The closeted racial undertones between Yale and its unions were shot wide open this week when union-affiliated city leaders accused Yale of fostering racial animosity by using largely Hispanic workers to replace striking black workers. The criticism won a rubber-stamp endorsement from New Haven Rep. Rosa DeLauro and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, dragging Yale’s labor woes into the national spotlight once again as the second strike this year rolls into its third week.
The argument is flawed at best, and it continues a troubling trend among union leaders of building support through racial animosity based on oversimplified arguments and divisive rhetoric. This is especially disturbing because it undermines the chance of legitimately dealing with Yale’s troubling lack of Hispanic workers, diminishing the unions’ credibility on the issue.
Among the most pointed of these attacks was the letter DeLauro and 24 other U.S. representatives signed, which pinned racial harmony in New Haven on the University’s attempts to function during the strike. “We struggle to understand why such a great institution of higher education as Yale University would hire members of the minority community as strikebreakers without any consideration as to how this might threaten New Haven with racial division and conflict,” the letter read.
On its merits, the idea that Yale is encouraging racial discord by using Hispanic strikebreakers to cross black picket lines is easy to dismiss. The replacement workers are supplied by a subcontractor, whose hiring practices are out of the University’s control. While hiring subcontracted workers is not ideal, the University is not ultimately responsible for the racial composition of the workers the subcontractor employs.
To be sure, a troublingly low portion of Yale’s work force is Hispanic, just as a relatively low percentage of its upper-level positions are filled by minorities. It is unclear why this is. Perhaps because the average Yale workers have held their jobs for more than 10 years, meaning many positions were filled before the major increase in the city’s Hispanic population during the 1990s. Or perhaps Yale needs to adjust its recruitment methods to attract a more representative segment of the work force, or to make advancement opportunities more accessible to workers.
But the nature of the attacks some city and union leaders launched this week were not about diversifying Yale’s work force. They were another effort to pump out incendiary rhetoric to win support and publicity for the strike.
These attacks are part of a longstanding trend among union leaders and affiliates of using tenuous logic to incite outrage at the University. Before negotiations began, union researchers released a report on Yale’s connections to slavery, based on what scholars later criticized as reductivist, ends-based analysis to slam the University. Certainly there is a legitimate debate to be had about reparations, racial diversity among Yale workers, and the University’s responsibility to foster a work force with access to jobs in the city. But the use of poorly reasoned arguments and rhetoric designed to polarize its audience does nothing but taint these issues, making it unlikely they will be addressed as anything but cheap political attacks for a long time.