Without missing a beat in his performance under the Yale labor relations spotlight, Local 35 President Bob Proto announced last week that union leaders are now considering ways in which the union employees who did not participate in the strike earlier this semester could be punished. In the Yale Daily News’ article last Friday, “Proto eyes penalties for non-strikers,” the union head commented that he had already appointed a union member to a subcommittee that would work with attorneys to explore whether the union should penalize members who crossed picket lines during the three-week walkout. He said that he hoped to form a full committee by the end of this week.
This announcement certainly came as a shock to me. I naively believed that after the new contracts were settled as a result of the strike, union leaders would triumphantly stand behind their members and commend them on a mission accomplished. As Proto’s actions demonstrate, though, it seems the union leaders’ foremost objective after settlement was not to strengthen quickly and responsibly the Yale-union relations that were strained during the strike, but rather to single out members of Yale’s work force and subject them to ignominy and the threat of fines.
Due to financial or ideological reasons, some members of locals 34 and 35 did not participate in the strike. About 2 to 8 percent of Local 35 and about half of Local 34 worked during the first three weeks of school.
Some union members worked during the strike because they experienced overwhelming obligations to financially support their families; they simply could not sit back and wait indefinitely for the strike to end. These employees now speak of being shunned on the job, and they are made to feel uncomfortable in their own workplace. Some who worked because they didn’t agree with union policy are being treated like pariahs as well.
But aren’t these unsympathetic treatments of certain employees and the threats of fines and penalties antithetical to the true purpose and spirit of union formation? Isn’t the purpose of a union to protect and ensure the well-being of all its members in a workplace free of harassment and threats? It seems that Proto and other union leaders don’t have their priorities straight. If any official punishments or fines actualize, the union leaders will be equally as guilty of using tactics of domination and intimidation that they accused the Yale Corporation of earlier.
Still, some argue for penalizing those members who crossed the picket lines. They contend that because those members were not striking, they should not receive the same benefits as those who made the physical and psychological sacrifices. They would also assert that the members who worked during the walkout undermined the influence of the striking process as well as the unions themselves. Therefore, the imposition of a fine or penalty on those individuals is necessary and desirable.
I find this claim to be untrue. There really is no justification for fining employees who were forced by certain social circumstances to work in order to support their families; maintaining the ability to feed one’s children should not be a punishable offense. What happened to the union leaders’ demands of Yale for compassion and justice for their employees? Why the hypocrisy now?
About 95 percent of the 4,300 nonprofessional employees at Yale are members of one of the unions. At any given time, not all of these members may be pleased with how the elite few of the union leadership are handling labor situations, and some may have been intimated or coerced into joining a union in the first place. If members don’t feel that the union leaders are faithfully representing their interests, they should not be forced to enthusiastically accept a huge pay cut for what could have been a great length of time.
Union leaders can not and should not be able to control the opinions and actions of every one of their members. If those who disagreed with union policies were to be punished, the unions would, in effect, be stripping them of any remaining autonomy they once possessed. Being fined and harassed by one’s own leaders and coworkers for self-expression or doing ‘what one feels is right for him,’ as one anonymous dining hall employee put it, seems highly unprincipled. Once again, the union leaders’ self-proclaimed qualities of understanding, compassion and fairness should come into play.
Proto should reconsider his move to penalize his own union members. The institution of fines or other penalties would only exacerbate the intimidation that is already occurring in the Yale workplace. As a leader, Proto should now give his undivided attention to the unions’ future and not its turbulent past weeks; he should now strive for progress rather than punishment.
Austin Broussard is a sophomore in Saybrook College.