The day after Yale Security workers formed a union, other local unions gathered to celebrate the University’s first strike.
The Greater New Haven Labor History Association and Yale unions came together in Linsly-Chittenden Hall Wednesday evening to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the first union strike at Yale. Over 90 students, staff and New Haven residents were on hand to hear the history of the University’s unions, with representatives from UNITE HERE locals 34 and 35, which together represent over 4,600 Yale employees, and the GNHLHA, the only one of its kind in Connecticut, promoting the importance of labor unions in protecting the welfare of their Yale worker-members.
Jennifer Klein, professor and DUS of the Department of History and an expert on U.S. labor history, began the event by contextualizing Yale’s early unionism within the mass industrial union movement of the 1930s and charted its development through to the 21st century.
“Workers around the country demanded a living wage, the end of corporate paternalism, and wanted to be treated as human beings,” Klein said. “And Yale workers were no different.”
Klein said early Yale unions took individuals who were often considered invisible and made them visible and audible around campus. She added that Yale unions were unique because of the cross-section of the workforce that decided to tie their fates together, with porters, chambermaids, guards, and power plant workers among the first members.
Members of locals 34 and 35 followed, telling the audience of over 90 people why they were members and what they were fighting for. Posters featuring slogans like “Equal pay for Equal work” and “Yale Be Fair” (Yale Workers Unite Here) recalled the storied past unions have had on Yale’s campus decorated the large lecture hall.
Marcy Kaufman, graduate registrar of the Department of History and a member of the executive board of local 34, said she saw the role of unions as a force against systemic problems at Yale, including a policy of favoring managers over workers.
“The University continues to make me mad,” she said. “So I will continue to push back against them and encourage my co-workers to do the same.”
Evan Cobb, communications director of UNITE HERE at Yale, said in an e-mail Wednesday that the event was an opportunity to celebrate the history of Yale unions through shared memories, stories and photographs.
“The history of unionism at Yale is the story of people coming together and standing up for respect and dignity on the job,” Cobb said, “a tradition that UNITE HERE at Yale is proud to continue today.”
Also present were representatives from the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, a group working to improve working conditions and benefits for graduate students and employees and that is still seeking formal union recognition from the University.
GESO chair Sarah Egan GRD ’11, a sociology student, said Yale unions are not only part of the culture within her department every day, but also a useful means for creating a better academic environment, citing healthcare improvements and summer funding as two union spear-headed initiatives that had been passed in recent years.
Ward 1 Alderman Michael Jones ’11, who was in attendance, said that while there had been strained labor relations between workers and the University in the past, from his experience working with both parties, he felt there had been a definite improvement in the past few years.
Jones said it was fortunate labor relations were in a better state because the improvement meant that the unions could do their job to ensure workers are treated well.
Another audience member, James Cersonsky ’11, said the event demonstrated the empowering nature of the union movement on campus, which provides students with the opportunity to be part of something absent from most other universities.
“Yale students don’t even have to go outside the bubble to discover some really militant grass-roots activism,” Cersonsky said.
400 workers participated in the first strike Nov. 10, 1941, after negotiations broke down over the creation of a union shop for Local 142 of the United Construction Workers, C.I.O,, which Yale employees voted to join a month earlier.