Good contracts and community benefits at Yale University -- One union member's reflections



Union workers at Yale University are attending department meetings this summer to discuss their new wages and benefits. New history-making union contracts with the university were signed in June after a year-long organizing effort.

On the Yale University campus, there are many divisions among people: faculty-student, faculty-management, faculty-staff, management-staff, staff-student, academic-nonacademic, blue collar-white collar, male-female, white-black-brown-yellow-red. These distinctions existed in Yale's pre-union days, and they persist today. And even though the campus today is a unionized environment -- Local 34 (Clerical & Technical Workers) and Local 35 (Service & Maintenance)  -- in some departments, there had been few daily reminders of the unions where, except during contract-negotiation time, or filing of grievances, members rarely spoke of their union.

In the midst of this environment of diversity, divisiveness, and relative silence, the leadership of Local 34, in particular, decided to organize to strengthen the members' collective voice and enhance their visibility on campus, their ultimate goal being to secure for them the best possible contract.

Historically, the New Haven Board of Aldermen has been a rubber stamp for the Yale's leaders. Whatever Yale wanted or needed, the Board, prompted by the mayor, obliged. To change this scenario, Yale's unions decided, in 2011, to run their own candidates for the Board in the local elections. After all, many rank-and-file members live in New Haven and own their homes in the city.

As a result of grass-roots campaigning in the summer of 2011-community outreach via canvassing and voter registration-union-backed candidates won primaries and all but one of their races in the general election for seats on the Board of Aldermen. Going forward, Yale's leaders would have to contend with employees in their dealings with city government, not just during labor disputes and contract negotiations. The University would be held more tightly accountable for more of its actions. The increased scrutiny would require more transparency of the University when doing business with the city.

Additionally, even before formal contract negotiations began, organizing actions happened on campus. These included union-membership surveys, departmental employee-participation meetings with management-facilitated by the members themselves, petition drives, and campus-wide membership meetings, marches, and rallies.

Based on the surveys, union leaders identified four areas of concern: job advancement (for current employees), jobs pipeline (training and employment opportunities for New Haven residents), health care (for current employees and retirees), and wages.

The goal of the employee-participation meetings was to communicate to the union leadership, in the former case, and to local management, in the latter, members' concerns about working conditions on campus and contract demands. Traditionally, union negotiators present contract demands to management's negotiators. Yale's union leaders aimed to create upward pressure on management by having members present their demands to their (bottom-level) managers.

Union members were not unanimously enthusiastic about all the actions, however, for example, petitions. The petitions declared the workers' value to the daily functioning of the university, and articulated their contract demands. Delegations of workers and union organizers delivered these petitions, unannounced, to university leaders: the president, the provost, the vice president for administration, and deans.

How would these delegations be received? Would leaders take the petitions into their offices, close their doors, and drop them into their trash cans? In that case, the action would have been pointless.

However, union leaders and organizers insisted that presenting petitions, an act of standing up for oneself and declaring one's self-worth, would make a lasting impression on Yale's leaders-even if they did indeed discard the petitions behind closed doors.

General membership meetings, rallies, and marches also contributed to the unions' visibility on campus, as well as throughout the city of New Haven. During the evening rush hour, Yale employees from the central (north) and medical (south) campuses would converge on downtown for a meeting. Afterward, members would spill onto The Green, joining with other unions from around the city, as well as city residents, rallying and marching in solidarity, announcing their presence, articulating their demands: livable wages, job security and advancement opportunities, benefits for current workers and retirees, training and entry-level jobs for city residents.

One union steward framed the struggle in terms of the 99% versus the 1%. In New Haven, it is clear who belongs to which percentile. If you're in the former group, you have to remind the latter that you have value in society, and that they have the resources to compensate you at the level that acknowledges your value, and reflects respect for you as a human being in society. So even if you don't feel anger toward the 1%, you still need to speak up and act out in your own behalf. The struggle of Yale employees is a part of the larger struggle of working people in New Haven, as well as nationally, as reflected in the Occupy Movement, which was organizing and acting at the same time.

Local 34's leaders wanted to have a contract to present to members for ratification by the end of June. Nobody wanted to extend negotiations through the summer, when many employees take vacation time. Members dreaded the prospect of a job action in September, at the beginning of a new semester, if negotiations failed. And given the protracted encampment of Occupy New Haven on The Green-the City went to court to evict the Occupiers before Yale's commencement festivities in May -- along with all the other labor actions throughout the city over the past year, the Yale administration was probably highly motivated to bring contract negotiations to a swift conclusion-more quickly than in previous years.

When the membership ratified their new contract, there were feelings of relief, disbelief, and joy: relief and joy that they had secured a new contract and would not have to strike; relief, disbelief, and joy that they'd gotten everything they wanted-despite the administration's initial resistance to union demands. The members did not have to give anything back, in spite of the economic climate and business leaders' hostile, anti-union attitude nationwide. In addition, members would receive a raise in each of the four years of their contract.

Many felt angry about the partial wage freeze in the current contract, and expressed reluctance to ask for significant raises in the new one, despite Yale leaders' earlier announcement that recent fundraising totals exceeded their expectations, and that Yale had begun to rebound from its portfolio devaluation a few years ago. Citing the current economic crisis, Yale did balk at any wage increases, but union leaders refused to give up their demand for them. They held to all their demands and tirelessly negotiated the best contract for their members, the women and men whose labor makes Yale University function smoothly each day as a world-renowned institution of higher education.

According to the union, "Members will see an average wage increase of 15%-20% over the [4-year] life of the contract. Both Locals will continue to enjoy free premiums at the award-winning on-campus health services, as well as affordable, high-quality alternatives for healthcare off-campus. In addition to these benefits, Local 34 created historic structural solutions to long-standing glass ceilings by creating joint University-Union oversight of internal hiring and promotions. Local 35 won advancement tracks for several job classifications, and "no-layoff" language for the life of the contract."

In addition, "Yale has agreed to invest in training opportunities for city residents and to prioritize local hiring. Local 35's new contract creates a number of new positions in both skilled trades and entry-level work, and Local 34 won language that would reduce the University's reliance on casual work by converting temporary positions into full-time Union jobs available to Local 34 members and New Haven Jobs Pipeline Program graduates."



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