With a week left before Yale and its unions begin negotiations to renew contracts for nearly 4,000 Yale workers, leaders from both sides began meetings with a hired consultant yesterday in an effort to make the traditionally acrimonious process less divisive.

Leaders from the University and locals 34 and 35, which represent Yale’s clerical, technical, dining hall and maintenance workers, are meeting with consultant John Stepp of the Washington firm Restructuring Associates Inc. to learn about “interest-based bargaining.” Stepp has described the process as being closer to a marriage than to the traditionally divisive negotiation process.

Last fall, union and University officials agreed to hire Stepp to help Yale and its unions address long-standing tensions. Leaders from both sides have said they are hopeful of mending the relationship. But one of Stepp’s recommendations — that both sides address the organizing efforts of two groups trying to form unions — carries the potential to bring a lingering disagreement back into the fore.

With the University in better financial condition than in the past, Yale leaders have said they are in a position to offer better contracts, and they do not expect economic issues to be a major source of conflict.

But an alliance between locals 34 and 35 and the two groups trying to organize could present a bigger problem. Locals 34 and 35 have joined with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, a group trying to organize graduate students, and Service Employees International Union District 1199, which is seeking to represent workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Union leaders have said that recognition of GESO and the hospital workers is necessary for changing the tone of relations and will be an important part of any contract agreement reached with the University. University officials have repeatedly said that they will not recognize either group, noting that they oppose unionization for graduate students and do not control Yale-New Haven Hospital.

In his report, Stepp wrote that both sides needed to come to “some understanding as to how current organizing efforts will be conducted and how the union’s long-term need to grow its business will be addressed.”

Union leaders claimed that Stepp’s recommendation underscores the importance of GESO and 1199 in the upcoming contract and new tone. But Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky held that recognition of GESO and the hospital workers is a separate issue and will not be addressed in negotiations.

“They’re not tied to this contract negotiation,” Klasky said. “I think what Stepp was clearly saying is that this is an issue that both sides have to deal with and have to confront in some way.”

But Local 35 President Bob Proto and Local 34 President Laura Smith said that recognition of the two groups attempting to unionize represented a necessary step toward mending relations. Proto added that recognition was key to the negotiation process.

“It’s all weaved together,” Proto said. “If there’s going to be true change and not just ‘let’s cut a deal real quick with the two bargaining units.'”

Legally, locals 34 and 35 could not strike or take other job actions on behalf of GESO or the hospital workers, since the terms of the current contract do not address the groups. But leaders have said that the two groups could serve as atmospheric issues.

“We’re trying very hard to make all the positive steps forward for change, but it’s tough to move forward if to the left of you and the right of you workers are mistreated and not given a say,” Proto said. “I’m not into the treason business and I’m not a schizo. I think that RAI’s first recommendation is an important one because it ties in to what is needed for overall change in how Yale looks at its entire work force.”

Of course, negotiations have yet to begin, and the organizing efforts have not been directly addressed. Klasky said leaders on both sides remain hopeful.

“Representatives of Local 34 and Local 35 as well as the University have really been trying hard to set a new tone and to act on what this new tone is and to be very serious and collaborate in all that they’re doing toward each step of this process,” Klasky said.