Clutching red balloons and clapping, members of Yale’s largest employee union gathered in the main meeting room of First and Summerfield Methodist Church on Wednesday evening to approve their new leadership.
The 3,400 members of the union, Local 34, had not had much to celebrate in several months: Over the summer, Yale laid off 100 staff members, about half of them from Local 34, the union for clerical and technical staff; those layoffs were the second round of staff cuts in two years, as the University struggled to fill in a $300 million budget gap. But on Wednesday night, they ushered in a new president and secretary-treasurer, whose terms will take them through the next round of labor contract negotiations starting July 2011 — and possibly more layoffs along the way.
“We made incredible progress with our 2009 settlement,” said Laurie Kennington ’01, the new union president, on Wednesday after receiving hugs and congratulatory handshakes from well-wishers. “Now we’re all eager to move forward.”
Kennington has spent most of her career as a Local 34 organizer in the School of Medicine, which union officials have identified as a key area of membership growth. Staff in the School of Medicine make up the largest subsection of Local 34, and its numbers have been growing as clinical and research operations expand, Kennington said. More and more of Local 34’s members are research and clinical assistants, while fewer and fewer are hired as library workers and secretaries, Local 34 spokesman Evan Cobb GRD ’05 said.
First elected to be a union officer in 2006, Kennington served on the negotiating team for the 2009 settlement, which union officials said settled more peacefully than in previous years. She is also a member of the University’s Best Practices initiative steering committee, which brings Yale administrators and union representatives together to address labor issues on campus.
“Both of them are very well-known faces,” Cobb said.
The new secretary-treasurer, Ken Suzuki, worked in Yale libraries for over a decade before becoming a full-time union staff member. Now in his 29th year working at Yale, he was a founding member of Local 34 and has served on the negotiating teams for four contracts.
Suzuki is a veteran of the days when negotiations between Yale and the unions grew contentious enough to provoke strikes. But the creation of the job search team, which helps ensure that union members get priority for job vacancies, and improved job training for laid-off workers, Suzuki said, have relieved the traditional strain on union-Yale relations.
“There’s greater support for laid-off staff and a very high bar for priority status for being rehired into new positions,” Suzuki said.
Under the terms of the current union contract, laid-off clerical and technical employees receive priority for re-hiring when new jobs open up at Yale, Cobb said. Laid-off clerical and technical employees can choose to join the Interim Employment Pool, which provides them with limited salary and benefits as they wait for new jobs and receive additional training from Local 34. The University and the union also jointly introduced this month a program known as Temporary Staffing Services. They billed the program as an in-house employment agency that will hire six full-time employees who will “float” around Yale, taking on a variety of temporary clerical and technical jobs over the next year.
“To the extent that people were loyal to the University, we want to be helpful to them,” Yale Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Michael Peel said after the first round of layoffs in 2009. “We’re still committed to the employees, and we have an obligation to think of them in preferential terms before we hire people who have no relationship with Yale.”
Even as union officials work to ensure their members are re-hired, the University is not ruling out the possibility that it will cut more jobs. Although administrators said last spring’s budget cuts were likely to be the last for the foreseeable future, they cautioned over the summer that as business services are consolidated across Yale, more employees could lose their positions over the next few years.
Kennington and Suzuki replace union officials who resigned from Local 34 in May, nearly two years before their terms expired. Both told Local 34’s executive board they wanted to step down for personal reasons after they had successfully seen the union through negotiating and implementing its latest Yale contract, which was settled nine months ahead of time in April 2009, Cobb said.
Local 34’s executive board, which has 50 members, spent the summer discussing replacements for the former president, Laura Smith, and former secretary-treasurer, Duane Mellor. By June 28, the board had proposed Kennington and Suzuki as candidates, leaving it to the union’s membership to ratify the selection Wednesday evening.
Kennington and Suzuki will serve out the remainder of Smith’s and Mellor’s terms, which end in April 2012. They may choose to run for re-election then, Cobb said.