This week marks the 30th anniversary of Local 34’s struggle to win a first contract. The 2,600 clerical and technical employees had voted to form a union in 1983, and through difficult negotiations were seeking to improve lives that depended on poverty wages.
The negotiations sparked a campus-wide debate about justice for working people, and especially women workers, who at the time earned 59 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. The Local 34 contract campaign was a signal moment in a nationwide movement to bring millions of women out of the shadows and into the mainstream economy.
Amidst the uncertainty and turmoil of the times, Yale clerical and technical workers found support for our struggle throughout the Yale community and across the city of New Haven. At the same time, we knew we could always look in one direction for rock-solid support: our sisters and brothers in Local 35.
During our years of organizing efforts to win our union, Local 35 was a constant presence. Whether it was the members’ willingness to spend hours talking with us about the value of a union, or their historic vote to raise their dues to support our organizing drive, or their courage to stand up with us during that challenging strike to win our first contract, Local 35 never wavered in sending a clear message to the Administration that Locals 34 and 35 could not be divided and that solidarity was not just a paper concept. It was about people standing together for respect.
Over years of difficult bargaining, protest and public debate, the members of both locals moved forward economically. By 2003, the University Administration and Locals 34 and 35 found a different way to work together. For the past decade, working in a union job at Yale has looked different than it did in 1984, when clerical and technical employees received an average 35 percent raise over five years. Just a decade ago, most workers made less than $20 per hour. Now more than 90 percent of Local 34 members are above that benchmark. Recent workplace conflicts have been resolved as often through collaborative problem-solving with management as through public strife.
But this year, students have been greeted upon their return to campus with leaflets from members of Local 35 and news reports of an unfair labor practice complaint against the University. The Administration has created a centralized Culinary Support Center for the preparation of cold foods. Where pantry workers used to prepare all salads fresh on site, students and faculty are now being served pre-cut and bagged produce, pasta salads that have been soaking in marinade and drying up for a day and fruit that now arrives in a small truck in white painters’ buckets.
Local 35’s chefs and other dining hall staff are spreading the word that this move is a step in the wrong direction – away from sustainable, fresh, scratch cooking back toward a model of frozen, pre-packaged produce and meals. It is also a step away from the University’s commitment to good jobs and a productive labor-management partnership.
The creation of Yale’s sustainable food program allowed workers to learn real cooking skills and advance in their jobs. The creation of the CSC moves away from that model. Already, some workers have been reclassified, their job responsibilities shifting from preparing fresh food to taking out the trash. Over time, the University plans to eliminate head pantry worker positions in Dining Services through attrition. These are the leaders of the dining hall prep teams, and the position is an important step on the career ladder for people looking to improve their skills and take on responsibility. The net result will be fewer opportunities for New Haven residents to get good jobs, for existing staff to grow in those jobs and a diminishment in the quality of food.
It’s unfortunate that the Administration has chosen to proceed this way. But as our union celebrates a proud history this week, in which Local 35’s solidarity has been central to all of our progress, I’d like to express that we stand with Local 35 100 percent. We won’t be divided when it comes to dignity in the workplace. We’ve moved forward together for 30 years, and we’re together in the struggle to preserve the good jobs we deserve and the best campus dining system in the country for the students we serve.
Laurie Kennington is the president of Local 34 UNITE HERE, the union of clerical and technical workers at Yale. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.