Outlining his visions for a new tone in the oft-acrimonious relationship between the University and its unions, University President Richard Levin offered his first official statement Thursday for what he and union officials hope could become a watershed year for labor relations at Yale.
In an e-mail to the Yale community, Levin explained that University officials and leaders of Yale’s two recognized unions locals 34 and 35 have delayed the beginning of negotiations for union contracts, which expire in January. Instead, representatives from both sides have been meeting with consultants from Restructuring Associates Inc., a firm specializing in labor-management mediation.
The consultants plan to issue a report based on their assessment in mid-December, and negotiations will begin afterward, University and union sources said.
But if the upcoming months go as Levin and union leaders hope, they will not bring just another round of the historically divisive negotiations, the last 10 of which have resulted in seven strikes. Instead, the process could represent the beginning of a new era of peaceful labor relations at an institution known for having one of the worst labor-management relationships in the country.
It would also represent the fulfillment of one of Levin’s chief goals since he began his presidency eight years ago with an eye toward solving Yale’s enduring problems of town-gown and labor relations.
“This is a propitious moment to try to change labor relations,” Levin said. “The University is in a better financial position. We are not entering the negotiations seeking massive givebacks or imposing contracts on the unions. We want to have competitive contracts. We want to be the best employer in the region.”
Though they began meeting with consultants John Stepp and Anne Comfort just months before the union contracts expire, union and University officials alike stressed they wanted to work on a broader change in the relationship rather than focusing just on the impending negotiations.
“Our goal is to establish better ways to build a strong relationship that lasts a long time and lasts into the future,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said. “You go to the table and talk about pensions, benefits, you give, you take, and then all of a sudden you sign something and your relationship is still where it was. Yale has been here 300 years, and what I’m looking for is their labor management relationship to start taking a turn.”
“It’s like turning a giant ship — it doesn’t turn on a dime,” Proto added. “It’s going to take some time and a lot of work to turn this ship into another direction so that that’s the course it takes for many years down the road. That’s what we’re interested in here.”
Proto and other union and University leaders have met with Stepp and Comfort over the past few weeks and plan to continue meetings starting next week. Stepp said he plans to report back to leaders from both sides once he finishes meetings, hoping to identify some of the problems that have plagued the relationship.
Although Stepp declined to comment on the specific topics of discussion, he said he was encouraged by the willingness he saw on both sides to participate in the assessment and mediation.
“The overall impressions that I’ve gotten in terms of the people I’ve talked to is that their enthusiasm, hopes and aspirations [are] very high, and [this] makes me optimistic,” Stepp said. “Both union and management leadership are saying to me they are in this for the long haul and that this is not being done for a quick fix or getting a bargaining outcome that will be strife- or strike-free. Instead they see this as not a sprint but a marathon. There’s real commitment being expressed by leadership on both sides to do what needs to be done to make a sort of permanent transformation.”
Transforming labor relations was one of the chief goals Levin said he envisioned when he became president of the University known for the historic tension between it and both New Haven and the unions. He initially set his sights on town-gown relations, rather than labor. The last set of union contract negotiations, the first of his presidency, lasted 13 months and ended after consecutive four-week strikes by each union.
But with town-gown relations widely acknowledged as dramatically improved in recent years and the University no longer in the financial straits it was in eight years ago, Levin and union officials say they want to leave a new legacy.
“Our workers take pride in and are part of the community,” Levin said. “Those that work with students have a real attachment to the students, and those that work with faculty members have a real respect for the faculty. Yet there is the sense that the University, as an abstract entity, is this negative force.”