Strikes: A Yale tradition

A year after embarking on a “new era in labor relations,” Yale and its two largest unions have found themselves in the familiar position of preparing for an impending strike.

After months of threats, union leaders announced Wednesday that they will cancel contracts in March, clearing the way for strikes. Union members have hinted at the strong possibility of a walkout beginning March 3, the Monday before spring break.

A strike would mark a familiar point for the University and the unions, who have held strikes in seven of the last 10 negotiations. Beyond symbolic importance, however, any job actions probably will not be effective in accomplishing union goals or bringing either side closer to new contracts.

Though negotiators have bargained on and off for the last 12 months, they have accomplished virtually nothing toward reaching agreements on wages, benefits, training and other contract issues. Meanwhile, the efforts of graduate students and Yale-New Haven Hospital workers to form unions — a major union demand — remain unresolved as ever.

Instead, the last 10 months have brought little more than increasingly vitriolic public statements, deteriorating civility, and growing tension on campus.

By going on strike, union members would continue a virtual Yale tradition, stopping dining hall, custodial and most clerical services for a week or more. Union leaders have dismissed Yale’s contract offers as insulting, while the nonmandatory issues of the graduate students and hospital workers remain the major undiscussed backdrop to the dispute.

Facing an administration staunchly opposed to graduate student unionization and unwilling to involve the hospital in the negotiations, union leaders seem unlikely to achieve recognition for either group through a strike.

Effective or not, strikes remain one of the few outlets for union members to express their grievances.

Longtime Yale workers have weathered up to seven strikes in the last 35 years. Some, the children of Yale workers, recall standing on their first Yale picket lines while growing up, tagging along with their parents. To many workers, strikes have become routine, if emotionally and financially straining, ways to assert their endemic frustrations with the institution.

Most likely, a strike — particularly one that begins a week before students leave for a two-week vacation — will not cripple University activities. University officials have a strike contingency plan, prepared more than a year ago borrowing many provisions from the many strike contingency plans they have used over the last 35 years.

The last year may have accomplished little more than stripping away the rhetoric of quickly paving over old bitterness between Yale and its workers. The coming months will reveal how deep those tensions remain.

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