Time may heal all wounds, but after more than half a century of contentious relations between Yale and its unions, administrators and union leaders said they will wait no longer for the situation to improve on its own. For two old foes who became set in their ways long before most current undergraduates were born, Local 35 President Bob Proto said a new mutual commitment to change may heal old scars.
“Since 1941, we’ve been fighting with each other, basically staying in our own camps and throwing bombs at each other,” Proto said. “Now we’re trying to change that culture, and getting old dogs to learn new tricks. But if you don’t have the proper commitment, it’s not going to work.”
Many new programs have been developed in the year and a half since the end of a bitter dispute between the University and its two largest local labor unions. Representatives from both sides currently meet in an ever-growing number of best-practices committees, where workers can air grievances and administrators can solicit suggestions to better University policies. Labor-relations and human-resources officials have also been working to enact the provisions of the eight-year contract, which includes an “externship” apprenticeship program to help current employees gain the skills they need to be promoted.
But that program remains in limbo, as officials focus more of their time in best-practices meetings to heal rifts caused by a history of adversarial relations, Proto said.
“We didn’t realize how much hard work it takes,” Proto said.
Vice President for Finance and Administration John Pepper said the University’s focus on best-practices committees is designed to remove the artificial barriers between management and labor, fostering an atmosphere of “mutual interdependence.”
“It’s not in the spirit of finger-pointing, but in the spirit of a team,” Pepper, a 40-year veteran of Procter and Gamble, said. “There’s nothing magic about this. People work better when they’re working together for common goals and not divided into two classes of people.”
With the explosion of best-practices committees, Yale is finally catching up to the larger corporate and university communities, John Raudaubaugh, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, said.
“In the … academic marketplace, the notion of union and management committees is something that really started taking place in the ’70s and especially the ’80s, with the influence of the Japanese management style,” Raudaubaugh said. “It’s nothing new here.”
In the 1990s, legal issues arose surrounding the use of university-controlled committees to set wages and contract terms. This was construed as a move akin to the creation of false “company unions,” which were already banned by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, Raudaubaugh said. But Raudaubaugh said in spite of this movement against university-sponsored committees, he feels their use is appropriate and beneficial.
“Two heads are better than one,” he said. “There are times when you ultimately have to make a decision … but I think digesting the information and getting multiple perspectives on an issue is the best way to proceed.”
Proto said the joint efforts have already paid off, citing successes at the University’s golf course and animal resources center as well as the re-accredidation of the Yale Health Plan at Yale University Health Services.
Proto said he will soon turn more attention to the next item on his agenda, the Trades Helper apprentice program.
Through the apprentice program, the unions will secure 10 positions at local building trade companies for select union members who will work towards a state license in carpentry, plumbing or other fields. According to the contract, the University is obligated to rehire seven of the 10 workers in their new fields of expertise.
Proto lauded the program as a chance for upward mobility among workers in lower labor grades, but Yale Labor Relations Manager James Juhas said it will be an addition to existing University programs, citing a “very elaborate” job-posting system and training programs for grounds maintenance and dining hall workers.
“This externship idea is something new, but it’s building on something that already exists,” Juhas said.
Juhas said several small changes from the labor agreements have already been implemented, including changes to the grievance procedures and the labor grades for members of Local 34. Although some employees are still filing grievances, Juhas said he has seen a move towards discussion.
Yale workers have struck nine times in the last 11 rounds of contract negotiations, but representatives of both management and labor have expressed confidence that the eight-year contract, which expires in 2010, offers a chance to change this trend.