John Wilhelm should be ashamed of himself. Wilhelm, general president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), the parent union of locals 34 and 35, stood at the microphone last Friday in Beinecke Plaza to tell striking workers that the Yale administration had decided to postpone freshman convocation. Never before in the history of Yale has the freshman convocation been postponed, even during wartime.
This was the product of the unions’ toughness, Wilhelm proclaimed proudly, and for a brief second an awkward silence overtook the crowd as striking workers were unsure whether they should cheer this “victory.”
Wilhelm made this exultant announcement at the end of the rally. The plaza was substantially less crowded as presidential candidate Howard Dean had left along with many enthusiastic undergraduates. Nevertheless, those present did cheer while Local 34 President Laura Smith and Local 35 President Bob Proto looked on approvingly.
Those incoming freshmen, and anyone else for that matter, who have yet to take a position on Yale’s labor problems would do well to take this incident to heart, for it is exemplary of the conflict.
The unions claim that it is not their intent to disrupt student life at Yale, but that is exactly what Yale’s union leadership is doing, and triumphantly so. Old Campus and the streets surrounding it were a madhouse last week as freshmen and their parents moved in, and during all of this union leaders boasted that their threats to disrupt convocation — one of the most memorable moments of freshman year — led to the event’s postponement to a date when many parents will not even be able to attend. In addition, because the residential college dining halls are closed, freshmen aren’t getting the opportunity to meet other students or feel a part of their college communities.
Wilhelm has been all smiles this past week, enjoying the spotlight ever since he became involved in Yale’s labor troubles in 1969. Not coincidentally that’s when Yale’s union troubles began; since that time Yale’s unions have gone on strike seven times. Yale has gone through many presidents and corporation members in the past 34 years, but one thing has remained constant: John Wilhelm, who is now the top contender to succeed AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.
The more Wilhelm is in the news raising a ruckus at Yale, the better chance he has at becoming the most powerful union leader in the country. Rather than calling Yale President Richard Levin “two-faced,” the members of locals 34 and 35 — who are earning a measly $150 a week in strike pay from their unions — should be asking Wilhelm if he and the other union bosses in the HERE leadership will be taking a cut in their six-figure salaries to increase the strike funds for locals 34 and 35.
This strike is not about the welfare of Yale’s workers. If it were, I would support it wholeheartedly. Instead, it is about the future of Wilhelm’s career in the national union movement. Regardless of how this current dispute plays out, his combativeness has inspired a union culture at Yale that will harm town-gown and labor relations for years to come. If the University were to cave in to the unions’ demands, as opposed to standing firm, it would send the message to big labor that Yale is weak and would pave the way for even more strikes down the road.
With the unions orchestrating media spectacles, the press is ignoring the substantive issues underlying the dispute. In these uncertain economic times, Yale’s contract offer is eminently reasonable. While unemployment soars, Yale is offering an average 14.3 percent increase in wages to members of Local 34 and an average 9.3 percent salary increase to members of Local 35.
In addition, the University offers many perks to its employees that union propagandists always fail to mention. Yale offers nearly two months of paid leave a year. Yale offers free health care to all of its union employees, their families and retirees who have worked at the University for more than 10 years. Yale offers $25,000 to those workers who wish to purchase a home near the University. Yale offers up to $46,000 over four years in college scholarships to the children of its employees. Yale offers a pension plan that gives workers who have been here for 30 years over 90 percent of their highest salary every year for the rest of their retirement.
It is Yale’s generous pension plan, however, that has become the main issue of contention. The unions repeatedly claim that Yale workers are unable to live off of the pension that Yale supplies. Yet the dire examples that the unions provide are always of retirees who have worked at Yale for less than 30 years. Most Americans are lucky to retire after 30 years, and under no circumstances should Yale be expected to provide a complete retirement package for those employees who work for fewer.
The unions, unsurprisingly, have also made race a subject of this dispute. The Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered a meandering and largely irrelevant speech last Thursday and again on Labor Day in which he invoked the civil war, apartheid, the civil rights movement and lambasted Yale for being “built on slavery.” Yale’s racist days should not be forgotten, but in no conceivable way are they related to the current union dispute. Furthermore, drawing comparisons between the plight of Yale’s workforce and people who were forced into servitude is sensationalism.
When I asked Jackson after his speech if he still thought Yale was racist, he merely recounted how some of Yale’s previous benefactors were slave holders and pointed out that Yale once had a Jewish quota. On Monday, Wilhelm introduced Jackson as, “the man who more than anyone else brings people together,” a strange description for one of America’s most divisive public figures.
If the union bosses were serious about reaching a fair deal for their members, they would not welcome race baiters like Jackson to play for the cameras.
It gets worse. Last Wednesday, the president of the greater New Haven branch of the NAACP complained that some of Yale’s residential colleges are named after men who owned slaves. He told the New Haven Register that since President Levin is Jewish, he “should put forth a resolution to this matter immediately, with the same tenacity that he would use if one of Yale’s colleges were named after Hitler or one of his major lieutenants of the Nazi Party.”
That would make George Washington the Fuhrer and pre-civil war America the Third Reich. This is the idiocy that the Yale administration has to deal with.
Perhaps the most amusing spectacle of the past week has been the sight of GESO president Anita Seth and the scant remaining graduate students who still support unionization marching alongside the members of locals 34 and 35. Many GESO members wore accusatory signs that read, “Democracy Means Freedom from Intimidation,” ironic considering the fact that GESO is best known for its intimidation and harassment of graduate students who are simply not interested in joining a union. Fortunately for the members of locals 34 and 35, whose fates have for too long been tied to GESO’s agenda, Bob Proto and Laura Smith have seemingly distanced themselves from Seth and her followers.
As the strike in March clearly indicated, the workers of locals 34 and 35 need Yale far more than Yale needs them. While the University was forced to cancel the freshman convocation and recently raised its offer to the unions, it has demonstrated that it will not allow the unions to hold our educational experience hostage. Hold ’em Yale.
Jamie Kirchick is a sophomore in Pierson College.