The contracts have been ratified, and the members of locals 34 and 35 are back to work. But a closer analysis reveals the greed and intransigence of both the labor unions and the Yale administration. This becomes especially obvious when comparing unionized workers with another labor sector crucial to Yale’s mission — research scientists.
Research faculty are the largest source of income for the university. More than 28 percent of Yale’s operating revenue comes from research grant overhead, compared with 15 percent from tuition and only 7 percent from donations, according to the 2000-2001 Yale Financial Report. Yet these scientists often work in dilapidated facilities that have not been remodeled for decades. Yale President Richard Levin should be commended for finally addressing this problem through renovation and new construction, but the unions used this investment to fuel their public relations war with the University.
To further complicate matters, research faculty are often caught in the middle of labor disputes. The increased costs of animal care workers and laboratory technicians — both members of Local 34 — will no doubt be immediately passed on to the faculty. Because these mandates come with no supplemental funding for research scientists, the researchers must then reorganize their budgets to accommodate the increases.
Below the research faculty are the postdocs, who are arguably responsible for the majority of biomedical research. The minimum salary for a postdoc in the Yale surgery department has just been increased to $26,000. In comparison, Yale custodians are due to receive an average salary of $30,000 in January 2004. The money-grab by the unions is liable to frustrate many postdocs, who also often have families to care for. Postdocs have typically accepted such relatively low compensation because their appointments are supposedly transitory training steps en route to a full research position. Due to an ever-tightening labor market, these future jobs often fail to materialize, and thus the postdoctoral scientist is evolving into a permanent position. These factors leave little doubt as to why scientists often greet union demands with a mixture of amusement and indignation.
Some might suggest the solution to these difficulties lies in unionization. The many problems with collective bargaining leave me unable to advocate such an approach. For example, Local 35 President Bob Proto suggests “punishment” for workers who, out of conscience or necessity, continued to work during the recent strike. Is this the mentality we want our students and researchers to adopt? Furthermore, collective bargaining freezes pay scales, preventing faculty from rewarding exemplary effort by their unionized technicians.
There are no easy ways to balance these complex relationships. The Yale administration could establish funds to cover mandated salary increases until research faculty obtain new grant monies to absorb these costs. Unions should be mindful of how their choices affect the research enterprise at Yale. We must all remember that most biomedical research grants come from the National Institutes of Health, and thus are funded by the American taxpayers. We have an obligation to the public to administer these funds responsibly.
Christopher Baker is a postdoctoral associate in the Neurobiology Department at the Yale School of Medicine.