Within a month, this campus may experience its 12th labor strike in 60 years. Our administration’s contingency planning is well underway, from stipends for students to eat out to incentives for temporary workers. Most carefully orchestrated, however, is the narrative, tweaked and polished from previous strikes, which will be trotted out for the Yale community: that Yale did everything it could, and that the unions just wanted to strike. Our administration is fortunate to have on its side the advertising firm that cut its teeth defending Reagan from the Iran-Contra scandal and tobacco companies from federal lawsuits. This is going to be a tough sell.
The seeds of the administration’s argument were planted in President Levin’s September letter, four pages on cream-colored stationary in envelopes addressed to each student in the school. “Reluctantly,” Levin declared, “I have concluded that the unions’ leaders are more interested in preparing for confrontation during the academic year than in discussing and resolving the contract issues that remain open.” Levin maintained this line at a Yale College Council open forum in November, arguing, “The unions made a strategic decision. They did not want to close. They’ve basically run away from the bargaining tables since last May–the ball right now is in the unions’ court, not ours.” In Levin’s analysis, it appears, the second-wealthiest university in the world has been held hostage by two unions with a couple dozen full-time staff. In Levin’s analysis, if a strike comes, it will be because the unions wanted one. Before taking this line as gospel, let’s remember that Levin, unlike union leaders, has yet to set foot in a negotiations session. (Bob Culver, vice president for finance, has shown up only twice.)
The last negotiation session, attended by current and retired Yale workers and 20 community observers, opened with Yale chief negotiator Brian Tunney’s declaration that Yale had “nothing new” to put on the table. Testimony from members of the New Haven community on the inadequate pensions they were receiving or were slated to receive, on the threat subcontracting poses to their job security, on the importance of community input on Yale’s hiring practices, and on the transformative potential of expanding Yale’s Homebuyers Program to Fair Haven was met by Yale’s representatives with hollow affirmations of the importance, respectively, of pensions, job security, hiring practices, and the Yale Homebuyers Program. As before, our university’s negotiators refused to budge on these or other negotiations issues–including wages, on which they have offered no new proposal since June (before they headed off for vacations), despite two union counterproposals since.
Levin may believe that he can afford to wait, stonewalling by proxy, waxing poetic about union intransigence, and all the while refusing to speak to the workers whose economic security is riding on this contract, preferring to address them indirectly through expensive full-page ads in the New Haven Register touting wage offers that were never made at the bargaining table. Meanwhile, Yale full-time workers are working second jobs, and many are poised to retire after decades of service without liveable pensions. Yale has chosen once more, as it attempted over the summer with Timothy Dwight, to use the threat of subcontracting a new building as a bargaining tool. Our administration pays lip service to the report of labor consultant John Stepp, while ignoring his recommendations. It sidesteps his call for an understanding about organizing campaigns among graduate students and Hospital Workers, eschews the meaningful change in workplace dynamics and empowerment of workers he urged, and replaces his “interest-based bargaining” with obstinacy and intimidation.
Today this campus is very likely on the verge of a strike which would significantly impact all members of this community. Members of locals 34 and 35, the men and women who would bear the brunt of a strike, as Yale workers have for sixty years, have authorized and demonstrated their support for such an action, while holding out hope for months that negotiations would render it unnecessary. If a strike comes, it will come because the second wealthiest university in the world refused to protect its workers’ dignity and freedom from want. If Levin is in fact devoted to ushering in a new era in labor relations, his effort would be better spent not on expensive advertisements and preemptive eulogies but on seeking a contract which would reflect the best values and ideals of Yale University. If Levin is indeed committed to averting a strike, the time is long overdue for him to walk into a negotiating session with a serious commitment and serious offers which address the serious issues which have brought our campus and our community to the point of crisis. That is what he owes to the hard-working men and women of locals 34 and 35, and that is what he owes to us. The ball, President Levin, is in your court.
Josh Eidelson is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.