Concluding the first day of a weeklong strike, the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged about 1,000 union supporters gathered along College Street Monday evening to continue fighting for good contracts and the right to organize.

Jackson spoke outside Silliman College following a march from Wooster Square. Observers crowded College Street and leaned out Silliman windows to get a better view of Jackson, the founder of the Rainbow/Push Coalition and a civil and labor rights advocate. In his talk, Jackson linked the current dispute between Yale and its unions to larger social justice issues and the potential war with Iraq.

“Yale has $11 billion in endowments,” Jackson said. “They are too rich to treat workers so poorly.”

Jackson said union members deserved a contract that more closely reflected their demands.

“We’ll march in the cold till hell freezes over, for wages, for pensions, for benefits,” Jackson said.

In addition to union issues, Jackson discussed drugs and the potential war with Iraq, while harshly criticizing the Bush administration.

“This is the most anti-civil rights, anti-labor administration in 70 years,” Jackson said. “We cannot let those who stole our election steal our rights.”

Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said Yale President Richard Levin met with Jackson for about a half hour before the march. Klasky said Jackson and Levin agreed that the only way to move forward in bargaining is to “de-link” the organizing efforts of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and Yale-New Haven Hospital workers from contract talks for locals 34 and 35.

During the speech, Jackson said graduate students and hospital workers should have a right to organize and deserve better treatment.

“No job is beneath [the hospital workers],” Jackson said. “But when they get sick, they can’t lie in the bed they make every day.”

Before the speech, Jackson marched from Wooster Square to College Street with union supporters, including Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Mayor John DeStefano Jr., both of whom spoke at the rally. The United Electrical Workers Local 243 and the Teamsters Local 493 also joined in the march, supporting the Yale unions.

DeStefano told the audience at the rally he was inspired by the number of people in attendance.

“At first I thought I was feeling cold. But I was feeling heat. I was feeling so hot,” DeStefano said. “It was the heat of a fight for fair wages.”

DeLauro said Yale has a responsibility to be more generous to its workers.

“We ask the University to rethink your course,” DeLauro said.

Shirley Lawrence, a member of Local 35, said she was thrilled with Jackson’s speech.

“[Jackson] just lit me up like a Christmas tree,” Lawrence said. “I forgot about the cold.”

Lawrence said Jackson’s national reputation encouraged the union to continue the strike.

“He has the history behind him. He’s been fighting,” Lawrence said. “It just inspired us. It gave us the energy we needed to continue on.”

— Staff reporters Amy Kaplan, Philip Rucker, Alissa Stollwerk and contributing reporter Brian Murray contributed to this report.