A crowd of the so-called “scab” workers filling in for striking members of Local 35 received a new instruction from their West Haven-based employer yesterday — none of them were to reveal the location of the parking lot where they’re now gathering each morning for the bus ride to work.
The location of the parking lot where they used to gather had obviously not been much of a secret, given the ease with which organizers from Yale’s unions found it on Tuesday. The handful of organizers who drove there tried to talk to the men and women boarding the buses to Yale, but the company in charge of them quickly called the police. The workers’ bus set out with the organizers in hot pursuit, but by the time the workers reached Yale they had ditched the telltale yellow school bus in which they departed. Starting yesterday, the “scabs” will arrive on campus in unmarked gray vans, courtesy of Yale. According to Dan Smokler, one of the organizers who made chase on Tuesday, the transfer point is “an abandoned field” in Fair Haven.
Clearly, the workers are a popular audience. Their presence on campus, cleaning bathrooms and sweeping stairwells, is not without historical note — they are among the first men and women in Yale history to be hired as sub-contractors to fill in during a strike. Yale has been using sub-contractors to clean many campus buildings for years, but this is the first time that they have been brought in to clean everything else.
For the honor, they have been shuttled around in strictly enforced secrecy by the University, promised employment only if they do their job quietly and even then only for the duration of the strike. As if that weren’t enough, on Monday, the last day that the old yellow bus brought them to campus, the “scabs” were let off on High Street next to a crowd of more than a hundred angry picketers, many of whom yelled and hurled insults at the people disembarking. A girl who lives on Old Campus later told me she woke up to the sound of picketers screaming, “Go back to Mexico!” at the arriving workers, almost all of whom are Hispanic. Police had to clear a pathway and escort the new arrivals through the crowd of picketers.
Their commute, suffice it to say, is not an easy one.
The entrance of these sub-contracting firms and their largely Hispanic workforces on the scene is not new proof of Yale’s intransigence — the administration has never hid its willingness to buckle down and sit out the strike if that’s what it takes to get the contract it wants, and besides that, given their 1996 vote to join the union, “casuals” are not available for hire this time around anyway.
What the presence of these workers does offer the University, however, is a significant chance at redemption, both for its stingy labor relations and its historic lack of Hispanic workers. And it offers the union workers, who claim to want Yale to do its part to build a better New Haven, the chance to prove that their demands are not rooted in selfish concern for their own best interest.
As things stand now, though, both sides have a long way to go.
Welcomed by the University as inexpensive and easily expendable substitutes for striking members of Local 35, the workers are not entitled to any of the benefits that Yale-employed workers enjoy, including benefits, a fixed schedule and, according to strike tradition, free lunch. This has not always been the case for Yale “scabs” — until 1996, strike relief was provided by managers and “casuals” who had done past stints working for Yale. But during the strike that year, the casuals voted to join the union and thus gain guaranteed access to a permanent union job once they had worked at Yale for a certain number of total hours.
Those workers, at least, were directly employed by the University. As sub-contractors, the workers substituting for the strikers this time around are not Yale employees at all; thus, although Yale pays their employer $10.90 an hour per worker, they receive less than that — the most any of them have reported receiving to me is $10.61. The contracting company, moreover, only hired these 60 workers to fill Yale strike jobs; after the strike ends, most if not all of them will be unemployed once again — and Yale, never having employed them to begin with, will be free from responsibility.
And yet, in an ironic twist of fate, the people most likely to sympathize with the contracted workers’ plight are not exactly offering a sympathetic ear. They are, after all, busy on the picket line, trying to make their absence from Yale’s residential colleges and dining halls felt as acutely as possible. In the last two days, their denunciations of Yale’s policies and tactics have taken on a new dimension as well — now the University’s administration is not only trying to break the union workers’ will, but it is using race to do it, pitting the predominantly black strikers against the predominantly Hispanic contract workers whom — the unions say — it has historically excluded out of a kind of deeply institutionalized racism. So now, as if the disregard from the University and the vitriol from the union members weren’t enough, the temporary workers have been informed through union-allied Hispanic clergy and an article in yesterday’s New Haven Register that they are not only contributing to racial division in the larger community but they are doing so, in the words of one priest quoted in the article, out of “ignorance.”
When I got to this point in the article, which I read alongside a few of the temporary workers yesterday, one of them drew back indignantly, saying, “They’re saying we’re ignorant now?” And then, as the others joined in her expression of disgust, she added, in reference to the organizers’ pursuit of their bus the day before, “You don’t see us chasing the picketers home in our cars. Who’re the ignorant ones!”
Obviously no one wants to be called ignorant. Still, her objection was not without basis. She and her peers from the Sanitary Management Company in West Haven may not have known what they were getting into when they joined more than a hundred other applicants — 180 in total, I was told by several people — seeking to fill the company’s newest staffing needs. But their situation has become clearer through the trials of the last few days. Theirs is not exactly a dream job, after all — students don’t know them, activists don’t support them, and managers haven’t had time to train them.
Their position is thus unenviable from the perspective of pretty much everyone, with one notable exception — the unemployed.
And that, it seems safe to say, is the only group which these workers think merits comparison. The winner in this unfortunate scenario is obviously Yale, with Sanitary Management and the other contracting companies it has hired as its proxies, since it gets laborers whose need for a paycheck keeps them coming back each day, and heeding their bosses’ calls for secrecy about their morning meeting point.
That’s the rock.
The hard place, on the other side of the workers, is the unions themselves. That’s particularly true now, given the contention that they are pawns in Yale’s perverted effort at playing race politics. That accusation is unfair.
Yale is acting as it has throughout its tortured labor history — for profit and convenience. In this case, convenience certainly appears to include amenability to secrecy, since Mike Morand, from Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, refused to identify the contracting companies under hire for the Register and since, when I called Sanitation Management myself, a long wait on hold was followed by a stiff-sounding manager telling me that the company has placed no workers at Yale. But is the university specifically trying to inflame picketers by hiring Hispanic workers to “parade” past picketers each morning? Obviously not, given that the first sign of disturbance at the High Street drop-off point was met with a complicated switch to van retrieval at the “abandoned lot” in Fair Haven. That kind of secrecy is typical of a sleazy corporation trying to clean its buildings at low cost, not a deeply manipulative PR-machine bent on aggravating New Haven’s delicate racial balance.
So is Yale guilty of being that kind of sleazy corporation? If so, it seems clear to me that most of the evidence was accrued long before this strike began, or before Sanitation Management entered the picture. Either way, a verdict in that debate is not going to help the temporary workers arriving to campus in Yale’s unmarked vans each day.
Instead of assigning the newest additions to our colleges’ communities either blame or a designation as poor ignorant fools, I would like to see them invited to stay, rewarded both for their loyalty in the face of angry epitaphs and their hard work in a new setting.
If Yale stands by its contractors, why not prove to the world that whomever they hire is good enough for Yale? As for the unions, shouldn’t they welcome the cadre of mostly Hispanic workers, given their repeated requests for Yale to improve its diversity and fair hiring practices?
As permanent and respected members of our community, the people who came here as “scabs” might just prove themselves the most neutral, level-headed people here — among their colleagues and employers alike.
Paige Austin is a sophomore in Davenport College.