It was the spring semester of 1988 at Yale. My classmates and I returned to campus unsure if we’d have dining halls to feed us; then, as today, Yale was at odds with its union employees over their term contract, and it looked like we would face a repeat of the 1984 strike, when students were given a weekly $72.80 check for meals while the dining hall was closed. For some students, this presented a chance to find more great restaurants in New Haven — an adventure. For others, like me, this would be a struggle to find a way to eat within this budget, at a time when microwaves and toaster ovens weren’t allowed in residential colleges.
But for members of Local 34 and 35, the risk was far greater. They were fighting for equal pay, job security and for the chance at a solid middle-class life. As a student, I worked alongside Local 34 members everyday, from employees in the Athletic Department, to my work-study supervisor, to the woman who ran the Timothy Dwight dining hall. She wasn’t the manager, but let me tell you, she ran it! In all of these workers, I saw the unease, worry and injustice of the situation.
In the end, after a hard fight from union members, Yale agreed to sign a fair contract. Students didn’t miss a meal in the dining hall, and workers didn’t miss a day of pay. I could see the pride in the workers I interacted with. For the rest of that signed contract, they could focus on their work, benefit from their hard-earned gains and maximize their contribution to Yale’s mission and its students. In fact, it is because of the commitment of those workers, including the two boatmen who came before me, serving Yale for a combined 75 years, that four years ago I left a career as a rowing coach to return to Yale as the boatman for our championship crews. I was proud to return to Yale to continue their mission, and just as proud to join Local 34.
Every work day is different, supporting eight full-time coaches and 145 student-athletes: I maintain a fleet of 16 safety launches, repair carbon fiber racing shells and transport our fleet all across the country. I clear snow and ice from our docks, and I do student-athlete laundry. I act as host to third-party users of our facility, including the general public, internal Yale audiences, alumni and guests from universities and businesses from around the world. In the summer, I work to support a free program that teaches rowing to the children of New Haven and the Housatonic Valley. Downtime is rare, and the pace unrelenting. It’s a hard job, but it’s a good one, and I waited 30 years for the chance to serve in this role.
When talking with fellow workers, the word “mission” keeps coming up. Whether our work is administrative or clinical, broad-ranging or laser-focused, we are all part of Yale’s mission: “improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.” In every one of those sectors, you will find Local 34 and 35 workers: sometimes in the background, at other times working with the public, students or faculty.
For more than three decades, I have been incredibly proud to be part of this institution. That’s why I am calling on Yale to recognize the workers who make it great, and once again settle a fair contract with us: Give us the job security, fair wages and health benefits we deserve. Then, with confidence in our place at Yale, we can continue to give the best measure of our talents, toil and commitment to our daily work. With a fair contract in place, we will be better, Yale will be better, and through our shared mission, the world will be better.
JOEL FURTEK (Yale ’90) is the Boatman for the Yale rowing team and a member of Yale’s clerical and technical union Local 34–UNITE HERE!