The University and locals 34 and 35, its two largest recognized unions, spent much of the last nine months patiently assuring each other — and the rest of the Yale community — that they were committed to ending the animosity that has plagued their relationship for decades.
Despite the optimistic rhetoric, a semester came and went without a settlement contract. Breakthroughs were made on Local 35 job security and several other potential points of conflict, but the two sides deadlocked on several less important terms. Then the summer presented a chance to finally hammer out an agreement, but negotiators only managed to get together a total of 10 times out of 68 possible bargaining dates.
As a new academic year begins, the oft-touted “new tone” is unmistakably dead. The unions announced this summer that they would hold strike authorization votes on the first day of classes. To the surprise of no one, members granted their leaders the authority to conduct job actions — strikes — this fall. And Yale President Richard Levin, who publicly held out hope longer than perhaps anyone else, finally vented his frustration last week in a letter to the Yale community questioning the unions’ commitment to settling the contracts.
He’s right to be frustrated — and he’s not the only one. The two sides burned nine months trading platitudes, and now it appears they’ve done nothing to actually mend the relationship. History shows us where this will lead, and the outcomes are all bad.
The strike vote is likely only the beginning. Union leaders have started talking about a possible three-day strike in October. And already there are rumblings about the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, a group trying to organize a graduate student union, mounting a grade strike, as it did in 1996. If GESO wants to quickly lose its undergraduate support, it couldn’t pick a better strategy.
On the University side, administrators are preparing a strike contingency plan — a step that union leaders claim only further rankles their members. But if the unions are going to threaten a strike, Yale says it’s only reasonable that it should plan a response. Let the sniping begin.
As usual, the people who will lose out are the rank-and-file union workers, who have little in common with Yale graduate students and a lot to lose if their leaders order a strike — as they were just authorized to do. In fact, if a strike actually occurs, the workers could lose not just their wages but considerable retroactive pay that the University is currently willing to give.
It’s tempting to call the negotiations breakdown an opportunity lost, but what’s most frustrating is that there might not have been an opportunity at all. If the union leadership is actually more committed to conducting an experiment for the struggling national labor movement than to negotiating good contracts for its members, then the bargaining was doomed from the start. In that case, both sides could have saved a lot of time by skipping the disingenuous talk of cooperation and admitting right away that fair contracts for Yale’s workers weren’t the real goal.