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This week, labor relations at Yale took a big step forward with the full contractual implementation of labor Grade E, a rank created during the 2003 negotiations between the University and its clerical and technical workers. Though the new grade — which denotes greater experience, responsibilities and pay than had previously existed for members of Locals 34 and 35 — was regarded as a hard-fought item during the negotiations nearly two and a half years ago, Yale officials as well as union leaders have now expressed optimism that the move is a sign of greater labor-management unity to come.

While we are gratified to see signs of progress arising from the best practices committees that have long been hailed as the answer to Yale labor concerns, the peace is still shakier than either side is willing to admit — and both admit to a fair degree of shakiness. With this in mind, we urge both parties to continue negotiating in good faith with their highest-ranking players, and to make allowances for each other’s limitations.

Although the myriad committees created since the 2003 settlement have offered previously unheard-of opportunities for the airing of grievances, progress remains understandably slow. The expansion of Grade E was the culmination of a years-long implementation process, and still was not without its flashpoints. The University’s application of the new labor grade to non-union clerical positions — notably those dealing with classified information — has been criticized by some union members as a depreciation of their time on the picket lines. Similarly, the promotion of some Local 34 members to E-level positions by questionable means was assailed last fall as a return of the bad old days.

Within Yale management, some have expressed worry that adherence to the best practices system, the brainchild of former Vice President for Finance and Administration John Pepper, will erode without Pepper’s guiding hand. The consistent support of Locals 34 and 35 for graduate student and hospital worker unionization movements that Yale refuses to recognize also remains a sore point on some fronts.

Both sides have valid concerns, and the loss of Pepper, who departed from day-to-day operations last month, is obviously a big one. But the best practices formula is not a recent invention, and it does not depend solely on Pepper’s presence. His example should serve as a lesson that successful movement toward labor-management unity is largely dependent upon a stable commitment from strong leaders on both sides of the bargaining table.

The University cannot be expected to raise pay for union members without taking other salaried employees into account, just as union leaders cannot be expected to abandon the laborers who marched with them on their picket lines. But it seems clear to us that in any conflict between labor and management, personalities matter. While Bruce Alexander, Pepper’s acting replacement, is juggling two demanding positions, we encourage Yale President Richard Levin to take a more personal hand in addressing labor concerns, and we suggest that labor leaders remain open to compromise. The next four years will be a test of how well Pepper’s system can function without him, but it cannot succeed without the dedication of everyone involved.

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