Whatever you think about the current labor stoppage, there is no denying it has made for good news copy. Thanks to the likes of John Wilhelm and Jesse Jackson — old hands at guerrilla theater — the media can always count on Yale for a good show. In just two weeks the strike has produced a tidy run of front-page splashes: Rev. Jackson in shackles, the surreal senior sit-in and Rosa DeLauro’s much-ballyhooed letter to Rick Levin accusing Yale of trying to incite class warfare.
For many readers — whose up-to-date knowledge of Yale is confined to news of labor stoppages and law school bombings, and the occasional off-color remark on Jay Leno about Bush offspring — these come as a confirmation of the stereotypical Yale of tweediness, snobbery and privilege.
The problem for Yale is that the nature of the media is to report rallies, not Rick Levin’s good intentions. The media cannot declare which side is being reasonable and which side merely intransigent. When the fundamental question of “Who is right?” is shelved, the University becomes completely vulnerable to attack. There are no touching human-interest stories about Yale administrators, no strike-busting rallies, no nationally known conservatives showing up and getting arrested.
Yet the argument that Yale has suffered inordinately in the press is not unwarranted. A search on the New York Times’ web site turns up 10 stories (totalling about 7,000 words) about the Yale strike since Labor Day. The recent standoff between Verizon and its two unions, involving twenty times more workers than the Yale strike, turned up four references (totalling no more than 2,000 words) over a similar time period, despite being tagged by many commentators as a potentially decisive moment in the struggle between telephone service companies and cable providers.
Alarmingly, the distortion is not just quantitative. The coverage has not only neglected issues in favor of events, but it has also has zeroed in on issues directly or indirectly partial to the union agenda.
On Sunday, Sept. 7, the New York Times ran a 1,500-word article by Marc Santora on the front page of the Metro section which merely repackaged stereotypes as a news story. The strike became a pretext for a shopworn discussion of Yale’s exclusivity and contempt for New Haven. Students, professors and workers are quoted in a sweeping depiction of a Yale characterized by “moats and fences,” to quote one interviewee, while a student saying “I kind of like walking through the picket lines” becomes an unctuous and ironic attempt at balance.
The Times has hardly been the only culprit. The Connecticut papers have been joined by the Boston Globe and Washington Post in running unflattering stories about Yale, ranging from news pieces about shocked freshmen to op-ed paeans for service employees’ unions everywhere. Of the major Northeast papers, only the Wall Street Journal has stayed aloof.
Yale’s image problem found perfect expression when even Dan Haar, business columnist for the Hartford Courant, offered in place of his usually staid analysis of markets the view that “the overall issue” at Yale “is an underpaid service sector amid an overpaid executive class, a clear outrage that leads to all sorts of problems.” Haar doesn’t so much praise the Yale unions as paint their struggle as part of a larger movement to protect low-wage workers from skyrocketing costs of living and other ravages of capitalism. Yale has become the savage beast labeled ‘Big Business’ in an old Thomas Nash cartoon.
Yale may be getting the short end of the PR stick, but leave aside for a moment the question of whether the media treatment has been fair.
What is Yale doing about it?
Actually, the University also seems to be in complete denial about its Titanic-like public image. Full-page ads in the local papers belie the University’s “I’m-rubber-and-you’re-glue” attitude towards the political fallout of its feudal aloofness, its $200 million pension fund surplus lying idle, and above all its graceless decision to reject binding arbitration. If arbitration merely splits the difference between the two parties, a less overconfident employer might halve its salary and benefits multiplier and let the arbitrator take care of the rest. Isn’t this a PR disaster that never needed to happen?
The harsh truth is that Yale doesn’t really care that the unions are winning the public relations war, because they are winning it everywhere except where it matters most, on the homefront. With even the unions’ numbers showing 50 percent participation rates for Local 34, solidarity has been sorely lacking. (Local 35 has had participation rates approaching 90 percent, but because it is one-third the size of 34, vulnerable to outsourcing, and its wages don’t compare nearly so poorly to peer institutions as the technical employees’ wages doâ its bargaining position is constrained.) It doesn’t really matter whether workers lack confidence in their leadership, or simply lack confidence in their own financial resilience. With those participation rates, it doesn’t matter if Bill and Hillary Clinton come and get arrested: Rick Levin won’t budge.
The striking workers of Local 34 have tried their best to make up in volume what they have lacked in numbers. The whistling, chanting and clanging of pots and pans around campus have suggested some of the gritty determination of Katrin’s anguished drumming at the end of Brecht’s “Mother Courage” — a plea for foreign armies to come spoil the party. But they’re not coming, and Yale doesn’t care if they do. After nine labor stoppages, Woodbridge Hall has the best sound insulation in the world. Unless Bob Proto and Laura Smith can get participation rates up to 70 percent (where they were in 1984), and do it fast, this strike doesn’t have a prayer.
And a disappointed media will be stuck reporting that American capitalism wins again.
Aaron Goode is a senior in Calhoun College.