This winter, Yale and its unions will start negotiations for new contracts, beginning a process that could lead to high tensions and crippling strikes — or unprecedented labor peace.

If the process goes as leaders on both sides hope, the negotiations could mark the beginning of a new chapter in the University’s history as an employer, and in its relationship with its unions and the city.

If not, they could bring to an end what has been a relatively stable era in Yale’s labor history.

The contracts for locals 34 and 35, which represent dining hall, maintenance, clerical and technical workers, expire Jan. 20, 2002. The renewal process has traditionally been a time when long-standing tensions come to a head. But this year, leaders hope it will change the nature of the historically acrimonious relationship.

“The past I am hoping to avoid is really unpleasant,” said Yale President Richard Levin, who has seen eight rounds of negotiations as a graduate student, professor and now president. “It’s a discontinuity with the normal tone of life here.”

Historically, Yale’s labor struggles have polarized a city where union ties have run deep for generations. This year’s negotiations could test what has been touted as a new era of town-gown relations, said Debbie Elkin GRD ’95, president of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association.

Beyond New Haven, the negotiations will be watched closely by one of the most powerful labor leaders in the nation, John Wilhelm ’67. Now the president of the international parent union of locals 34 and 35, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, Wilhelm cut his teeth in Yale union battles and is widely considered the heir to the presidency of the AFL-CIO.

And the alliance Yale unions have formed with graduate students and hospital workers trying to unionize may test a new model of organizing, one that leaders hope will revitalize the labor movement in America. But the alliance may also prove a stumbling block for what might be an otherwise easy-to-resolve contract process.

Signs of labor tension have been notably absent this year, University officials experienced with previous negotiations said. In the fall of 1995, just before the last round of negotiations began, the campus already had the feeling of a battleground, some said.

“The place could feel the tension, and that was before negotiations even began,” said Brian Tunney, Yale’s director of labor relations. “That’s not anything like what this fall has been.”

The tense atmosphere of 1995 preceded a 13-month process that included successive monthlong strikes by locals 34 and 35.

Since then, Local 35 President Bob Proto said, both sides have tried to improve the tone of the relationship.

“We had talked about, when we settled last contract, that we [would] be more open-minded in how we deal with the next one,” Proto said. “[We’re] hoping we can move together forward.”

But beneath what leaders view as sincere hopes for a peaceful future, sources on both sides acknowledge deep uncertainties over whether they can realize that peace.

At issue, they say, are the attempts by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital to form recognized unions. Locals 34 and 35 have supported the organizing efforts, which University officials adamantly oppose.

“The union has said you have to deal with all four of us,” a source said. “That quote and the juxtaposition of Rick [Levin]’s issue statements about GESO and how we feel about it are mutually exclusive from what I can tell. And therein lies the tale.

“How does that play through?” the source added. “I don’t know anybody who is not concerned about how it will work out.”

A union source said that how administrators deal with GESO and the Service Employees Industrial Union District 1199, the group trying to organize hospital workers, will also affect the University’s relationship with locals 34 and 35.

In order to truly improve Yale’s labor record, the union source said, the University will have to recognize GESO and District 1199.

Breaking the cycle?

The upcoming bargaining process comes in the shadow of three decades of one of the worst labor-management relationships in the country. Seven of the last 10 negotiations have led to strikes.

But it will also come after meetings with labor-management consultants, sessions union and University leaders said they hope represent the first step toward a new, friendlier relationship.

Since November, John Stepp and Anne Comfort of the Washington-based consulting firm Restructuring Associates Inc. have met with unions and management.

Though the meetings focused on the long term, Stepp said the subject of negotiations came up frequently. Stepp and Comfort plan to issue a report this month that may include suggestions for the negotiations, Stepp added.

“If we can get beyond a couple threshold issues there is no reason the excellent reputation Yale deserves in areas of research and pedagogy couldn’t be achieved in the world of workers, managers and employees,” Stepp said.

Stepp declined to comment on specific issues because he had not yet released the report.

But leaders from both sides have said that they expect items on the table to include wages, benefits, parking and pensions.

Officials said they also expect subcontracting to be a topic of discussion. One of the biggest stumbling blocks during the last negotiations, subcontracting provisions in the Local 35 contract do not expire until 2006, but either side could attempt to renegotiate them.

With Yale’s financial situation dramatically better than it was in 1996, University officials said they are in a better position to offer favorable contracts.

But GESO and District 1199 could present bigger problems.

They have joined with locals 34 and 35 as part of the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. The federation has used the slogan “Four contracts, one employer” to emphasize its demand for the recognition of all four.

“It’s an issue some people might call atmospheric, an environmental thing,” Tunney said. “I don’t know whether it comes on the table or not. In the past history we have not bargained on it. It doesn’t affect the 4,000 or so members [of locals 34 and 35].”

But Local 34 President Laura Smith said recognition for GESO and the hospital workers are key concerns for locals 34 and 35.

“Our plan is to settle really good contracts,” Smith said. “That includes making sure other workers on campus who want to organize have the rights to do that.”

University officials said they will not recognize either GESO or the hospital workers, but for separate reasons.

GESO, which has been trying to organize a union of teaching assistants for more than a decade, has asked for a neutrality agreement. Under such an agreement, Yale would recognize a union if a majority of graduate statements signed cards supporting GESO. The University, including its faculty, would also not be allowed to make any statements regarding unionization.

Levin has said he opposes neutrality and also rejects the idea that graduate students are employees.

University officials said they cannot recognize the hospital workers because they do not control the hospital.

Levin sits on the hospital’s board, and has power to appoint eight of the board’s 28 members, but said the hospital is a separate employer.

The federation has consistently spoken of remaining united, but Tunney indicated the University would not bargain on GESO and District 1199.

“We don’t address those issues,” Tunney said. “We don’t deal with it, we don’t negotiate about it. We haven’t and that’s not the issue for this table.”

Legally, locals 34 and 35 could not strike or take job actions, such as walkouts, over GESO or the hospital workers because they do not directly affect employment conditions for the recognized unions. But if other issues directly relating to the contracts are also not settled, job actions would be legal.

And beneath debate over specific issues, the legacy of decades of labor tensions still lingers.

“On balance, compared to their peers, Yale workers are fairly well compensated and get good benefits packages,” New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said. “But it’s not reflected in the relationship. Workers feel the scars of the relationship. There’s anger there.”

Preparing for the worst

While both sides are hoping for a peaceful outcome, they have also been preparing for the worst. But leaders emphasized that the preparations simply represent routine measures.

For University officials, being prepared has meant developing a contingency plan for running the University during a strike or other job actions, including walkouts. Headed by Janet Lindner, who recently planned the University’s Tercentennial, groups are focusing on areas like the dining halls, said Peter Vallone, Yale’s associate vice president for administration.

Vallone also said groups are planning how to deal with possible sympathy actions by graduate students, such as a grade strike.

Union leaders said they are not thinking about potential breakdowns in negotiations and are hoping the meetings with the consultants will be enough to keep all discussions at the bargaining table.

But union leaders have been assured by the leadership of their parent union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, that they will receive financial support if they go on strike, Wilhelm said.

“God forbid there is another strike at Yale, but if there is, there will be the support that is necessary,” Wilhelm said.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, HERE has been faced with financial uncertainties. More than a third of its membership has been laid off, national leadership staff has been cut by 20 percent, and leaders have taken a 20 percent pay cut, HERE representatives said. Wilhelm said other unions would help HERE provide strike fund money if necessary.

The effects of negotiations will likely be felt outside of the University as well, with Yale now the largest employer in New Haven.

DeStefano said labor tensions at Yale have the potential to “polarize the community.”

In 1996, DeStefano stepped in when negotiations came to a standstill. The final contracts that year were signed in the mayor’s office.

This year, DeStefano said he plans to play no role in the negotiation process, and he added that it is too early for city officials to prepare for negotiations.

“These things are like a mating ritual,” DeStefano said. “People start looking at each other, circling and poking at each other, then they start testing, and they start snuggling. We’re far from the moment of consummation here. There’s a long way to go.”