As Yale history professor Robert Johnston joined in a pro-union rally Friday, one of his young sons looked up at him and asked if the screaming protesters nearby were trying to drive the “people in suits” crazy.

Johnston said the protesters were just trying to spread their message, but the march, which coincided with both the University’s Tercentennial festivities and the weekend meeting of the Yale Corporation, provided a contrast to the pomp and circumstance of the rest of the weekend.

More than 1,000, but less than the expected 2,000, union members, graduate students, hospital workers, members of the clergy, opponents of a prospective new free trade agreement and undergraduates followed a truck sporting a Jamaican flag and blaring music before gathering on the New Haven Green for the rally. A large police presence watched the event, which apart from shouting was rather sedate.

As Yale’s two recognized unions, Local 34 and 35, move ever closer to the expiration of their contracts in January 2002, labor activity has been increasing. Friday’s rally, which coincides with the organizing drives of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and Yale-New Haven Hospital service and maintenance employees, was the most visible show of union force to date.

“We stand together this afternoon,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro said. “Labor unions are an essential part of the fight for a living wage.”

The rally called upon Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital to agree on card-check neutrality for the unionizing drives of teaching assistants and hospital workers.

A neutrality agreement would involve administrators at the University or the hospital saying that they would not speak against unionization and agreeing to recognize a union if a majority of a potential bargaining unit signed statements supporting unionization, called “cards.”

Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, argued against a neutrality agreement tied to the debate over TA unionization in a letter sent Tuesday to graduate students and faculty.

“I believe strongly that faculty and students alike should be free to express an opinion about unionization,” Richard wrote. “Unionization would profoundly affect not only all graduate students, but also undergraduates and faculty members. I hope, therefore, that discussion of the issue of unionization will be robust and inclusive.”

Unless the University or hospital changes its position and agrees to card-check neutrality, a National Labor Relations Board-sponsored secret-ballot election is the most likely way GESO or the hospital workers could gain recognition as a union.

Yale President Richard Levin stressed that the hospital and the University are different employers, contrary to the slogan adopted by the Federation of Hospital and University Employees: “Four contracts, one employer.”

Levin appoints eight of the 28 members of the hospital’s board of directors.

The federation comprises GESO, the union seeking to organize service and maintenance employees at the hospital, and Locals 34 and 35.

At the rally on Friday, nearly 200 graduate students stood at the corner of Grove and College streets, shouting in two choruses: “What do we want? Neutrality! When do we want it? Now!”

A group of about 10 counter-protesters carried placards bearing messages like “Workers of the world: Get back to work!”

Hospital workers, members of the nascent student union, other undergraduates and employees affiliated with Locals 34 and 35 eventually joined the march of graduate students as the group met at the Green.

Richard Schmechel GRD ’05, a GESO organizer, said he was not too disappointed with the turnout.

“One could think of a lot of reasons why there aren’t more,” Schmechel said. “But I’m just really impressed with how many there are.”

Political leaders including Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, DeLauro and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano also gathered with union leaders on the Green.

“A broader set of values is clearly emerging,” DeStefano said of the combined rally of all four union groups. He said the city has shifted from being a manufacturing center to a town where Yale and the hospital are the main employers with a duty to provide financial support on par with the standard set in the former manufacturing economy.

“The standard was set in manufacturing, and it is now being set at Yale,” DeStefano said.

Although the speakers at the rally frequently connected the hospital workers to the other three labor groups and called on Yale to respond with neutrality, Levin insisted on the separate nature of the hospital’s administration, even suggesting that union leaders had engaged in “a disinformation campaign.”

Local 34 President Laura Smith said the participation at the rally was integral to the creation of better labor relations at Yale.

“We would like to see at Yale any discussion about democracy and economic prosperity be inclusive of all the members of the Yale and New Haven community,” Smith said. “It’s probably the only way we’re going to create an environment on this campus which truly does nurture and protect the rights and freedoms who learn, work and teach here.”

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