To the dismay of union leaders, Yale will begin subcontracting work in the newly opening Congress Avenue Building next week rather than use Local 35 members for the job.
Union leaders have taken the move as a sign of aggression from the University and said it will further complicate stalled contract negotiations. According to a tentative agreement signed during negotiations last spring, the University is free to find outside workers because contracts have not been signed. Nevertheless, the move carries symbolic significance for the tense relationship between Yale and the unions.
Subcontracting has long been a major fault line in Yale’s checkered history of labor relations. In 1996, the 13-month contract dispute hinged largely on the University’s demand for the right to subcontract work. This time around, University negotiators began contract talks with an unexpected offer to forego the right to outsource work and give Local 35 jobs in all new buildings, provided that certain performance and management standards were met.
The offer, made as both sides were attempting to overcome their troubled relationship, reflected a good-faith effort to assuage one of the historic points of contention between the two sides. The tentative agreement signed on subcontracting in April, based on the University’s early offer, came as a sign of hope that they could work together productively. Eight months later, the renewed tension aptly frames a year in which hopes of improving labor relations have been all but abandoned.
Negotiators sit at a stalemate as union and University leaders publicly fortify their positions with harsh statements and theatrics. With no plans to continue bargaining — the last session was held in early October — the current situation reflects a disappointing, if unsurprising reversion to past years. Negotiators once again are waiting out protracted public relations battles before likely making last minute progress on contracts.
This may be usual for Yale, where only three of the 10 negotiations since 1968 have ended without strikes. The University and its workers have become accustomed to long, bitter fights with each other every few years. But even those hired from the outside to help avoid the traditionally epic disputes have given up on the prospect of progress. Last spring, the hired labor-management consultant left amid frustration over the lack of willingness of either side to cooperate. And last month, a federal mediator brought in to speed up talks suspended his involvement by noting that any further discussion would be “fruitless.”
Yes, contracts will be signed eventually, and both sides will play nice for the next few years before gearing up for more fighting in the next round. But as the conflict over the Congress Avenue Building shows, protracted, unproductive contract battles politicize necessary decisions and hurt those at Yale without a say in negotiations. Because the two sides are at a standstill, the University followed an agreement and subcontracted the building, perpetuating an old dispute with Local 35. By resigning themselves to the familiar style of labor relations, both sides have continued a poor tradition and diminished once-high hopes of making this round any better.