Negotiators from Yale and its unions will begin substantive bargaining today, dealing with “small” issues first as they launch the renewal process on contracts for nearly 4,000 Yale workers.

Today’s bargaining session, the first to involve substantive discussion, comes after three days of preliminary meetings last week during which the two sides identified issues they would address during bargaining and agreed to ground rules. Negotiators tentatively scheduled 35 days of bargaining, but said that number would likely change.

Last week’s meetings followed a nearly four-month pre-negotiation courtship process between Yale and locals 34 and 35, which represent the University’s clerical, technical, service, dining hall and maintenance workers. In October the two sides agreed to hire labor-management consultant John Stepp in hopes of avoiding the tensions that have led to seven strikes in the 10 negotiation processes since 1968.

Stepp issued a report last month that criticized the labor-management relationship at Yale and advised both sides to seek an alternative method for bargaining. At Stepp’s suggestion, union and University leaders agreed to try a new strategy, called “interest-based bargaining,” for this year’s negotiations.

Stepp and negotiating team leaders declined to say what issues they would be addressing in the early sessions of bargaining, but union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said they would first address smaller issues, including concerns that affected a small number of people or involved rewording language in existing contract provisions.

Chernoff added that they were starting with smaller issues in part so they could get a sense of how the process would work.

“This is a new process for everyone, a new way of doing things,” Chernoff said. “Some people are feeling it out and finding out what it feels like. Part of the reason we’re starting with smaller things is so people can get a feeling for what it’s like, to see if this is effective.”

After the meetings last week, Stepp characterized the tone between the two negotiating teams as “very good.”

Chernoff said both sides were adjusting to the process.

“We’re all positive, but like anything new, people have to get used to it,” she said.

The contracts for locals 34 and 35 expired in January, but leaders from both sides agreed to extend them through March 1 to allow for the new process. After March, the contract would be renewed on a month-by-month basis, with each side required to notify the other at least 15 days in advance if it intended not to renew the contract for another month. Since neither side made such an announcement last week, the contracts will not expire until at least April 1, union leaders have said.