A testament to the bitter history of labor relations at Yale, the class of 2002 will graduate as only the ninth group of students since 1968 never to have experienced a strike during its four years here.

This winter, contracts between Yale and its two recognized labor unions expired, setting the stage for a potentially divisive negotiations process. For the last five months, however, dialogue between University officials and leaders of the two unions, Locals 34 and 35, has been relatively calm — a significant departure from the tone of negotiations’ past.

The unions represent nearly 4,000 of the University’s clerical, technical, dining hall, service and maintenance workers.

Union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff pointed out that it has been a watershed year for both the goals and efforts of both parties.

“It is sort of a work in progress,” Chernoff said. “We’re in the progress of making progress, and that’s very encouraging, but there is a great [deal to be done].”

In hiring a labor-management consultant and pledging to eschew conflict, Yale and union leaders say they hope to avoid the tensions that have plagued previous negotiations.

Yale President Richard Levin said he is confident in the success of the new negotiation strategies in the long run.

“I think [it] bodes well for the future of relations with Locals 34 and 35,” he said.

During the last round of contract negotiations in 1996, the University and its unions spent 13 months in a costly clash over issues such as subcontracting, the hiring of casual workers, and pension benefits.

But this year, both sides hope to see more long-term changes, compared to the more immediate issues that have dominated past negotiations. Central issues at the bargaining table over the course of the last year have included subcontracting and job security. Additionally, members of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and Yale-New Haven Hospital workers have united with Locals 34 and 35 to persuade the University to recognize all four groups as equal partners of the University.

The organizing drives for unionization of GESO and hospital workers have sparked disagreement, as Yale officials refuse to support graduate student unionization and have maintained that they do not have control over the hospital.

President Levin said that while the unions think a new relationship must come from a recognition of the graduate student and hospital worker unions, he believes it is possible to separate Locals 34 and 35 from the new organizing efforts.

Chernoff said the University should recognize the organizing drives because it will help administrators “better embrace” people who work at Yale.

“We’re at a crossroad in which we could choose to go down one road or another,” she said. “One path is very familiar to both parties, and the other path is a path toward partnership.”

Still, though Yale and its unions are moving down a new road in labor-management relations, the University has faced its share of criticism.

This past year, reports against Yale by parties affiliated with the two unions have reminded many of past negotiations, when anti-Yale propaganda was often part of the unions’ publicity strategy.

Last August, after several months of research, three GESO leaders released a report titled “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” in which they said that 10 of the 12 residential colleges were named after slave owners or men who supported slavery.

The authors include the namesakes of Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, Berkeley, Trumbull, Ezra Stiles, Timothy Dwight, Silliman and Calhoun colleges on their list of slave owners. Samuel Morse, according to the essay, was a slavery supporter who believed that “abolitionists should be excommunicated.”

The Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a nonprofit group closely aligned with Yale’s unions, also issued a report this year suggesting that Yale owes money to the city of New Haven for its public school system.

Despite these flashbacks to the acrimonious past of negotiations at Yale, the University and its unions are hoping to usher in a new era of peaceable labor relations at the bargaining table and in the community in general.

Local 34 President Laura Smith said she is cautiously optimistic about the possibility of creating a real partnership with the University.

“I think our goal is to make sure that we achieve that whole new workplace culture — that change in attitude on all parts that’s necessary for us to reach a point where we can truly work together as partners to make Yale the best place it can be,” Smith said.