This evening, members of Local 34, Local 35 and District 1199/SEIU’s Yale-New Haven Hospital food service workers will hold strike authorization votes. As have so many Yale students before them, undergraduates this year face the possibility of the disruption of a work stoppage. It doesn’t have to happen, at least not according to Yale’s own labor relations expert.
Through 60 years and 11 strikes, Yale has earned a reputation for the worst labor relations in the academy, if not the country. That reputation was confirmed in a report by John Stepp of Restructuring Associates Inc., a former Reagan administration Labor Department official hired by Yale President Richard Levin to assess Yale’s relationship with its unions. The consultant’s interviews disclosed “a highly adversarial and dysfunctional relationship” between Yale and its employees, who “have almost no input into discussions and decisions that affect their work.”
Stepp did not merely criticize — he made three recommendations for change:
* That Yale and its unions together “initiate a comprehensive redesign” of the work environment at Yale, changing the planning, training, promotion and reward systems that have bred the dysfunctional atmosphere Stepp observed.
* That Yale reach an understanding with the unions about the rules of conduct for current organizing drives by graduate teachers and hospital workers and other means by which unions on campus can grow as Yale grows.
* That labor and management adopt a new problem-solving approach to bargaining.
After initial progress last spring, Yale appears to have given up on Stepp’s recommendations. The administration has paid only lip service to a comprehensive proposal to redesign the work environment, and Levin refuses even to discuss the organizing question. Yale removed the consultant from bargaining last May and Stepp has returned only to deal with one issue.
Changing the work environment means unleashing the potential of Yale’s employees. Stepp described deep frustration over the lack of opportunity for advancement. Local 34 member Virginia Harris, an administrative assistant in the Department of Chemistry, says, “I just assumed that a world-class university would train its staff. But in my department we can’t get access to job training, so we can’t advance. It doesn’t make sense — not only would I improve myself, I would also be a more valuable employee.”
Economic issues require a new vision. Yale has long tried to wean employees from its traditional pension, which it has not raised since 1985. For years, we were told that such pensions are out-of-date. But as University of California at Berkeley economist and Yale Corporation member Janet Yellen GRD ’71 recently wrote in The New York Times, “With the fall in the stock market we now see that a secure, defined-benefit pension has its merits after all.” With Yale’s proposed increase, a married Local 35 custodian who’s worked at Yale for 20 years would retire on just $467 per month.
Levin deserves credit for hiring Restructuring Associates Inc. and for agreeing — reluctantly — to release the report. But it’s difficult to see a real change in Yale’s underlying attitude toward workers and unions, which one of its managers told the consultant lies “somewhere between union containment and union avoidance.”
These anti-union attitudes are the fundamental cause of Yale’s dismal history of strikes and labor strife, and Yale’s unionized workers will not feel secure until Yale outgrows them. That’s why our members believe that securing the right for all Yale workers to form unions is essential to their own futures. For today, this means graduate teachers and researchers and service workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital. For the long term, it means that any Yale employees, even faculty, who want to speak with a common voice regarding the conditions of their work should be able to do so in a cooperative, non-coercive environment.
At Yale, the old way has meant massive street demonstrations, strikes, and unnecessary pain and frustration for everyone involved. Levin needs to prove that Yale has outgrown its anti-union history. But he is unwilling even to discuss implementing Stepp’s recommendation for an understanding about the appropriate conduct of current organizing efforts.
During Yale’s Tercentennial, Levin challenged the Yale community to engage in critical self-reflection on Yale’s role in society. Nothing better reflects that spirit than Stepp’s report and recommendations. Our unions have endorsed the recommendations because we believe that our future, Yale’s future and New Haven’s future require all of us to assume leadership.
If we really work at it, we can prove in New Haven that the global economy doesn’t have to be a low-road “race to the bottom.” Imagine a community where workers support their families on one job, advance through continuous training, raise children educated in great public schools supported by widespread homeownership, and retire with dignity.
Imagine a Yale where everyone’s voice is heard and respected. Yale’s expert has drawn the map to that vision. Now is the time for change.
Bob Proto is the president of Local 35. Laura Smith is the president of Local 34.