When Yale and its unions announced an eight-year contract agreement on Sept. 18, negotiators vowed to use the extended contract term to improve the two sides’ contentious relationship. Now leaders on both sides are starting to hold meetings to decide how to carry out their goal.

A steering committee of University and union leaders will meet within the next month to begin working toward a better long-term relationship. The committee, which will assess different labor management strategies before contracts expire in 2010, will include the presidents of locals 34 and 35, a senior official from the School of Medicine, and the vice president for administration and finance.

Interim Associate Vice President for Administration Janet Lindner said the two sides have designed in the contracts a preliminary framework for establishing best practices. But she said Yale and union leaders will need to make a sincere commitment to improving their relationship.

“If you’re really going to change the relationship it goes well beyond any contractual language,” Lindner said. “It has little to do with language and a lot to do with heartfelt desire.”

The University has allocated $200,000 to begin a program that addresses best practices in labor management. Members of the steering committee will decide how to best use that money when they begin meeting, leaders said.

Lindner said that after the last contract negotiations in 1996 — which involved separate monthlong strikes by locals 34 and 35 — the two sides created a committee to assess areas such as facility operations and safety and health. The new eight-year contracts will allow both sides an opportunity to evaluate options for change on a broader level, Lindner said.

“This is the first time you’re seeing a framework of a large scale,” Lindner said. “Having a contract that runs through 2010 is the most critical factor because you need time to experiment and make mistakes and see what works.”

Local 35 President Bob Proto said the two sides have held subcommittee meetings on issues such as placing union members in previously subcontracted facilities. He said he hoped leaders would not stop meeting regularly just because contracts have been settled.

“So far it seems as though we’re going in the right direction — after the last [strike] in ’96 there was a lot of everyone going to their own separate corner,” Proto said.

Proto said he would like to see the two sides bring back labor-management consultant John Stepp, of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Restructuring Associates, Inc. Stepp mediated the first three months of bargaining during this past round of talks.

Lindner said the steering committee can explore the idea of a third-party facilitator but has not asked Stepp or any other consultants to get involved in discussions.

Members of locals 34 and 35 — which represent about 4,000 clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers — returned to work Sept. 22 after participating in a three-week strike. Contract negotiations have resulted in walkouts nine times during the last 11 rounds of talks.

Proto said he hoped the two sides would use the extended contract term to work together to break the pattern of job actions.

“We need to really change the course we’re on,” Proto said. “Let’s not wait in between contracts for a battle.”