A look around campus today offers few clues to the impending contract negotiations between Yale and its unions. Missing are overt signs of the beginning of a process that has historically divided the campus, often forcing students to consider whether they would cross picket lines to enter dining halls.

At this time six years ago, the last time Yale and its unions negotiated contracts, things were not so calm.

After several false starts, Yale and its unions were in the process of negotiating new contracts in what had already become a contentious fight.

A fall union boycott of local restaurants using Flex dollars had just been ruled illegal, marking the end of months of protests at local restaurants.

And six years ago tonight, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization voted to hold a grade strike, withholding grades from the registrar until University officials agreed to negotiate with the group.

The process that already looked ugly in December became a 13-month ordeal that included successive monthlong strikes by Yale’s clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers.

But since then, the University and its unions have seen five mostly peaceful years.

Now, as they begin negotiations for union contracts that expire Jan. 20, Yale and union officials will confront substantial changes that have occurred since 1996. Among the many changes, two of the most significant will greatly affect negotiations and labor relations this year.

One, a commitment to changing Yale’s acrimonious labor history, has left University and union officials alike hopeful that the negotiations can go smoothly and usher in years of labor peace ahead.

The other, a strengthened alliance between Yale’s recognized unions and two other groups trying to unionize, carries the potential to polarize the two sides and perhaps undermine hopes for a conflict-free year.

The peace process

For Yale President Richard Levin, the negotiations this winter are about more than a contract.

He sees the process as part of what he hopes will become a new era in peaceful labor relations and an opportunity to fulfill one of his chief goals since becoming president in 1993.

Levin took office in the shadow of one of the worst labor relations records in the country.

The 1996 negotiations, his first as president, also involved strikes by both unions before ending in what he called a satisfactory contract for both sides. The strikes represented the seventh time in the past 10 negotiations that the process led to work stoppages.

Levin said the 1996 negotiations were made more difficult because the University was in dire financial straits. But now Levin said the contract process could be simpler.

“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.”

Union and University leaders alike point to Levin as one of the major reasons for a changing tone.

Local 35 President Bob Proto credited Levin’s commitment to a peaceful year and said he welcomed a change.

“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. “Yale has been here 300 years, and what I’m looking for is their labor-management relationship to start taking a turn.”

In hopes of mending the relationship, union and University officials delayed the negotiation process, which has typically begun in early November. Instead, representatives from the University and locals 34 and 35 met with labor-management consultants.

Consultants John Stepp and Anne Comfort, from Washington-based Restructuring Associates Inc., met with more than 120 representatives from both sides in the last month. Brian Tunney, Yale’s director of labor relations, said they will present their findings later this month and offer suggestions for how to improve the relationship.

“If there is a tone, I think it is one of high optimism. We think that there is a great opportunity to settle a contract on good terms without confrontation,” Associate Vice President for Administration Peter Vallone said last month.

But a new alliance between the recognized unions and graduate students and hospital workers trying to unionize could make a peaceful process more difficult to achieve.

Building an alliance

Since the last negotiations, locals 34 and 35 have strengthened their alliance with GESO and begun working with a group at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Together they call themselves the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, and leaders said they want all four groups to be recognized.

University officials have said repeatedly that they will not negotiate with GESO.

Administrators also said the University cannot recognize the hospital workers since the workers are employed by Yale-New Haven Hospital, which the University does not control.

Levin sits on the hospital’s board of directors and can appoint eight of the board’s 28 members. He said that he supports the hospital workers’ right to organize, but that Yale does not have the power to recognize a union.

The alignment of the two recognized union with GESO and the hospital workers is part of a growing trend in the labor movement — unions expanding through alliances.

Federation leaders say they plan to remain united. They have used the slogan “Four contracts, one employer” to emphasize their demands for Yale to recognize all of the groups. Union leaders have been educating members on the importance of different groups’ sticking together, Local 34 President Laura Smith said.

“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.”

Administrators say they will not negotiate over GESO or the hospital workers. But some acknowledged that the two positions could cause trouble.

“If the union makes a stand over GESO and the hospital workers, we could be dead in the water with respect to the contract,” Tunney said.

Dealing with disaster

Of course, the negotiations come in the context of larger changes as well.

No one knows how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the current recession will affect the negotiations or the relationship between Yale and its unions.

Those involved said the attacks made the two sides look past their disagreements.

“It gives people a sense of trying to understand each other a little better and understand each other’s issues a little better,” Proto said. “I think it had some sort of bonding effect, not only from [a] patriotic standpoint but from a human standpoint.

“We’re also going to rely on people to be more apt to work together and not be on their own separate islands,” Proto added.

Tunney said the attacks put labor-management issues in perspective.

“We still have differences; we always have differences in employee relations,” Tunney said. “But Sept. 11 is the kind of event that does and did pull us together rather than separate us.”

Smith and Proto were asked to serve on committees dealing with the University’s reaction to the attacks, including one about the tercentennial celebration. Proto said the invitations could be a prelude to a future of greater inclusion for labor.

One tangible effect of the attacks of Sept. 11 has been a decline in the travel and tourism industry. The parent union of locals 34 and 35, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International, has faced financial troubles. Nearly a third of the unions’ 265,000 members have been laid off since Sept. 11, leaders said, national leadership has been cut, and remaining staff members have taken pay cuts.

HERE President John Wilhelm ’67 said the parent union has provided financial support to Yale’s unions during every strike since 1971. Even though the union is in bad financial straits now, he said, locals 34 and 35 would receive the support they need should they go on strike, Wilhelm added.

But with the economy now in recession, workers may be hesitant to go on strike. The Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93, who has close ties to the unions, said many of his congregation members who work at Yale are very worried about having to find second jobs if they go on strike.

No matter how the negotiations play out, Tunney predicted they will last until at least early spring.

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