For more than 50 years, Yale and its unions have been unable to transcend the inherent tension between a rich world-class institution and many of its less privileged middle-class employees. The University’s poor labor relations have become legendary, often resulting in strikes and bitter disputes that have distracted from the mission of higher education and hurt the workers who help Yale carry out that mission each day.
As Yale enters another round of negotiations with its recognized unions, locals 34 and 35, a timely and peaceful resolution promises to be more challenging than ever.
Since the last negotiations, which resulted in two 10-week strikes in the winter of 1996, the two unions have formed an alliance with graduate students and hospital workers seeking to organize. The legitimacy of this alliance, known formally as the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, has yet to be tested. At the very least, the increased bargaining leverage of locals 34 and 35 threatens to derail what would otherwise be a fairly routine contract renewal.
While the negotiations will be difficult, this year presents an opportunity to effect a lasting change in the relationship between Yale and its unions. For five years, a relative labor peace has reigned, and if successful negotiations prove the legacy of hatred and mistrust has been overcome, a new era in Yale labor relations will emerge.
We expect no less from the University and its unions, for such a new relationship could only be beneficial to the entire Yale community.
In the period leading up to the negotiations, administrators and labor leaders have maintained a tone of optimism and cooperation, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Despite the positive rhetoric emanating from both sides, disturbing patterns of behavior are still being exhibited. Yale is making detailed strike contingency plans and has stated openly that it doesn’t know what is going to happen, taking an overall approach that can best be described as crossing its fingers.
On the union side, individuals acting under the auspices of the new labor alliance continue to disparage Yale by producing reports of questionable relevance on issues such as slavery and golf course taxation — subjects that have nothing to do with contracts for loyal rank-and-file union members and that are at least distracting, if not detrimental, to the negotiations process.
Meaningful change cannot occur if tactics and propaganda rule the day. Administrators and labor leaders owe the Yale community a success story, and in order for that to occur, the current tone of optimism must be parlayed into action when the two sides come to the table in the upcoming weeks.
National labor leader and former Yale union head John Wilhelm ’67 recently told Yale President Richard Levin and Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Kurt Schmoke ’71, “If the three of us retire before fixing labor relations at Yale, we should be ashamed.”
Wilhelm could not have put it better.
The Yale Daily News has chronicled the stormy relationship between the University and its unions for decades. This is one tradition we hope will end.