For most of this academic year, University administrators and leaders from Yale’s unions have openly committed themselves to a new approach to their historically tempestuous relationship. This week the two sides backed up their rhetoric with solid action in the form of an agreement on job security provisions for Local 35 — the first major breakthrough in nearly three months of negotiations.
There are, of course, many important and potentially divisive issues still left to be discussed, but for the first time this year it seems possible that the end may not be too far away.
The settlement of the Local 35 job security issues is especially important because it demonstrates a willingness by both sides to compromise in order to maintain a cooperative tone — a stark and welcome change from the rigidity that has too often characterized the relationship in the past. The issue of subcontracting was a point of bitter contention in the 1996 negotiations, when the University eventually won a major victory by securing the right to subcontract all work.
Subcontracting did not even have to come up at this year, since the previous provisions were guaranteed through 2006, but Yale came into negotiations with a proposal to staff all new building construction with Local 35 staff. It was perhaps the most tangible evidence of Yale President Richard Levin’s desire to turn the new-approach rhetoric into reality. In return for the work guarantees, Local 35 agreed Monday to meet certain performance and management standards on the new buildings.
With Local 35 job security settled, the University and the unions will now move on to Local 34 job security provisions and wages and benefits. Given the success of the new interest-based bargaining process — a method chosen by both sides in an effort to reduce tensions at the bargaining table — negotiators should be able to resolve the remaining issues without too much difficulty. It seems the decision to retain a special labor consultant from Restructuring Associates, Inc., was a wise choice for both sides.
In addition to the aforementioned local issues is, of course, the desire of the Federation of Hospital and University Employees to organize graduate students and hospital workers. What is important for both sides to remember is that the unionization of graduate students and hospital workers is not a mandatory issue, meaning that it does not have to be discussed at negotiations and cannot be the basis for a strike. Of course, it also means that there need not be any official agreement on these difficult questions at this time.
Local 35 President Bob Proto rightly said Monday that the job security agreement was “what our members sent us in here to accomplish.” He and his fellow union leaders should remember that when formulating their approach to broader national labor issues. It is in the interest of neither rank-and-file union members nor the University to permit these negotiations to transform the Yale community into a laboratory for testing the future course of the labor movement.