Union members and leaders will gather on the steps of Sterling Memorial Library at noon today with balloons and birthday cake to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first clerical and technical workers’ strike at Yale. But they will also be bringing major new grievances against the University, as Yale’s unions — Local 34 and Local 35 — have recently found themselves increasingly at odds with University administrators.
After 10 years of unprecedented cooperation between labor leaders and the Yale administration, which Local 34 President Laurie Kennington described as a time of “peace and prosperity,” the relationship between the two entities has entered a state of renewed contention.
For the last five years, however, the University has consistently trimmed its operating budget — a move that union members say has led to more work being distributed amongst fewer people. Additionally, the relocation of cold food production to the centralized Culinary Support Center this summer and the continued administrative resistance to graduate student unionization have further strained Yale’s relationship with the two unions.
Union leaders said they expect at least 100 members to congregate in front of Sterling today to both celebrate the unions’ history and make a statement to administrators.
“I’m hoping that Yale sits back and realizes that we’re here to stay,” said Local 35 President Bob Proto. “We’ve lived in a combative relationship and we’ve lived in a collaborative relationship, and it is way better to work things out.”
Still, union members also said they hope today’s event will remind administrators in Woodbridge Hall of the benefits of working together.
“I hope they’ll come by and get some birthday cake,” Kennington said.
University President Peter Salovey was just beginning his fourth year as a graduate student in Yale’s Psychology department when Local 34 workers first went on strike in late September 1984.
In contrast, nearly all of Salovey’s tenure in the Yale administration has been spent a period of relative peace between Yale and its unions. It is a peace that Salovey said he intends to keep.
“I value the contributions of all of Yale’s staff. I would like to continue building on the good relations between the University, Local 34 and Local 35 over the past few years,” Salovey said earlier this month.
But despite Salovey’s intentions, union members have grown increasingly dissatisfied in recent months. Their frustrations, already building up from the recent half-decade of budget cuts, have grown more acute since the reorganization of Yale Dining this summer.
“In the past few years it seems like we were sort of parting with Yale,” said Local 35 Vice President Frank Douglass, who also serves on the New Haven Board of Alders. “They are taking a turn backwards in time, creating a very hostile relationship with the unions.”
Last week, the unions filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the University had committed unfair labor practices — the first time the union has made such a move since 2011.
In response to the complaint, University Spokesman Tom Conroy quickly replied that it was without merit, and that the changes to Yale Dining had been thoroughly discussed with employees.
But according to Yale Dining worker Samone Davis, the University has alienated many of its employees by making unilateral decisions about their employment. Although Local 35’s 2012 contract prevents the University from firing its members or lowering their wages, several dining hall staff were disappointed in the University for deciding to alter people’s jobs without consultation.
“For some people at Yale who don’t come to the dining room, it’s a business decision,” Stiles and Morse chef Ernest Ber said about the CSC. “On paper, the numbers have to add up. But for us, its more than numbers.”
A UNITED FRONT
Though the organizational changes in Yale Dining only impact Local 35 jobs, the closely aligned unions have taken the change as an affront to both groups.
“A threat to one of us is a threat to all of us,” said Maureen Jones, a vice president and founder of Local 34. Proto said he hopes the administration recognizes that neither of the two unions will “look from a distance” at the problems impacting the other.
Kennington said she feels that the dining hall changes, while disrespecting Local 35, also are a threat to the white- and pink-collar unions on campus. She added that “the way the University treats Local 35 is the way they treat us.”
Union leaders interviewed yesterday made no mention of striking, but they pointed out the collective manpower of Local 35, Local 35 and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, the graduate student union that is not currently recognized by the University. Though the administration currently disagrees with GESO’s argument that graduate students are employees of Yale, the group recently petitioned for recognition with over 1,000 graduate students signing their names in support.
Currently, there are 4,813 members of Local 34 and Local 35 working at Yale — nearly the size of the University’s undergraduate population.
“The University in the past has underestimated our commitment to each other because they were banking on how different we are,” Proto said. “That didn’t pan out well for them.”
Proto added that “the jury is still out” on whether or not Salovey has made enough of an effort to engage with the unions.
Still, Proto said there is still room for a compromise.
“In his short time as president there’s been a couple of bumps in the road,” said Proto. “But we still are hopeful that the senior administration, along with Peter Salovey, can figure out a way to interact with us as we’ve done in the past to problem-solve.”
University Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander ’65 said he felt a turning point for the relationship between Yale and its unions came in 2006, when he sat down with Proto and agreed to “turn over a new leaf” for the benefit of all individuals involved in labor matters at Yale.
While employees have expressed frustrations about the current tension with administrators, many also recognized that Yale remains among the best places for local residents to work.
“The wages the union negotiates for us are much higher,” Ber said. “For me to find the same benefit package on the street would be very hard.”
Local 34 and Local 35 are both part of the Federation of University Employees, a coalition of labor unions in New Haven that represents thousands of workers at Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital.