Labor struggles, and labor itself, have for quite some time been, profoundly racialized. The act of work, and conflicts over the control and conditions of that work, are deeply wedded in our collective consciousness to racialized notions of what kinds of people do what kinds of work, and who deserves to be paid how much, and for what.
Strikes have historically been loci for acts and moments of solidarity, in which workers have contested the schema of racial privilege and leveled the walls of racism from below. But if strikes have been sites of a powerful antiracist egalitarianism forged by worker cooperation and collective action, they have also (and perhaps far more often) been moments at which these hierarchies of privilege have been “hardened” — concretized and lent new force.
The latter path could have been the one which Yale strikers took last week, when Yale’s subcontractor paraded Latino strikebreakers, holding their own mops and buckets, through a picket line of overwhelmingly African-American custodial workers.
This latest Yale strike, the ninth since 1968, is no exception to the ways in which race is inextricable from the politics and culture of work and struggle, a process which has been fleshed out at length by historians like David Roediger and Bruce Nelson. When workers, union leaders, New Haven Clergy, and 24 congressional representatives strongly objected to Yale’s apparent exploitation of racial difference by hiring Latino replacement workers to clean Old Campus, the Yale Daily News (“Claims of racial division undermine point,” 9/12) rashly labeled their outrage “tenuous logic.” But the fact is, you can’t separate race and labor when you look at how American history has unfolded, and this is equally, if not more, true of the present. Yale’s decision was a concerted and deliberate strategy to fracture community and striker solidarity through the calculated exploitation of racial difference.
This strategy becomes clearer when we look at the specifics of what it’s like to work at Yale. Seventy-three percent of the lowest labor grade of Local 35 is African-American. Five percent of the workers in this labor grade are Latino. Less than 6 percent of Yale managers are African-American. Less than 2 percent are Latino. These numbers hint at the ways in which Yale’s hiring and promotion policies create an environment in which racial identities are linked to locations on the ladder of skilled and unskilled labor, bargaining unit and managerial jobs. The racial divide in Yale’s employment patterns is not only evident in the lives of union workers. Some of the 24 subcontracted workers who have walked off the job suffered insults and indignities from managers. Their stories evince the racialized experience of being a strikebreaker at an Ivy League university.
The News’ claim that union-affiliated city leaders are to blame for “shooting wide open” the “closeted racial undertones” of this conflict, that union leaders are “building support through racial animosity” is wrong. Race is a far more complex and pernicious construct than the Yale Daily News assumes. It is a pervasive element of Yale employment, as well as of a Yale education, and it can not and was not simply conjured from nowhere to serve the wishes of John Wilhelm, who seems of late to have become the perennial bogeyman of both Helaine Klasky and News columnist James Kirchick ’06. It is the University which, for the umpteenth time in the last 60 years of unionization at Yale, has provoked a strike, and it is the University which has sought to employ and exploit race to crush it. The blame for conscious attempts to incite and manipulate racial animosity lies less with the workers and their unions, it would seem, than with Yale’s administration.
As a Yale student, I’m outraged by what my university is doing. Yale needs to stop this disgusting and incredibly divisive attempt to break the strike with scab labor. The administration needs to commit to desegregating the University’s job structure and giving access to union jobs at Yale to Latino workers, and to settle this strike now rather than allow greater wounds to tear at the fabrics that hold our city together.
Yale’s liberal stance on affirmative action and its commitment to providing a safe and welcoming space for students of color on this campus are rightfully lauded as part of a collective effort by administrators, faculty, and students to build a diverse and inclusive educational experience. In creating an employment structure into which New Haven’s Latino population can be admitted only as strikebreakers, the administration has acted cynically and unconscionably. Yale’s administrators have engaged in complex, but nevertheless deeply disturbing profiteering from structures of racial exploitation, and in the process they’ve reinforced and even deepened those structures, ultimately endangering the community we’re striving to create here. This is unacceptable.
In explaining why some of the strikebreakers decided to join the picket lines last Friday rather than cross them, Farah Peterson ’05 stated something along the lines of, “The currency of self-respect is worth more than the meager wages of employment at Yale.” I stand in solidarity with Farah and those other students who have already condemned this injustice in the national and local media and who have boldly shown leadership in the fight to make a Yale education mean something we can be proud of.
Zach Kropotkin Schwartz-Weinstein is a senior in Saybrook College.