I am not a union fanatic, especially not a New Haven union fanatic. I really don’t like some of the internal politics of the Yale unions. I also don’t like how some union leaders compared University President Richard Levin to a pharaoh and themselves to slaves. I especially don’t like how the leaders of the New Haven Teachers’ Union tried to take away health-care benefits for all new teachers in the system a couple years ago to enlarge their own already large salaries.
Not everything that every union does is good. But right now, the Yale unions are fighting the good fight for the human right to organize and for the most basic kind of economic justice. I will definitely be standing with them, graduate students, other undergraduates and New Haven community members tomorrow at College and Elm streets at 5:30 to get arrested in what many people predict will be the largest civil disobedience in the history of the state of Connecticut. I will be there because Yale and New Haven need to create a more equal and far more fruitful partnership, and because of the powerful specific and tangible manifestations of the need for a new kind of partnership. This is why I am getting arrested tomorrow:
n Though Yale-New Haven Hospital remains one of the world’s most renowned medical institutions, a new hospital worker earns less than half of what the Office of Policy and Management calculates as a livable wage for a single parent with two children in Connecticut. As a result, more than half of those workers are forced to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet.
n Many hospital workers can’t afford health care. Many workers’ children are on HUSKY, state-assisted health insurance. The hospital has sued multiple workers for medical bills they have been unable to pay, putting liens on their houses and forcing them into bankruptcy.
n These workers are organized, but their requests for recognition have been repeatedly ignored or dismissed. Instead, workers attempting to organize a union have faced threats and intimidation over the past five years, such as last week’s arrests of unionized workers who were leafleting at the hospital.
n Levin dismisses the words and actions of hospital workers by saying that the hospital is not a part of Yale, despite the fact that the two institutions are financially integrated, and that in all aspects of the relationship between Yale and the hospital, the University clearly dominates.
n Longtime University employees are unable to live off of their pensions. A 20-year employee who belongs to Local 34 or 35 only receives a $700 a month pension after retiring, which is entirely inadequate.
n In an independent labor consultant’s report on Yale’s relationship with its unions, workers were described as believing that “Yale’s ethos of excellence stops at the academic door.” Workers describe having no input in labor practices and a huge lack of access to further training that could help them advance their careers. Yale is an academic institution committed to learning and the exchange of ideas — that’s why it doesn’t have to pay state or federal taxes. Yale as an employer is not the same as SNET. It should be held to a different standard because it is treated differently by society. It should act as what it claims to be — an academic institution committed to learning and teaching for all of those participating in the life of the institution.
n The University’s refusal to acknowledge or recognize the hospital workers’ union or the Graduate Employees and Students Organization violates the basic human right of workers to organize. This right is asserted by the United Nations and is supposed to be protected globally. Billions of dollars move from country to country faster than ever before, transforming hundreds of millions of formerly autonomous producers into workers. The quality of life for the majority of the world’s people in the dawning century will be determined by the right to organize –the very same right that is being contested here. We have to help protect this right because without it, workers are powerless and democracy is futile. What good is political power when it is completely subverted by economic power?
Why should we care? What role do students play in all of this? Yale University would not exist without us. The University derives its prestige and stature from our intelligence, our talent, and what we do after we graduate. It is that prestige and that stature that have helped make an $11 billion endowment a reality. Undergraduates are the life-blood of this institution — it exists to educate us. All of its actions are legitimized by its noble purpose of education, human development, and promoting the free exchange of ideas. When the University commits actions that are ignoble and violate human rights and civil rights, we are endorsing these actions, unless we act to stop them.
I think we should all be there tomorrow and act to stop these actions and stand with workers, graduate students and community members to help our university find a way to shed its elitism and exclusivity and embrace its ethos of excellence for all parts of itself.
Shonu Gandhi is a senior in Saybrook College. Her columns regularly appear on alternate Mondays.