties held only 10 full committee sessions in the 68 working days since Commencement. The two sides offered vastly different economic proposals in early June, and have since begun to express doubt about the possibility of a peaceful end to talks.
Another group, representing about 150 dietary workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital, is negotiating its own contract and will also hold a strike authorization vote tonight.
With three unions talking about potential strikes, leaders on both sides have said tonight’s votes may foreshadow major conflicts between Yale and its unions. Union leaders are tentatively planning a demonstration on Sept. 27 and have indicated in the past that they may consider holding a three-day strike in October.
Union leaders have said that Yale’s refusal to address the ongoing organizing drives of graduate students and hospital workers undermines Yale’s credibility with University employees. Graduate students have been trying to form a union for more than 10 years, and 1,800 nonunionized hospital workers — helped by the 150-person union at the hospital and the Yale labor groups — are also attempting to unionize.
Union officials added that they have been frustrated that top administrators have not participated in negotiations, and said they believed Yale was not willing to engage in open dialogue with the unions.
“Our members are angry,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said. “Our members are going to take a strike authorization vote [Wednesday] because we’re serious about making changes at Yale.”
But Yale President Richard Levin, who said he was disappointed that the two sides had not settled contracts, said he believes the union leaders’ top priority in the negotiations is unionizing other workers, not settling contracts.
“I think we started with a real opportunity to make a dramatic change in the way that the University and its two principal unions interact,” Levin said. “I’m still hopeful we can change that relationship, but it has become more difficult with the unions evidently choosing a confrontational course.”
The contracts for locals 34 and 35 expired in January. Since then, leaders have renewed contracts on a month-to-month basis, but workers have not received annual pay increases since new contracts have not been signed.
Despite reaching tentative agreements on several key points in the spring, the two sides have yet to reach settlements on wages and benefits.
But one of the chief disputes between the two sides has stemmed from the unions’ alliance with graduate students and hospital workers trying to unionize. Union leaders have repeatedly said they want Yale to address the organizing drives of the two groups as part of the current negotiations.
Yale leaders have long opposed graduate student unionization, and Levin has said he does not control Yale-New Haven Hospital and cannot recognize a union there. Levin sits on the hospital’s board and appoints eight of its 28 members. Through a spokeswoman, Yale-New Haven CEO Joseph Zaccagnino declined to comment about unionization.
“We don’t believe a third party is necessary to represent the interests of our employees,” hospital spokeswoman Katie Krauss said.
Legally, locals 34 and 35 cannot strike over graduate student or hospital worker issues because these issues do not directly affect their contracts. But if other mandatory issues, such as wages or benefits, are still on the table, a strike would be legal.
Union leaders characterized the strike authorization vote as a way to stay prepared, akin to the University’s developing a strike contingency plan last winter.
Local 34 President Laura Smith said union leaders would continue trying to work peacefully with Yale and that no strike date has been set. Negotiators have planned 11 bargaining dates in the coming weeks, beginning on Sept. 11. But Proto said he is not optimistic about reaching any agreements.
Levin said the University placed full trust in its chief negotiator, Brian Tunney, and added that he had had several meetings with union leaders and kept in close contact with negotiators.
“I have been very much more involved, I believe, than any Yale president has ever been in these negotiations,” Levin said.