Local 34 1st Contract Ratification (Courtesy of Local 34)


It’s a special thing to get to vote in a union representation election. You’re lucky if it happens once in your life, as it did for me in 1984 when I voted for what would become Local 34, the clerical and technical workers’ union at Yale. That vote changed my life, and that union made me who I am. I want to share some of that experience for the members of Local 33, so they can reflect on what this moment means for them.

I first got a job at Yale in the library in the late 1960s, but I left after I got married and became a mother. When I came back in the early 1980s, my starting annual pay was around $10,000 — about $30,000 in today’s dollars. But it wasn’t just that we weren’t paid enough: the University’s thousands of clerical and technical workers, mainly women, weren’t respected. I remember after I came back to work, my boss said to me, “It’s nice to have a little pin money, isn’t it?” — as though my family wasn’t depending on this job, as if I wasn’t doing anything of real value. 

Thousands of us had experiences like this, which led us to organize and build Local 34 — to demand respect and establish our worth, in both symbolic and economic forms. It wasn’t easy going. The University told us we’d never have a union, that we weren’t like the workers in Local 35 for whom a union made sense. Of course, they’d fought Local 35 tooth and nail too, just as they would later fight Local 33. There isn’t anyone who’s tried to organize a union at Yale who had an easy time. They told us we’d be fired for organizing on the job, which scared many.

But we spent our days and evenings organizing with all our hearts. It was wonderful to walk through the space that is now the Wright Reading Room — back then it was “Machine City” — and see every table buzzing with discussion as people talked about how to move forward together, signing cards, making plans. Nothing would stop us.

We knew we’d win our election, but it was closer than we thought and this only meant we had to work harder to get a first contract. We spent 10.5 weeks on strike at the end of 1984. Yale said we’d never last, that we’d be back in a few days. They thought Local 35 would refuse to honor our picket lines, hoping to play up perceived racial tensions between the workforces. But our sisters and brothers in that union stayed off the job in solidarity.

When we won that contract, we put ourselves on a new path. While we were on strike, my daughter used to come to the picket line with a sign that said, “My mother is striking for my future wage.” She knew what it meant that her mother was fighting for dignity, respect and equality for women on the job. No contract solves every problem, but we’ve passed that idea on down the generations, as each contract builds on the one before and gets better every time.

In those first negotiations, Yale refused to pay our members who were taking time to negotiate on our behalf, so hundreds of us wanted to donate a day to those members. Yale refused. But as part of our first settlement Yale did agree to pay our negotiators. In the negotiations, we had to deal with middle management, who didn’t really have the authority to agree to anything. Today, the University’s vice presidents sit down with us as a matter of course, and members of our union have the right to take paid time off to work on behalf of the union as a whole. For two decades we have enjoyed labor peace at Yale and settled excellent contracts without strikes — a testament to the power we have built as a union. 

What we did together changed my life. After I lost my husband in 1995, I didn’t think I’d be able to stay in my house on one salary. But I could because of what the union had won. When I retired, I was able to retire comfortably with a good pension and excellent healthcare, two major benefits my union won through years of hard work and intense negotiations with Yale. My retirement and my health care were, and remain, secure. 

No two workers or two unions are identical, but the essence of this experience is there for anyone who wants to stand for herself and her coworkers on the job. Being a founding member of Local 34 is one of the proudest achievements of my life — I know that what it did for me, it did for thousands. I know that we made these into jobs that could support a family, blazed a new path for women in the workplace, and made good on my daughter’s picket sign. More than all this, it made me who I am: a person who knows she is worth something, not because anyone else told me so, not because I am unique, but because of the strength I found with others around me. It carried me through decades of work and defined my life. For every member of Local 33, I am so happy that you get the chance to find this same knowledge and same strength.

AMELIA PROSTANO retired in December 2021 after 40 years at Yale, where she worked as an Acquisitions Assistant at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and was a Vice-President of Local 34. Contact her at amelia.prostano@me.com.