Last night, the members of Local 34 met to commemorate two decades since winning their first contract with Yale. After a string of failed attempts, Local 34 gained recognition in 1984 as one of the first clerical and technical workers’ unions at a private university. And after a hard-fought ten-week strike that belied University Secretary John Wilkinson’s derisive claim that “the ladies will be back in three days,” they won a contract in 1985 that pushed Yale along the long, unfinished path toward achieving the strikers’ central demand: equal work for equal pay. Local 34’s victory was won with the solidarity of the members of Local 35, who went out on strike with them despite threats of legal retaliation. And that January, when Local 34’s membership committed to go back out on strike if need be to secure just contracts for Local 35, the University settled that contract as well.
Building that alliance and winning that fight meant defying entrenched perceptions about men, women and work. Yale’s 1971 anti-union campaign included distributing a Reader’s Digest article called “You’ll be a hooker — or else!” suggesting that unions were a male scheme to force women into prostitution. A letter from a deputy provost argued that unions were for “industrial” workers like those in Local 35 and created “two classes of labor and management, and assumes they oppose each other,” and were thus inappropriate for the civilized tasks of clerical and technical workers. Yale literature opposing the 1984 organizing drive declared unions inappropriate for “an institution as varied and diverse as Yale, where value is placed on individual skills and merit.” The implicit message of union opponents remained the same: Unions are for rough, manual and untrained labor, not for subtle work involving interpersonal communications and trust. While collective bargaining fits the predominately black male workforce of Local 35, it would wreak havoc for the white women in Yale’s clerical and technical workforce.
Union opponents also asked why Yale’s “blue-collar” union was helping to organize Yale’s “pink-collar” workers. Anonymous fliers sprung up asking why “a union of hotel employees and restaurant employees is so concerned about a bunch of clerical and technical workers,” while the University intimated that the international union was plotting to merge the locals and shunt new union members in with old. Another Yale leaflet was titled “LOCAL 34 CAN BE FORCED TO STRIKE IF LOCAL 35 STRUCK.”
And strike they did. One Local 35 member remembered organizing others in the bargaining unit around the need to stand with Local 34 because “we were all in it together — we all wanted increases, we wanted to improve our life, our standard of living, we want a living wage … all the other things you need to survive.” One Local 34 member remembered that “when we were actually on strike and they stayed out, that was very telling. And the trust developed over those 10 weeks.” “Everybody recognized,” another recalled, “that this was not a contract that we achieved by ourselves,” and having won that contract, winning one for Local 35 was “the last piece of what we set out to do.”
Twenty years later, Yale workers’ capacity to find common cause in common challenges is again inspiring indignation and incredulity from those who refuse to believe that different groups of Yale employees could share common interests. The characterization on this page (“Earth to GESO: Effort to unionize is a lost cause,” 1/12) of Local 35 members who support the Graduate Employees and Students Organization as “dupes” is but the latest example of this attitude. The same anti-union argument of the 1980s has been updated for the new millennium, with clerical and technical workers now deemed real workers and Yale teaching assistants now deemed inappropriate subjects for unionization. Such an argument cynically pits groups of workers against each other while insulting all involved. It ignores the facts on the ground at a university where graduate teaching assistants do as great a percentage of Yale’s teaching as ladder faculty while depending on the state for their children’s health care. It offers the useless sport of comparing which workers are more marginalized to distract from the urgent project of determining what they can win together: better teaching and learning. A more robust commitment to diversity and equal opportunity. Equal work for equal pay.
It’s telling that those who argue that GESO is insulting to other Yale workers are hardly ever Yale workers themselves. Anyone wondering why this is should talk to the Yale workers who gathered last night to commemorate a momentous victory over common adversity won by two trade unions composed of people with different jobs from different demographics. Now, as then, access to decent family health care, opportunities for training and a voice on the job are critical for the people who clean our buildings and for the people who teach in them. And ensuring working conditions that make it possible for all Yale employees to better do their jobs and support their families is crucial for all of us who depend on their work and share this community.
Josh Eidelson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.