Union elections remain largely unopposed

Two years into its current labor contract, the leadership of the union representing Yale’s dining hall and maintenance staff remained unchanged after the biennial Local 35 elections held last week.

Chief Steward Meg Riccio, the only incumbent challenged in the election, defeated opponent Cielo Lizasuain by a wide margin, preserving a decade-old union administration. Local 35 President Bob Proto said the results indicate workers’ satisfaction with Yale-labor relations, which have improved since a round of strikes two years ago. But other union and University officials said the election results do not necessarily reflect staff sentiments.

Apart from the position of chief steward, which focuses on employee grievances, no Local 35 office has been challenged since 1995, Riccio said. Proto said the latest round of elections indicate that workers are pleased with the union’s progress since signing an unprecedented eight-year contract in September 2003 following a 4,000 member strike of Locals 34 and 35 that lasted three weeks.

“I think folks have a tremendous amount of confidence in the leadership structure of Local 35,” Proto said. “The fact that there were so many officers not challenged reflects that our union … has done everything to land good contracts.”

But Yale administrators and other union officials cautioned that the elections should not be viewed as a referendum on labor relations with the University, which they said have improved in recent years.

“I don’t think it has really to do with us and Yale,” Riccio said. “It’s part of our own bylaws and our own structure.”

Yale is currently working with Local 35 to enlist a consulting firm to help the union operate more efficiently, Riccio said. The University and the union also formed a best practices committee for Dining Services in January to discuss policy improvements. So far, the committee has promoted a number of workers in Morse and Ezra Stiles dining halls to full-time employees with benefits and installed lockers for workers in these colleges.

Dining Services Director Don McQuarrie said the best-practices committee’s recent progress on Morse and Stiles has laid a foundation for the next round of improvements to other residential college dining halls.

“It’s gone a long way toward improving relations with the union,” he said. “It’s given us a common ground.”

Top Local 35 officials also said the best practices committee has been successful.

But Lizasuain, who lost to Riccio in a 485-181 vote, criticized the committee for failing to protect workers from job losses. He also said that the committee had promised safety shoes to all dining hall workers, but they have yet to arrive.

“What was the sense of winning a good contract when our members are losing their jobs?” he asked. “It’s a lot of talk.”

Lizasuain said he thinks the union leadership is losing touch with the needs of its employees. Though some changes to the leadership have been made through appointments, no official other than Riccio has been challenged for re-election in a decade.

John Raudaubaugh, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, said union leadership can be ineffective if it is not accountable to voters.

“It’s vastly more useful for members to see leaders who view themselves as trustees,” he said. “We’re better off when we have open debate.”

But Proto said the leadership’s longevity indicates that it is respected by its constituents.

Lizasuain, a departmental steward for the union, nearly defeated Riccio in a 1997 election.

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