UP CLOSE | A new labor era, step by step

It was March 2003. Negotiations for the 2002 contracts for Yale’s two unions, Locals 34 and 35, had failed, and hundreds of workers were in the middle of a weeklong strike.

“They’re such an elitist institution,” said Ron Altieri, a Yale electrician of over three decades and a die-hard member of Local 35, when The New York Times asked him about the University. “They just look down at the workers. They can’t come to terms with looking at their unions as an equal.”

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Union members had hoped to secure higher wages, better parking and recognition by the University of their graduate student and hospital worker comrades across campus. The unions would strike once more in four months.

After decades of labor strife and emotional scars, all sides — the University, the 1,300 maintenance and professional employees that constitute Local 35, and the 3,400 clerical and technical employees that constitute Local 34 — wanted peace. In August 2007, they all vowed to work on what University President Richard Levin and union leaders had suggested several times prior: Create an early contract. Avoid a strike.

Twenty months later, they did — a full nine months before Yale’s existing union contracts were set to expire.

“We just, in a very patient way, dealt with one issue after another, not as a bargaining issue — not a ‘We win, you lose’ — but looking at how we could find solutions,” Levin said in a recent interview.

It was, perhaps, no surprise that such a shift in labor culture had occurred: All sides committed to try something else — something other than the monthlong picket lines, screaming bouts in contract meetings, workers’ tears and 1,000-person rallies that had been relied on in the past. University, union, city and state officials praised the early contract agreement, and they extolled the experimental Best Practices initiative, a program currently directed by Director Jane Savage SOM ’89 to increase collaboration between Yale and its unions, for providing tools and techniques to build — and keep — mutual trust.

Yale and union officials have now built the foundation, but there is a 6-decade-long institutional memory of labor strife and failed collaborations on campus. Signing a contract is just one small step in changing a culture.

A ‘DYSFUNCTIONAL’ RELATIONSHIP

Levin said he proposed an approach similar to Best Practices in 1995, in hopes of using it for the 1996 contract. The proposal failed; two strikes occurred.

“At that point, the unions were too suspicious, and we’d had too bad of a history,” he said. “They weren’t willing to think about it.”

And in November 2001, University and union officials created a predecessor of Best Practices, but it proved to be unsuccessful.

“We didn’t quite have the tools that we need, but we were thinking of [collaboration],” Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner said.

At the time, the University and the two unions brought in a consultant, John Stepp, to assess labor relations at Yale. With the help of fellow consultant Anne Comfort, Stepp interviewed over 120 employees and managers for a report he would later publish on Jan. 14, 2002. In his report, he called Yale’s union relationship “highly adversarial and dysfunctional, non-productive at its best, but often destructive, and ultimately demoralizing.”

His conclusion: Have contract negotiators from both the University and the unions trained under the model of interest-based problem solving.

“It’s a wake-up call for change,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said at the time.

On Feb. 13, 2002, the two negotiating teams started to meet, working to forge agreements on contract matters such as job security. But economic contractual issues such as wages proved the undoing of the collaboration.

Then in May, Stepp mysteriously left. University officials said at the time that Stepp was only meant to help facilitate discussions on non-economic issues. They also claimed that union officials had approved Stepp’s departure. But union officials said Stepp’s departure came as a surprise, and in a 2003 joint statement, the unions explained that once Stepp left, University officials “returned to traditional adversarial bargaining.”

It would take a commitment bigger than that of just one man to patch union relations. In 2003, the unions went on strike — twice.

Former University Associate Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Robert Schwartz called both sides “war veterans.” Over the last four decades, members of Local 35 and the newly formed Local 34 have staged demonstrations and strikes, sitting at intersections, blocking traffic and getting arrested. And as state and city officials — from former Gov. Ella T. Grasso to current Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 to Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — either tried to mediate concerns or became advocates themselves, tensions escalated. The union strikes threatened to split the city in two.

“It was a polarizing event because people take sides on these kinds of issues,” DeStefano said in a recent interview. “And lots of energy goes to contesting the contract and demonstrating community support that is energy and effort better served in other areas.”

Five months later, as students moved into their dorms, the unions staged their second strike. Negotiations continued, as University services slowed to a standstill. After 23 days of striking, both sides forged a contract agreement, 20 months after the contract’s expiration. As part of the agreement, the University pledged $200,000 over three years to create a program to improve “overall quality, efficiency and workplace culture.”

Best Practices was born.

BEGINNINGS OF TRUST

In October 2003, a Local 34 organizer, Mark Firla, asked a Yale Animal Resources Center manager, Paula Wilson, to facilitate a few discussions in line with the Best Practices language in the 2002 contracts. She agreed, and the talks began.

The meetings produced some results, though small: Workers and managers settled on issues like sick time and overtime, Wilson said.

The successes caught the eye of administrators. When then-University Vice President for Finance and Administration John Pepper ’60, a former Procter & Gamble CEO and Yale Corporation member, arrived on campus as top finance administrator in January 2004, he persuaded Wilson to work as a part-time Best Practices director. (After 15 months, she became the full-time director.) Meanwhile, Pepper started to talk with various union leaders and University employees; what he wanted was a feel for the labor relations at Yale. What he found was, to him, unacceptable.

Although administrators and union officials seemed willing to try to avoid strikes in the future, he also found that both sides had emotional scars: union organizers who were forbidden from entering University offices simply because they were organizers, managers who felt union workers did not want to complete their daily tasks of mowing lawns or filing papers. A mutual distrust had to be overcome before there could be true collaboration.

On April 30, 2004, Pepper, former School of Medicine Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Jed Shivers, Proto, Smith and other members from both the University and unions sat together in a conference room at the Yale Golf Course, three miles away from the heart of campus. The University and union officials agreed to bring in Janet Castricum, then a consultant for Right Management Consultants, a renowned human resources consulting group. During the daylong meeting, Castricum dictated a strict set of roles to even any power differential: Raise your hand. Talk in turn. Listen to your neighbor.

As the day went on, the parties worked on various trust-building exercises, including a simulation involving being stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash “with nothing but our wits,” Lindner said.

“I vividly remembered the exercise, and I vividly remembered most of us died,” she said with a laugh.

After having a two-day meeting the following month, the parties finally started to bond. But the unions were anxious.

A month before the start of the Best Practices meetings, University officials announced that 76 employees were to be laid off, 36 of whom were from Local 34. Union leaders were outraged. Smith called the layoffs “arbitrary.”

“There were no Best Practices involved here,” she said at the time.

Soon after the first Best Practices meeting, Smith and Local 34 members started to discuss the layoffs with administrators. Smith and Local 34 members suggested finding ways to get workers off the Interim Employment Pool — which allows Local 34 workers actively searching for a permanent job to receive full pay and benefits and to work at the University as casual employees, who work short periods of time on an as-needed basis. At the time, there were about 100 members in the IEP; local 34 members thought it was 100 too many.

As the parties started to talk, they began to settle on a strategy for the IEP: add more transitional support and more training. The tensions started to ease, and in several departments, smaller committees started to work together to settle any squabbles they had.

“We are all in this together,” Pepper said in an interview this month.

THE POSTER CHILD

Through the years, there were many departments ultimately improved by the Best Practices collaboration — such as University Health Services and YARC. But what was perhaps the most dramatic change for the better occurred at the Yale Golf Course.

“That was our first big victory in this new era,” Levin said Wednesday of the Golf Course.

Less than two decades ago, the Golf Course — contained within 750 acres of forest, Beckett said — was anything but classy. Due to the troubled University endowment and the lack of staff workers and equipment, the grounds were a mess. The grass was uneven, and when it rained, puddles would form on the grounds and stay for days.

“The University had made the decision to not reinvest in the golf course, that the idea of trying to maintain the Yale Golf Course to the highest possible standard had become the burden for the department,” Athletics Director Thomas Beckett said.

The problem worsened through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Indeed, by September 2003, the public had noticed the poor facilities; that month, Golfweek Magazine called the golf course “a national landmark gone askew.” By February 2004, administrators determined that the eight Local 35 groundskeepers employed were unable to maintain the grounds adequately; the Golf Course needed 23 workers. Beckett presented Pepper with a last-resort suggestion: outsourcing.

“He looked at me like I had three heads,” Beckett said of Pepper’s response. “He said, ‘This is the craziest thing I had ever heard.’ ”

Instead, the Athletics managers and the Golf Course staffers decided to meet to discuss the best way to increase resources and keep current staffers.

The first meeting did not go well. To some union members, Golf Course Superintendent Scott Ramsay had a history of disbanding unions, while Pepper seemed like a corporate baron. Coming into the meeting, some administrators were not sure whether the union would be stubborn — or worse, militant.

“We never even talked about the course,” Director of Golf Peter Pulaski said of the first Best Practices meeting at the time. “We were too busy talking about scars from 20 years ago.”

The second meeting was no better. But during the third meeting, something clicked, Local 35 members said. The two parties started to work on an agreement; eventually, they worked out a revised hiring process, which would include student workers and, during the summer, idle dining hall workers. The staff numbers increased, and so did the quality of the course — and later, the golf course ranking. Both Beckett and Pulaski touted its new statistic: The Yale Golf Course was voted No. 1 collegiate golf course in America by Golfweek College Almanac 2006-’07.

The results of the Golf Course were presented at a senior leadership meeting in the fall of 2004. Before the meeting, several top administrators were unsure whether the Best Practices initiative could produce any results. But apparently, they realized, it did.

“It seems to me,” Senior Associate Athletics Director Forrest Temple said, “that John Pepper focused specifically on the golf course in using it to [start to] change the labor-management relationship at Yale.”

CRACKS ON THE SURFACE

Administrators insisted that there be continuity; the Golf Course’s success could not be made into an anomaly.

“How do we keep this plan going?” Lindner remarked.

Departments continued working together, to bring about more changes throughout the University. But the relationship started to fade in December 2005, when Levin announced that Pepper would resign at the end of the year.

“There was a huge drop in morale,” Wilson said of Pepper’s resignation.

Almost immediately after, though, Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65 stepped in, much to the relief of union leaders. Still, they knew they would not see Alexander in Pepper’s seat on the Best Practices Policy Board for long; they were relieved to find out that the new appointee, Shauna King, was supportive.

But one of her officials, Special Assistant for Workplace Effectiveness Ralph Craviso, may not have been as friendly to the initiative’s cause.

Craviso was handpicked in 2006 by Levin to lead labor management and to serve as one of the top University officials involved with the Best Practices initiative. Yet despite his public comments that the initiative was “important,” Craviso argued against it behind the scenes, a union official said.

Although Craviso denied in an interview Wednesday that he argued against the Best Practices initiative to officials, the union official said recently that Craviso told administrators in his first few months at the University that the Best Practices initiative should be radically changed — even halted. Trying to gather evidence against Best Practices, Craviso surveyed managers to see whether Best Practices was effective, the union official said.

In an interview this week, Wilson declined to confirm whether Craviso engaged in such actions, but she also said: “I did not think Ralph Craviso shared the same values toward this initiative as John Pepper.”

Craviso said when he came to the University, he believed the Best Practices initiative “didn’t realize its potential.”

“There was progress being made, but the president had recognized that progress wasn’t moving as fast as he would like,” Craviso said. “[Levin asked me,] ‘Can you help me assess what is going on and see whether it could be improved?’ … The fundamentals were in place, but the parties didn’t know how to use them.”

He added, in response to the union leader’s accusations: “I saw Best Practices — in some prospects — it needed recalibration. Perhaps the union member thought what had been recalibration may have been a rejection or a criticism of the program. I did move in to restructure it because it wasn’t working.”

Levin said in an interview Wednesday that although Craviso “contributed some” to the Best Practices initiative, “there was kind of a lull period where we weren’t getting a lot of traction in working together.”

‘A Roller-coaster ride’

Despite setbacks, the parties started to patch up their relationship and to work quickly on a new project in August 2007: the contracts.

“We talked to each other,” Proto said. “We both grasped the items in the contract, concerns in the contract, and we listened to each other this time.”

The first issue the parties agreed on was the unionization at West Campus. In the 2002 Local 35 contract, the University reserved the right to contract maintenance employees from outside companies; thus, Local 35 officials wanted the University to commit to union growth.

After discussions to increase union participation in West Campus, the two parties agreed in May 2008 to amend the 2002 union contract, Alexander said. Soon after, conversations on productivity and efficiency started, as both the University and the unions slowly began to agree on various contract issues. The trust was there, officials from both sides said, so when the economy started to worsen in 2008, it did not affect the collaboration.

What it did affect, though, was the discussion on job security and economic issues.

Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Michael Peel said that from day to day during the negotiations, both parties were unsure whether the early contract would occur.

“During the labor negotiations, what happened one day, it was 60-30 [an early contract agreement] might happen, and the next day, it is 30-70. Depending on the given issue, it tends to be a bit of a roller-coaster ride,” Peel said. “I think until you got to wages, obviously no one knew whether the whole set of agreement terms would fit together and would do so in an acceptable total arrangement.”

The conversation on wages started in March. Throughout the month, the negotiating committees met on a daily — and sometimes twice daily — basis to reach an agreement. During the first week of April, University and union officials met at the Office of New Haven and State Affairs. They finished the contract. On April 14, the unions voted to ratify the early contract. A strike was averted.

Although the ratification vote was a day of celebration for many union members and University managers, the contract is not without its faults.

As Katara Hoover, a 27-year-old Commons dining hall worker, headed into Center Church on-the-Green to vote on ratifying the Local 35 early contract, she said when she first came to Yale, as a Pierson College dining hall worker, “things were better then.”

“At the dining halls, things didn’t change,” she said. “The managers, we need more respect from the managers.”

She said she is not sure whether the quality of life will improve with the new contract: “That’s if the managers listen to the contract.”

‘A LEGACY FOR COLLABORATION’

In 1977, Local 35, the only union at the time, staged an 80-day strike, the longest in University history. At the end of the strike, University and union officials vowed to form a committee to study ways to work together on a strike.

Three years later, one union official proclaimed that the attempts at improving relationships had failed.

“Nothing in the day-to-day behavior of the University suggests any change in the rigid dictatorial attitude they have always had,” said then-Local 35 Business Manager John Wilhelm ’67, who currently serves as the president of the Hospitality Industries division of the international union UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the two Yale unions. “Relations are in complete shambles. The University is always glad to come to an agreement when it’s to their advantage.”

Although the union and the University agreed to a surprise early contract in 1981, the next three decades saw five strikes in 1984, 1996 and 2003.

The scenario may not necessarily repeat itself this time around; Yale’s eminent labor historian and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the History Department Jennifer Klein, indicated in an interview this month that tensions due to the unionization of clerical and technical workers into Local 34 in 1983 may have helped cause the collaboration to fail.

And University administrators said the relationship is better than ever: “I can’t point to any sector of the University that I would say today has a troubled labor relationship,” Peel said.

But then again, trust is a fickle thing.w

“The trust and the relationship that is formed from the Best Practices initiative establishes a process for ongoing labor-management peace,” Schwartz said. “If the positive lessons are forgotten, there’s the high risk of going back to old bad habits.”

Nonetheless, past and future University administrators and union officials stressed that Levin and his current vice presidents, as well as Proto and Smith, are committed to continuing — and enhancing — the culture established by Best Practices.

“Our work ahead will not be easy, but I am confident we have the commitment, leadership and knowledge necessary to be successful,” Smith said.

The 2010 contracts will expire in three years, and University and union officials already have planned to collaborate early. At least for now, five classes of Yale undergraduates will have come and gone through their four years on campus without a strike. And included within the 2010 contract, Levin said, there is a clause that both mandates discussions on the contract 18 months in advance of its expiration and sets a goal for a contract agreement six months in advance.

“There were many people involved in helping to make this happen,” Alexander said of the early contract agreement. “We have established a legacy for collaboration.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    interesting story!

  • Anonymous

    The history quoted here seems correct. The thought of trust between the University and the Unions is an interesting concept. The economy was a major factor in negotiations this time around. This contract would have never been accepted in the past for either union. It will be interesting to see what happens in three years especially if the economy turns around.