If the responses from many workers at the ratification votes last Friday are any indication, the eight-year contracts Yale and locals 34 and 35 settled last week after 19 months of negotiations and two strikes represent solid advances for employees. The formulas for determining pensions rose substantially over the last contracts, and a best practices committee that will be created to monitor labor practices bodes well for increased employee participation in decision making in the workplace.

Now the hard part begins.

If union and Yale leaders meant more than sound bites when they pledged to better their traditionally acrimonious relationship last week, they will have to make major structural changes in the way both organizations work.

Union leaders began the negotiations nervous that the University would attempt to buy out union members with lucrative contracts. Though employees have traditionally had to strike for contracts, the ones achieved in these negotiations do not reflect a major change in position between Yale’s public offerings before the strike and after. Rather, we believe this strike more reflected the union leadership’s interest, generated in part by their role within the University, of fostering continued antagonism and polarizing strikes as a way to maintain their relevance.

This is unfortunate but perhaps unsurprising at a place where workers have had to strike for incremental gains in working conditions and wages for the better part of 40 years, where union leaders have long had an obvious role to fill as the alternative to an unkind employer. But if things are to change, union leaders must not view cooperation with the University as tantamount to eroding their base of support. This requires changes from both Yale and unions leaders.

Yale must define a more substantial place for its unionized workers. The best practices committee is a good model, but merely a start. The University must show its employees that it not only appreciates the fundamental importance of unions, but that it regards them as more than the people who get the work done.

Doing so, we believe, will allow administrators to gain a deeper perspective on union concerns. Union members are not simply worried about wages and benefits, objective terms that can be measured by economic indexes. Rather, as a hired labor-management consultant pointed out nearly two years ago, a major frustration among the people who work at Yale is that their place is not appreciated at an institution focused on its intellectual laurels. This may not be intentional or even recognizable to those in powerful positions, but these implicit slights may be the most important to change in making Yale a better workplace.

Workers, not just union leaders, should be included on University standing committees. They must have a way to create change or exert influence in the University in positive, pre-emptive ways, rather than through strikes during contract negotiations –which are among the few times employees inherently have a say in major Yale policies.

But this also requires complicity from union leaders, a more representative leadership that reflects the interests of members and incorporates their concerns rather than simply dictates policy. Union leaders must also spend the next six years seeking a better role in the University so that by the time 2010 comes around, they will be valuable enough not to worry about being obsolete.