From a podium just five blocks from the administrative offices of Yale-New Haven Hospital on Tuesday night, the founder of one of the country’s leading union advocacy organizations told nearly 150 debaters and activists that the “poster child” of democratic failure is sitting in Yale’s backyard.

The debate, which was sponsored by the Yale Political Union and the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, was complete with stomping and jeering, and featured a prominent Washington D.C. union advocate who called Yalies “too cute.” Students engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue about government’s proper role in fostering unionization, a topic that was particularly salient this week because of the ongoing labor controversy at Yale-New Haven Hospital, which is more contentious than ever, according to some city leaders. Workers there have been trying to form a union for the past nine years.

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“If half of my days are spent under a dictatorship, it doesn’t matter if I get to walk out of it for the other hours of my days,” union advocate Mary Beth Maxwell said. “All over the world, the freedom of workers to form unions is regarded as one of the most basic and fundamental human rights. You may disagree with them on some things … but worker and trade unions are a critical part of society, and it’s U.S. exceptionalism that says otherwise.”

Before Maxwell finished her discussion of unionization around the country, she outlined the three reasons why the right to form a union is essential: Unions are critical to upholding democracy; many workers sincerely want them but cannot organize because of legal hurdles; and “at a fundamental level, workers rights are human rights.” Maxwell said in an interview that “the world is watching” New Haven and the outcome of the hospital dispute.

“For nine years — for nine years, this is crazy — Yale New-Haven Hospital has had an acrimonious debate over whether 1800 service workers can exercise their democratic rights to form a union and, mirroring a debate around the country, insisted that there be a fair and free process,” Maxwell said. “If a majority fair and square wants a union, for god sakes, stop brow beating them and sit down and start bargaining with them. Imagine where we would be … if we had not wasted nine years on this conflict?”

After Maxwell’s speech, students joined in the debate, and the motion, “Government should support the ability of workers to form unions,” was passed shortly after the debate reached its two hour mark. The YPU decided to send the outcome of the resolution to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., Yale President Richard Levin and hospital CEO Marna Borgstrom.

But many of the students in attendance certainly took advantage of one the rights Maxwell said was essential in a work place — free speech. Maxwell received mixed applause during her speech but also faced piercing levels of hissing on the several occasions when she invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a document the government should use to guide its policies protecting workers. The hissing, which came mostly from the conservative parties of the political union, continued in earnest when Maxwell faced questions afterward, but it was soon joined by resounding applause.

Hissing is the traditional signal of disagreement at the YPU.

When Andrew Olson ’08 asked Maxwell where she expected the money for increased worker wages to come from, she leaned casually against the side of podium and looked directly at Olson.

“Perhaps, my friend, they are taking from a bunch of these overpaid CEOs,” she said, causing the audience to erupt in approving stomping and clapping.

But Maxwell appeared stumped when several student questions led her to say that labor laws are not coercive, a viewpoint she later conceded was wrong.

At the end of the questioning, Noah Mamis ’08 asked whether a card-check union election — which differs from a closed ballot election in that a union is formed when 50 percent of workers sign a card — was antithetical to democracy’s insistence on private balloting. When he cited a historical anecdote, Maxwell laughed and started to leave the stage.

“You guys are too cute,” she said.

Although most of the debate addressed theoretical concerns, UOC member and Ward 1 co-chair Hugh Baran ’09 spoke two hours into the debate and shifted the focus to immediate pragmatic considerations. Baran quoted from a master’s thesis Borgstrom wrote at Yale in which she argued that hospitals should strive for union-free status. He said that Borgstrom “broke our trust.”

In an interview before the speech, Maxwell also weighed in on the principal leaders behind the controversy. She said Levin could be more courageous by taking a stand and, with a novel or fresh solution in mind, leading the hospital and its workers down a new path.

Toward the end of the debate, Matt Klein ’08 — the coordinator of conservative parties in the YPU — raised a criticism of unions that had not been discussed much previously.

“Unions aren’t just in the business of helping the little guy,” he said. “We can’t forget the many instances when unions violate the rights of other little guys.”

Throughout the debate, many students said they were “ignorant” about unionization, though they were learning by listening at the debate. Maxwell, from her seat on the platform, indicated she was learning something, too. Periodically, she leaned forward and began scribbling notes furiously on her pad.