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Last February, when Yale ratified contracts with its two largest labor unions, thus ending 14 weeks of negotiations and averting another all-too-common strike, virtually everyone at the University, from then-President Benno Schmidt on down, heaved a sigh of relief.
The ailing economy and the reports of Yale’s financial worries, coupled with the University’s history of contentious labor relations, had made the stakes for these talks especially high. And at the outset, many felt that the prospects of reaching an amicable settlement seemed remote. But that’s exactly what happened.
“These agreements are extraordinarily good ones,” declared Schmidt. “They are good ones for workers, the University, and the New Haven community that is our home.” Peter Vallone, Yale’s director of Human Resources and the University’s negotiator, noted that the two four-year pacts (which marked the first time since 1968 that two consecutive union contracts were settled without a major strike) would ensure “twelve years of relative labor-management peace and twelve years of contracts without any major strike occurring.”
The leaders of Locals 34 and 35 of the Federation of University Employees, representing 2,500 clerical and technical employees and roughly 1,000 dining hall and physical plant workers respectively, were equally pleased. “This would be an excellent contract in good economic times,” concluded Lucille Dickess, president of Local 34. “Given the current recession, the high rate of unemployment, this contract is amazing.”
With both sides basking in the glow of the strike-free settlement, what happened next seemed puzzling. The unions went out on strike anyway—in solidarity with the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO), a group of approximately 1,200 Yale teaching assistants demanding union representation. Although the walkout lasted only three days, it disrupted classes, angered members of the Yale community, and received national media coverage. It also underscored how pervasive and complex the issue of organized labor has become at Yale.
The oldest player is Local 35, which, in its 50 years at Yale has developed a reputation for incendiary strikes. (In 1977, strikers rallied at the home of then-President Kingman Brewster and threw as much garbage as they could find onto his lawn.) Then there is its sister organization, Local 34, which since its founding in 1983 has become an entrenched and potent campus presence. In addition to these, there are several other smaller bargaining units.
Among them are the Yale Police Benevolent Association, with a membership of 81, and a group of eleven teachers at the Cedarhurst School, who belong to the American Federation of Teachers. Both negotiate contracts with the University. Members of other bargaining units are affiliated with Yale, although they don’t bargain with it. These include Local 217, representing waiters at Mory’s; the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers at the Yale Co-op; and Local 1199, representing Yale–New Haven Hospital employees.
The increasing impact of these groups has created a growing concern at Yale that others will press for union representation. Graduate students are in their second year of an effort to gain University recognition. And most recently, the Association of Managerial and Professional Employees, which draws its members from Yale’s 2,300 accountants, computer programmers, librarians, research analysts, and business managers, has begun to weigh the possibility of unionizing.
As much as Yale would like to cling to the old notion that collegiality and shared respect for scholarship are enough to keep things running smoothly, the reality is that universities, like businesses, must confront an ever-widening array of labor issues. From wages and health benefits to parental leave and sexual harassment policies, Yale is being forced to abandon its traditionally paternalistic approach to the management of its employees in favor of a decidedly more businesslike one.
The situation is hardly unique to Yale. According to Richard Hurd, professor and director of labor studies at Cornell University, while union membership is declining in manufacturing, construction, and transportation, it is growing in the service sector, which includes universities. He attributes this at least in part to the high percentage of women working in service professions. “With the increased emphasis on equality for women, and more women working out of economic necessity, it creates a situation where there’s more likely to be interest in unionization,” he says.
Hurd, who has been researching nonfaculty unionization in higher education for the past seven years, says that until 1970 there were almost no unions of clerical or technical employees on college campuses in the United States. Today, he says, there are clerical and technical bargaining units in about 20 percent of all four-year private colleges and universities.
According to Hurd, Yale has played a role in that increase. The success of its clerical and technical employees in forming a union has, he says, inspired varying levels of organizing activity at every school in the Ivy League, with notable success at Columbia and Harvard as well as Vassar. “Harvard definitely learned from Yale’s organizing approach,” he says. “They even adopted the slogan ‘You can’t eat prestige,’ that Yale organizers used so effectively.” Campuses where clerical and technical workers are not organized include Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania.
“What happened at Yale is what happens virtually everywhere,” Hurd says. “At first the administration is totally opposed. They can’t believe their ‘girls’ want to unionize. They perceive themselves to be fair and can’t imagine that an ‘outside third party,’ as they like to characterize the union, could do as well as their own sensitive managers.” Once the union is formed, Hurd says, the administration usually finds it isn’t that difficult to deal with, “and a very comfortable working relationship gets established.”
To a degree, that seems to be what’s now happening at Yale. Peter Vallone of Human Resources says the University’s aim is to be fair but firm. “With Benno’s arrival,” he says, “our position was that we recognized the unions’ role here and we weren’t out to break them. We went into the 1987 contract negotiations with that attitude, and with the latest round of negotiations, we tried to build on that.”
Vallone says the last two rounds of contract negotiations were settled without a strike in part because the University was forthcoming about its finances. “For the first time we shared a tremendous amount of data on health insurance, pensions, and payroll,” he says. “We approached the negotiations with a willingness to be flexible within the financial parameters we established at the outset.”
It was this willingness that also enabled the University to negotiate what it considers a major concession on health-care coverage. “The unions used to have one of the most lucrative health-care packages imaginable, essentially free 100 percent medical coverage for the employees and their families, to continue after retirement,” Vallone says. “It was costing us a fortune.” Now, employees get 100 percent coverage if they use the University’s health plan, but they pay premiums if they go elsewhere. “It will save us $12 million over the term of the contract,” Vallone says.
Pleased as he is with the medical settlement, Vallone says salaries for members of Local 35 are still too high. (A dining hall worker gets $3 more an hour than someone with a comparable job at a New Haven hospital.) But he is comfortable with Local 34’s wage structure. In general, Vallone dismisses complaints that union contracts drive up costs while driving down efficiency. “That argument is used, I think, way too much,” he says. “Yes, there are certain burdens an employer has to bear, but I think the contract is often used as a scapegoat for management failings.”
A telling measure of the relationship between union members and their employer is the number of grievances that wend their way through the process and make it to arbitration. On this score, Yale’s director of labor relations Donald Stevens says fewer grievances are being filed at Yale than in the past, and about half of them are being resolved at an earlier stage in the process. “There was a time when a grievance inevitably went to an outside arbitrator,” he says, “but now we’re finding both parties trying to make accommodations to reach a negotiated settlement.” Stevens says that only ten grievances filed by Local 35 are currently awaiting arbitration. “Five years ago we would have had at least 50.”
One reason for the drop-off, according to Stevens, is that the University is training supervisors to anticipate problems and, failing that, to resolve issues before they become formal grievances. He also credits a “maturing of the relationship” between the University and the unions. “It’s gotten much better,” he says. “Both sides have learned to live with one another in a way that still supports the education and research mission of the University.”
“The climate is changing,” concurs Dickess, who, as one of the earliest supporters of the Local 34 organizing drive, knows well how it felt when the University’s attitude toward the union was downright frosty. “I think people are starting to realize that we’re not just a bunch of greedy, deadwood malcontents,” she says. “They’ve had enough time to see that a union can be a progressive, helpful, productive thing.”
As an example, Dickess cites an effort spearheaded by Locals 34 and 35, and GESO last summer to open Yale’s athletic facilities to city youngsters between the ages of 8 and 15. Union workers staffed the gym while GESO members led workshops on writing, arts, and the law. Yale provided transportation, lifeguards, and coaching.
Local 35 president Tom Gaudioso has been doing battle with Yale for 21 years and is therefore more reticent to declare a new era of labor peace. Yet even he admits to feeling “cautiously optimistic” that relations between his union and the University have “turned a corner.” His most tangible cause for optimism is a provision in the union contract signed last winter that calls for the creation of a joint labor-management committee to discuss employee and managerial productivity, competitiveness, and efficiency.
At issue is whether the University should be allowed to subcontract day-to-day work in order to get the job done more efficiently at less cost. If this is done, it would mean less job security for union members, so the committee idea was developed to see if greater efficiency could be achieved while avoiding layoffs. “I know some of our members aren’t doing a great job, I don’t deny that,” says Gaudioso. “But I also know that this place is mismanaged. So now we’ve got a forum where we can constructively criticize each other.”
Two decades ago, when Local 35 called a strike every time a contract expired, or even ten years ago, when clerical and technical employees were organizing and Yale was fighting them every step of the way, such measured expressions of shared responsibility would have been impossible to imagine.
Labor relations at Yale were probably at their lowest ebb in 1971, when a Local 35 strike culminated in a bloody confrontation between New Haven police and strikers on Yale’s graduation day. Six years later, a Local 35 walkout lasted more than three months. Figuring that a sister union would give Local 35 more leverage when bargaining with the University, the union actively supported the clerical and technical employees’ 1982–1983 organizing effort. Along with financial and technical assistance, the union lent them their business agent, John Wilhelm, who served as Local 34’s chief organizer and later as its chief negotiator.
Wilhelm, a 1967 Yale College graduate, was a forceful and charismatic leader who is credited with engineering a victory where so many earlier organizing efforts had failed. According to Dickess, “John has a gift for making every person he speaks to, no matter how casually or seriously, feel as though that is the most important thing he could possibly be doing at that moment. He has a real gift for listening.”
Farnham Professor of History David Montgomery specializes in labor history and has been a longtime observer and supporter of union activity at Yale. He says that Wilhelm had a “real talent for energizing people to take charge and create things for themselves.” The key to Wilhelm’s success, according to Montgomery, was that he wasn’t autocratic. “He got others in motion and let them do it.”
The other major protagonist in this drama was then-President A. Bartlett Giamatti. According to many observers, Giamatti was so intimately involved in what went on at Yale that he took the Local 34 organizing drive as a personal affront. During the strike, he went so far as to appear on the Phil Donahue show with Dickess and Wilhelm. Although Giamatti, who died in 1989, remains a beloved figure in much of the Yale community, the consensus is that he didn’t have the stomach to deal effectively with the union effort. “He couldn’t resist getting personally involved, it’s just the kind of man he was” says Dickess of Giamatti. “He would stop and have arguments on the street with people who supported the union. Over time you could even see a change in him physically, and that made me concerned.”
Montgomery says hubris also affected Giamatti’s handling of the union effort. “He saw himself as an enlightened administrator who could work things out with anyone,” Montgomery says, “so he took the organizing drive as an insult to him personally. This made it difficult for him to deal with the union once it was in place.”
Although Local 34 is now firmly ensconced, Yale is still far from willing to accept any more unionizing without a fight. Graduate students led a protest last year demanding higher pay for those who teach, as well as better benefits and an increased voice in decisions affecting them. That effort, though sharply opposed by the University, continues. “We’re made to feel like a superfluous presence at Yale, yet we carry out an essential mission of the University, which is to teach,” says GESO Chairman Corey Robin, a graduate student in political science.
Yale, for its part, contends that graduate students are “future scholars,” not employees, and therefore ineligible for collective bargaining status. “I firmly believe unionization and affiliation with an international labor union is not the appropriate solution for students to redress their concerns, many of which are academic and not issues of power,” says Provost Judith Rodin, who was until last year dean of the Graduate School.
As a compromise, graduate school students are now represented on the Yale Executive Committee, which gives policy advice and recommendations to the Graduate School dean. “I think the sense of frustration has diminished now that we have instituted formal avenues for communication,” says Rodin. “The feeling is that there may not be the need for a formal union.” GESO’s Robin confirms that the tension has eased: “We just want some kind of process where graduate students are genuinely included, not necessarily formal recognition by the National Labor Relations Board.”
In other concessions to GESO, Yale administrators recently created a new job category for graduate students, raising the pay of many teaching assistants by as much as 28 percent, and instituted a teacher-training program for graduate students. They are also reviewing, says Rodin, how best to “move students along toward a degree" without insisting on the six-year deadline that formed part of the so-called Kagan-Pollitt plan put forward in 1990 (YAM, Feb. 1991).
Another likely battleground down the road could involve managerial and professional employees, who, besides top administrators and faculty, are the only unorganized members of the University staff. At least one recent effort to organize this group failed, and the administration would like to keep things that way. “I would do everything in my power to make sure that professional employees do not organize,” Vallone says. To that end, he has instituted an advisory committee that meets once a month to discuss their problems. Those employees now receive a newsletter, and the results of a comprehensive two-year job and pay classification survey was recently distributed to them.
“The old cliché is true: Sometimes a union’s best friend is bad management,” Vallone says. He conceded that in the past, clerical and technical employees at Yale were often treated capriciously and unfairly by their managers. “Dignity is a big factor. For a long time there were a lot of people here being treated like trash, and that’s very good fodder for union organizing. Which is why we took steps with the professionals, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Depending on one’s point of view, that statement is either defensive, or enlightened. At the very least, it suggests that more than salaries have been affected by Yale’s encounter with organized labor.
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