For far too long, Yale’s labor relations have been among the worst in the nation. Nowhere was that more apparent than at yesterday’s symbolic act of civil disobedience by hundreds of union members and their supporters. The event, a mass blocking of traffic on Elm and College streets, clearly showed that the relationship between Yale and its workers is still irrationally dysfunctional — and prompted little hope that it will improve anytime soon.
And yet, the event was effective in showing that union supporters can display resolve without demonizing Yale. The well-choreographed act was a quiet but powerful way to send a message to the University. Organizers brought together the disparate elements of their federation — union members, graduate students and hospital workers — and also received support from a small group of undergraduates.
Yesterday’s orchestrated arrests come long after efforts by both University and union leaders to transcend their troubled history briefly appeared to be successful in the spring. Sadly, in retrospect, hope came only in the form of empty platitudes offered by both sides. It is now clear that bitter confrontation will rule the day, even if the only visible signs of conflict are peaceful union protests.
Both Yale and its unions must share the blame for their inability to reach an agreement. Their hardened positions on the plight of graduate students and Yale-New Haven Hospital workers seeking to organize leaves little room for compromise or even meaningful dialogue.
Unfortunately, as labor leaders turn the University into a laboratory for graduate student unionization and efforts to bring more union workers under one federation, the Yale community must prepare for the labor situation to worsen. A strike this fall is still a strong possibility, and anti-Yale rhetoric will continue to proliferate around campus.
Already, Yale-bashing — fashionable during every contract negotiation — has reached disturbingly high levels. This inflammatory tactic of attempting to embarrass the University in every way possible may serve union interests in the short term, but it will only perpetuate an unnecessarily tortured relationship.
There are, of course, many legitimate points of contention that should be made public. The issues of wages, pensions and benefits deserve to be part of a community debate about how much Yale owes the workers from its host city. The larger issues of graduate student and hospital worker unionization should also be debated and discussed without the negative tone that has been so evident this month.
Yesterday’s civil disobedience, while unlawful, created a more appropriate tone at a time of heightened conflict between Yale and its labor groups. If similar events must occur in the future, union leaders should be sure to maintain the peaceful and organized simplicity seen on College Street. For if the current Yale-labor debacle is allowed to devolve into something more hostile in the public arena, neither the University’s nor the rank-and-file’s interests will be served. Without civility and a wholehearted commitment to negotiations, history will only repeat itself.