A year ago, on the eve of contract negotiations with Yale, members of the federation representing Yale’s established and would-be unions rallied on the New Haven Green. One of the speakers, a New Haven pastor named W. David Lee DIV ’93, captured the mood of many federation leaders as negotiations loomed: “Yale has met its Waterloo in the Federation of Hospital and University Employees.”
In two weeks, the federation will hold another rally, marching in support of Yale graduate students and hospital workers struggling to unionize. Planned as negotiations between the unions and University continue — using a new method aimed at avoiding the tensions of the past — the rally will come as part of a series of actions aimed at demonstrating solidarity and building community support for the unions.
The two rallies bracket a year of substantial change in the turbulent relationship between Yale and its unions, with negotiators using a new process for more conciliatory bargaining. Both sides have worked to foster a different tone during negotiations — but outside the bargaining room, many trappings of old labor disputes remain.
“With Yale, you always have to do actions,” said the Rev. Lillian Daniel DIV ’93, the president of the union-affiliated advocacy group Connecticut Center for a New Economy. “The change in tone doesn’t mean that people aren’t still really determined and that these issues aren’t really critical in people’s lives.”
Such actions include two petitions signed by union members and workers trying to organize, CCNE reports critical of Yale’s role in New Haven, and community meetings organized by CCNE to call on the University to recognize graduate students and hospital workers and help finance the city’s schools.
But the actions away from the bargaining table this year also reflect the change in tone, with typically adversarial actions carrying messages of partnership and hopes for peace.
In combination, they underscore a sense of optimism and a not-so-subtle reminder of the deep scars of a long-troubled relationship, as well as uncertainties underlying the path to change.
At a CCNE meeting last week in East Rock, community and union leaders emphasized a new partnership with Yale. Many speakers argued that union goals of better jobs and the CCNE call for school funding were not only in the community’s interest — they were in Yale’s interest too.
Later in the week, Local 34 President Laura Smith and a group of union members presented a petition signed by 2,370 clerical and technical workers to Yale President Richard Levin. After Smith told Levin her concerns about the progress of negotiations, Levin responded by repeating in front of a respectful audience his hopes for a new era of improved relations between Yale and the unions.
It was a far cry from past negotiation years, when interactions between union organizers and administrators occurred mainly through loud confrontation.
The new tone has also appeared in the rhetoric of Lee, a CCNE vice president who has remained a vocal spokesman for community concerns about the University, even as he runs a union-backed campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation.
But despite the much-hyped new tone, the contracts have yet to be settled, and one of the major disputes between the two sides — the organizing drives of graduate students and hospital workers — seems nowhere closer to resolution.
At the East Rock meetings, leaders said the future of good relations with Yale would be contingent on resolving the two organizing drives. The Local 34 petition, as well as an earlier one signed by hospital workers, was designed to express the union leaders’ position that contract settlements must come only after both sides find a way to deal with the organizing drives — which University leaders say they will not negotiate over.
Daniel and union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff suggested that prolonged disputes over the organizing drives could undermine the talk of partnership.
“We do need to take the concept and make it concrete,” Chernoff said. “Even if you credit both parties with being equally sincere, obviously we have different ideas about what exactly a partnership entails and how we get there.”