The six-year contract between Yale University and its unions, which represent over 4,000 employees, expired Sunday with little fanfare. Fortunately, no immediate tension is likely to result, as both sides agreed to honor the basic terms of the old contract until at least March 1.
The decision to temporarily extend the contracts is a necessary one, but the slow pace at which talks between the parties have progressed in recent months increases the likelihood of serious conflict if a breakdown in negotiations does occur.
Yale and locals 34 and 35 — the University’s two recognized unions — bided their time this fall by deciding to hire a consultant to help them overcome their long-standing tensions. After spending several months interviewing 120 representatives on both sides, consultant John Stepp released his findings in a report last week that included virtually no substantial new information. The only slightly surprising part of the report was that the severe hatred and inflammatory rhetoric espoused by both sides was perhaps more intense than either side realized.
Nevertheless, both sides agreed to retain the consultants, and the next step will be a training session on “interest-based bargaining,” led by the consulting firm on Feb. 4-5 –a full three weeks after the initial report was issued.
Given the outcome of previous bargaining attempts –seven of the past 10 contract negotiations have been followed by strikes –it certainly is not a bad idea for the University and the unions to try something new this time around. Indeed, seeking outside help might be the only way University administrators and union leaders can realistically hope to improve their historically troubled relationship.
But so far it appears that little was gained from the decision to bring in the consultant, and substantive negotiations still have not started.
At this point, despite platitudes offered by both sides, a peaceful resolution to a potentially disastrous conflict still seems well in the distance. And with a three-week delay between the consultant’s recommendation and the training session –plus an unknown period before bargaining actually starts — there seems to be a mutual lack of interest in hammering out an agreement quickly.
In early December, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. classified the evolving Yale-union relationship as something like a “mating ritual.” As with any relationship, especially one as historically tempestuous as this, it is sometimes important to proceed slowly and cautiously before expecting any breakthrough.
But the longer the University and the unions wait to begin confronting the serious issues and differences of opinion between them, the greater the risk of squandering a unique opportunity to transcend the animosity that has characterized the relationship in the past. That’s one interest it shouldn’t take a consultant to determine both sides have in common.