Six years ago, negotiations between Yale and its unions broke down in part because of a dispute over Yale’s demand to be able to subcontract work by hiring non-union workers for jobs typically filled by union members.

In the contracts that were finally signed, 13 months and two strikes later, the University gained what many saw as a major victory — a new provision in the Local 35 contract allowing the University to subcontract any work, effective through 2006.

As representatives from Yale and locals 34 and 35 begin negotiations today to renew the contracts for nearly 4,000 union workers, subcontracting remains a background issue for the unions, which say it undermines the unions’ place at Yale.

Because the subcontracting clause does not expire with the current contracts, the University will not be bound to discuss it if unions request changes in subcontracting provisions. In the past, University officials have said the issue of subcontracting may come up during negotiations. Since the provision from 1996 is still in effect, the unions cannot go on strike or take other job actions based solely on a disagreement over subcontracting.

University officials emphasize that they have used subcontracting sparingly since 1996.

Currently, the only major groups of subcontracted workers are custodians in Linsly-Chittenden Hall and Swing Space, and officials note that the number of Local 35 jobs has increased since 1996, and that no workers have been laid off. The 1996 contracts also specify a minimum number of jobs the University must provide for Local 35 members, regardless of how many projects are subcontracted.

Yale President Richard Levin said the subcontracting provisions have worked well to allow the University flexibility to improve service in exchange for providing job security for union members. With both sides working to mend the historically acrimonious labor-management relationship, Levin said he hoped subcontracting would not be the focus of negotiations this year.

“I would hope we’d be able to move past that one and work on some more fundamental changes in the way we conduct our affairs day to day,” Levin said. “I’m hopeful the focus will be on improved cooperation.”

But to union leaders, subcontracting represents an important part of the relationship, something they say is an issue of respect.

“You can’t have a partnership when one partner is trying to take work away from the other,” said John Wilhelm ’67, the president of the Yale unions’ parent organization, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International union. “It’s inherently contradictory. — It’s a huge issue and it should be.”

Local 35 President Bob Proto said subcontracting has repeatedly come up as a major concern in discussions with union members.

“Our members are very, very concerned with how job security ties in with subcontracting,” he said.

Associate Vice President for Facilities Kemel Dawkins said the University subcontracts to find new ways to improve the quality of work and not to cut costs. He added that the University and unions agree to a minimum wage for all employees, regardless of their union status.

“In every situation that we have outsourced buildings, we have made sure the workers are paid above that minimum level,” said Dawkins, who estimated that the University outsources less than 1 percent of the jobs it could.

Proto said union members are particularly concerned with ensuring that union workers be employed in new buildings Yale is planning.

“[Local 35 members] don’t want to see Yale’s expansion having workers in different color uniforms,” Proto said. “We’ve been taking care of the place for over 60 years, and when Yale expands, we believe we should be part of that expansion.”

Dawkins said that the University has not decided on how to fill new positions created by the construction of buildings in areas like Science Hill.