Strike’s legacy is in eye of beholder



One year ago, Torrance Greene walked out.

Green, a worker in the Berkeley College dining hall, has been on the job for five years. He walked the picket line for 23 days. He is a 40-hour-a-week regular, and he is in labor grade 3, on the lower end of the pay scale. He is an ardent union supporter. He said he had to strike. He’s glad that he did.

“We weren’t getting paid properly,” Greene, a member of Local 35, which represents Yale’s service and maintenance workers, said. “The strike was really something.”

A year after Yale and its two largest union locals reached a final contract settlement, Greene is not entirely convinced that it all will not happen again. But, he said, he’s still optimistic.

“There probably will be another strike,” Greene said. “That’s how it is, you’ve got to go on strike when you don’t have a contract. Yale is so crazy you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m ready for anything.”

Greene’s reservations are understandable. In the year that has elapsed since the end of the strike, Yale and the unions have made significant strides towards opening up a constructive dialogue, establishing best practices committees that aim to provide a forum for the airing of worker grievances, and to solicit worker opinions on proposed policy changes at both the University and department levels.

But Yale remains a place where workers have struck nine times in the past 11 rounds of contract negotiations; a history of contentiousness that looms in the minds of workers, administrators and union representatives and leads many to hedge their bets regarding the future of labor relations. The last 12 months offer a cause for both concern and for celebration.

On move-in day last year, thousands of workers went on strike to lobby for a more favorable contract from Yale’s administration. The outcome of 19 months of failed negotiations, the strike shut down much of the University and drew significant attention, both from prominent activists and from the national media. But after the settlement was reached, and the television news vans left, life at Yale got back to normal.

Both Yale and the unions applauded the agreement, which significantly increased wages and pensions. The abnormally long eight-year duration of the contract guaranteed labor peace until the end of the decade. Looking back, Manager of Labor Relations James Juhas, who was a member of the negotiating committee, said he is satisfied with the end result.

“This was a contract that people went into with eyes wide open from both sides,” Juhas said. “Look at what people got. Employees achieved important increases in pensions and the University has an eight-year contract, which gives us lots of additional time to forge a new relationship.”

Bob Proto, the president of Local 35, shared Juhas’ enthusiasm.

“We settled very good contracts,” he said.

For Aida Rodriguez, a secretary in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and a member of Local 34, the financial outcome of the strike was ultimately positive, although not life-changing.

“I’m making somewhere between an extra $50 to $100 every two weeks,” Rodriguez said. “[The settlement] freed me up a little more.”

Unlike Greene, Rodriguez elected not to go on strike. A long-time Yale employee, Rodriguez has gone on strike in previous years, but said the unions strayed in their focus last year, conflating larger political goals, such as the campaign for the recognition of a graduate student union, with the plight of the workers.

“I do support [the unions] and I’m glad for them, but sometimes it gets a little too much, especially politically,” Rodriguez said. “I felt strongly, but not strongly enough.”

Rodriguez’s sentiments highlight a union trend towards moving beyond the local community. During the strike, for example, organizers encouraged union members outside the Yale community to come to New Haven and demonstrate support. Earlier this year, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, the parent of locals 34 and 35, merged with another union, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which has the potential to increase the bargaining power of Yale’s unions.

The implications of the merger remain speculative, but the move underscores the nature of the power balance between Yale and its unions in the wake of the strike. Jennifer Klein, a professor who specializes in labor history, said the merger mirrored a larger national effort by unions to expand beyond single local industries to achieve a scope and strength that could match that of administrative entities.

“This was an attempt to recognize that the single industry unionism of the ’30s and ’40s no longer matched the structure of industry today,” Klein said. “The union needed to be as big and as mobile as the [University].”

Against the background of expansion, the progress and future of best practices has become increasingly vital. Created as an instrumental means of forging an improved partnership between the University and the unions, best practices serves as the primary mechanism for averting a strike when current contracts expire in 2010.

Best practices has primarily taken the form of committees, including the Policy Board, a four-member group that includes Proto, Local 34 President Laura Smith, Deputy Provost for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs Lloyd Suttle, and Yale Vice President for Finance and Administration John Pepper, the Innovative Work Systems Initiative Steering Committee, and an assortment of departmental committees that address more localized concerns.

Though still in their infancy, the best practices committees have been active, raising hopes that the legacy of last year’s strike will not be an inevitable return to deadlock. Proto cited significant changes made at the Yale golf course and at the animal care center as key examples of best practices in action.

“Workers are an untapped resource,” Proto said. “Nobody can flip a switch and say that everything’s all better. But there is a chance for significant, real change.”

Pepper said he agreed.

“I’m confident that people around the table are very sincere about working to do this together,” he said.

For Cora Collins, a Local 34 member who started work at the University over 20 years ago and is a veteran of several strikes, the rhetoric of post-strike partnership is, finally, ringing true.

“People in the administration and in management now get to see and hear from actual employees,” Collins said. “We’re not morons, we can learn the nuts and bolts of administration. This is the first time this feels like a meeting of equals.”

The belief that best practices represents a qualitative difference between this post-strike phase and those of past strikes rests in large part on Pepper’s arrival at Yale last January. Pepper made improvement of labor relations a top priority. For Collins, Pepper represents the first time that a Yale official with actual decision-making power has proven responsive to the concerns of individual workers. When workers write e-mails, Pepper writes back.

However, some express doubt that best practices will succeed when extended beyond local concerns to more complex, and more controversial, issues such as pension and wage increases and job security.

Back in February, the familiar rhetoric of labor strife reemerged following Yale’s decision last spring to lay off 76 workers, many of whom were members of Local 34. Though some workers were reabsorbed into the Yale work force and all were provided with job training and placement assistance, Smith said the layoffs occurred without significant union consultation.

“These are the kinds of issues that create distance,” Smith said. “This does certainly create a problem. Pepper has pledged support for the laid-off workers, but [layoffs] are one of the roadblocks [to a partnership].”

Proto, who prefers the term “speed bump” to describe the layoff issue, agreed.

“I don’t think any of the layoffs were well thought out and justified,” he said. “It absolutely is slowing the process of a partnership.”

Yale President Richard Levin said the layoffs were handled “reasonably smoothly.”

Many issues remain outstanding. With more layoffs likely before the end of the current labor contract, this issue, along with casual workers — non-full time workers who are not in the union and are ineligible for provisions such as University-sponsored health care — graduate student unionization and the efforts of retirees to lobby for pension increases more comparable to those now enjoyed by current employees all exist as challenges to the best practices framework.

Juhas argued it is premature to write off best practices because of the furor that emerged after the layoffs. At the time, best practices had yet to be completely implemented, and both sides have learned a lot from the ensuing debate.

“Best practices has been an engine of progress,” Juhas said. “If the layoffs were to occur now there would likely be a different outcome.”

A year after the strike, much of the tension evident during those 23 days seems to have dissipated. Mike Schoen, a first cook in Berkeley Dining Hall and a member of the contract negotiating committee, agreed.

“It’s a shame it had to happen,” Schoen said. “Was it worth it? It’s tough. It’s something we do that we shouldn’t have to do.”

Though enthusiasm for a productive future settlement is pervasive, Collins is still hedging her bets about the future.

When asked whether there would be a strike in 2010, Collins said, “You know, I just don’t know. Ask me again next year.”

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