Over the nine days that workers have been striking, the intense media coverage has resurrected an old Yale title: worst labor relations at an American university. This, unfortunately, is also well-deserved. Last Friday, as many freshmen faced–in sprawling picket lines and rolling civil disobedience–an education wholly different from the one promised them, people from throughout this community were again forced to ask themselves, “Why a strike? Why again?”
James Kirchick ’06 offered one theory: when John Wilhelm ’67 went to work with HERE Local 217 organizing hotel workers in Rhode Island and Connecticut, he cast a dark pall of labor tension over Yale which has not abated since, and will not until he completes his thirty-five year plan to seize the reigns of the AFL-CIO. Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky similarly told the New York Times on Wednesday, “For 35 years John Wilhelm has organized strikes at Yale. This year is no different. He obviously believes that confrontation rather than cooperation is the best way to settle contract disputes.”
To believe that it is Wilhelm, and not the workers who voted overwhelmingly one year ago to authorize a strike, that chose this job action, that it is Wilhelm, and not the workers, who voted overwhelmingly to reject Yale’s offer again last spring, who decides what’s worth fighting for, and that it is Wilhelm’s promotion, and not their own futures for which workers are marching, is to suggest that the workers of Yale lack the savvy to know what’s best for them. This is the attitude that Yale’s leaders have brought consistently to the bargaining table, and that has brought our university to its ninth strike in 35 years.
Consultant John Stepp, who worked in the Reagan Labor Department, identified this attitude in his RAI Report two years ago: “Employees describe what they perceive as a caste system at Yale. Those not directly involved in intellectual or pedagogical pursuits feel consigned to an underclass.” The workers’ comments relayed are more scathing: “Yale is an elitist institution with disdain for working people”; “I want to scream, ‘This is what I do, ask me! I can help you do it better!'”; “Inclusivity, involvement, democracy are foreign to worklife at Yale.”
To offer four percent wage increases to workers whose wages Gateway Community College locally outpaces by 25 percent is arrogance. To defend a pension plan which left the average Yale retiree of 2000 with a $609 per month pension while proposing to offer Levin a $42,000 monthly pension and investing the rest of the fund is indefensible. To demand the right to subcontract anyone’s job in exchange for a year in interim employment pool is an assault on the economic security of families and on the capacity of organized labor to keep pace with the growth of the University.
Only after five retired Yale workers refused to leave Yale’s investment office for 24 hours, even as three times as many police in full riot gear entered the building, did Levin acknowledge that Yale’s pension proposal needs work. Only after a week of disruptive striking did he agree to sit across the negotiating table.
Yale workers had to strike for the 40-hour week, had to strike for pensions, had to strike for equal pay for women, and had to strike for adequate safety equipment. A few of these fights happened with Wilhelm’s help; most of them happened while he was working on other campaigns, or before his time. Those who blame him for labor conflict must make either the argument that Yale would simply have given workers what they demanded if not for feeling alienated by Wilhelm, or the argument that if not for Wilhelm, workers would simply have accepted inadequate working conditions and everyone would have been better off.
Wilhelm is one hero of the Yale labor movement. There are a few thousand others marching through the streets right now. If we want to know how the disruption of a strike has come again to our campus, we should ask by our morals and by the values of this university why our leadership has deferred the justice demanded by our workers. If we want to know why workers are on strike, we should ask them.
Josh Eidelson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.