After a three-hour marathon of testimony in a packed Aldermanic Chambers from union leaders, the mayor’s office, Yale students, and the associate vice president of the University, members of the Community Development Committee of the New Haven Board of Aldermen looked at each other in exhausted relief and set to the matter of voting on a resolution to end strife between the University and its unions.
But they didn’t vote.
They opted to take no action in hopes of a speedy passage of the resolution at Monday’s full board meeting. Pursuing this route — through the intricacies of the legislative process — means that only a majority will be necessary for approval next week. The resolution would require unanimous approval — at the full board level — if it was passed last night by the committee.
The end result was decidedly anticlimactic after union leaders and members cast blame on the University for alleged intransigence, and University sympathizers blamed union leaders for grandstanding and greed.
Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison, the author of the resolution, prefaced the evening’s remarks by expressing dismay at the discontinuation of talks with a third-party mediator and emphasized the effect a strike would have on the city, since Yale is New Haven’s largest employer.
“I don’t know why that promising start failed to continue,” said Mattison, whose resolution also calls for board president Jorge Perez to appoint an ad hoc committee to meet with the union leaders and Levin. “But it did fail to continue because we’re here now.”
“Yale is the 800-pound gorilla in New Haven and what it and its unions do affect us all,” he said, explaining the reason for this government action.
Rob Smuts ’01, speaking on behalf of Mayor John DeStefano Jr., summarized the decades of labor strife. He noted the “fundamental right” of workers to organize and called for action to resolve the contentious situation sooner rather than later.
“The unions at Yale and the Yale administration have had a very confrontational relationship that has disrupted the city of New Haven like clockwork at the end of every contract,” Smuts said. He added that one of the major points of contention is GESO’s alignment with Yale’s already-recognized unions.
“People must be given a fair way to choose — free of intimidation by any side — as soon as possible,” Smuts said.
Ward 28 Alderman Brian Jenkins voiced a stronger opinion on the matter, at one point stating that Yale’s vision for the “partnership” had “cataracts.”
“Yale is playing games here,” said Jenkins, who often received applause from union workers in the audience for his comic metaphors and harsh criticism of the University administration. “They’re playing games with lives, and I see this game getting ugly.”
While New Haven residents, including a representative from Hispanic Evangelical Ministers in New Haven and the owner of a local health care provider, voiced support for the resolution, some of the most interesting testimony came from the Yale student body.
Yevgeny Vilensky ’03 conceded that union workers had “legitimate concerns” but attacked the union leadership for not representing the best interests of their worker members.
“I believe that the union leadership has been engaging in a divisive campaign to divide New Haven and Yale and within Yale itself,” said Vilensky, who said GESO has thrown a wrench in the whole process. “The union leadership is more concerned with gaining more power for itself and grandstanding in the city of New Haven than in the interest of its workers,” Vilensky said.
Vilensky went on to criticize the events strike organizers have planned for next week, especially the invitation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom he called “one of the most divisive leaders in the country.”
The assembled crowd responded with a chorus of hisses.
Josh Eidelson ’06 spoke in support of the resolution to bring the unions and the administration back to the bargaining table, peppering his remarks with direct criticism of the University.
“Today it seems disturbingly apparent that my leadership is planning to handle this round of negotiations based on the same failed model of the past decades, the one which has led to a succession of painful, prolonged, and unnecessary strikes,” Eidelson said.
“It is as a student still waiting for my school to live up to its highest ideals and as a New Haven citizen waiting for the city’s dominant employer to deal justly with its workers, that I strongly urge this board today to put its full strength behind this resolution,” he said.
The figure that everyone had been waiting for all night came forward toward the end of the proceedings: Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, the University’s associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs.
“We all regret that the negotiations have not concluded more speedily,” said Morand, who served on the board a decade ago.
“While we might not agree with every ‘whereas clause’,” said Morand, referring to the customary way of introducing a resolution, “the operative clauses are ones we support in spirit. We are committed to building a new relationship.”
Morand explained that in tough economic times, the wages and benefits the University offered to the union workers were admirable. But such claims were met with skepticism, as committee members fired pointed questions at Morand about the University’s basic outlook toward unions and the perceived lack of “decision-makers” at the negotiating table.
Morand spoke succinctly, stating the University has never waivered in its attitude of cooperation with its labor force.
“We think we’ve shown it and we’ll continue to show it,” Morand said.