Towards the end of the recent strike by locals 34 and 35, I attended a forum at the Yale Women’s Center with some of the women in Local 34. In the course of the discussion, one of the union members told us that she felt like students generally didn’t respect or understand the right to organize. There were only a few students in the room that day to hear her, but when she tried to continue the conversation in a broader setting, she was told that the end of the strike meant her concerns were no longer relevant. After all, the ink is dry on the contracts, familiar faces welcome students to the dining halls each morning, and classes have returned to their assigned rooms from locations as diverse as the People’s Center and City Hall. To many Yale students, the brief adventure in labor strife is over; eight-year contracts supposedly mean that we will not have to make decisions about whether or not to cross picket lines again before we leave New Haven.
But respecting the rights of working people to organize is hardly a dead issue just because they are no longer on strike. If anything, the return of unionized workers to our dining halls and masters’ and deans’ offices means that respect for workers and workers’ rights are more important than ever. This current strike wasn’t just about the numbers that ultimately ended up on a contract, it was about the way Yale treats working people while they are on the job and the way it values the work that they do.
It’s also important to remember that contracts for locals 34 and 35 don’t cover all organized workers at Yale. For example, about a mile from central campus, at Yale-New Haven Hospital, workers are staying on the job without a contract. Most Yale students’ contact with the Hospital will probably be limited to a passing glimpse on the way to a movie at the Yale Medical School or as a final stop on a very bad Saturday night. But it should not be true that because the hospital is mostly out of sight, the problems its workers face can be put entirely out of mind.
The same is true for the Yale Police Benevolent Association (the Yale Police’s union), whose officers have been working for 15 months without a long-term contract. Though their contract negotiations with the University have not been nearly as public as those of locals 34 and 35, the Yale police are also unionized workers whose fight for a contract deserves at the least, our understanding. Beyond Yale, unionized employees do a tremendous amount of work to make our lives easier; they sell us groceries, make sure our cell phone networks are up and running, and keep us safe.
The decision to go on strike is never an easy one. It means sacrificing pay and job security, and it requires that workers take time away from a job that usually has significance far beyond a paycheck. No matter how we feel about the reasons that a union goes on strike, basic decency demands that we respect the risks that striking workers take by going out on picket lines, and the convictions that take them there. No matter how much we may disagree with the decisions taken by unions as a whole, practicing respect for individual union members is an important step — especially in New Haven — towards bridging the gap between employers and employees.
The strike that we experienced this fall may have been unusual in its intensity and the national attention paid to it, but the decisions that the individual workers on strike had to make were the same as those faced almost daily by union members across the country and around the world. Even if the rest of our time at Yale remains strike-free, it is inevitable that other labor struggles will at the very least cross our paths. We have an obligation to know more about how to respect the people involved in those struggles. If all we took from the recent strike was a shallow history lesson about the ongoing tension between Yale and locals 34 and 35, then we are not very good students. Unfortunately for the workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital and for Yale police officers, we may have another chance to learn.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a sophomore in Silliman College.