The strike—the eighth at Yale in the past 35 years—resulted from a year of stalled negotiations.
It is currently slated to run the entire week, until students leave for spring break, but union leaders said yesterday they are leaving their options open.
As the novelty wore off yesterday, students settled into the realities of the week-long strike—closed dining halls and classes relocated to avoid picket lines.
The strikers represent four of Yale’s unions and a wide variety of workers, including janitors, food-service employees and hospital workers—and some graduate students, whose participation in the strike drew heavy criticism from many undergraduates.
Representatives of all the unions—Locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) and Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU) District 1199—said they wanted respect from Yale.
Locals 34 and 35 will seek that respect when they return to the bargaining table with the university next Tuesday.
Speakers at yesterday’s main rally said they hoped to put an end to fractious labor relations at Yale.
“We’re going to change that history,” said Laura Smith, president of Local 34. “Our future will not be a future of struggle and strife on this campus. That’s what this fight is about.”
Rally ’Round the Flag
Strikers continued to picket prominent campus locations yesterday, wearing sandwich board signs, chanting and blowing whistles. They said they are demanding higher wages, better benefits and more job security.
In keeping with the day’s theme, health care, the central rally yesterday was located in front of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Hospital workers, who had been picketing nearby wearing purple SEIU hats and waving yellow flags emblazoned “Solidarity,” stood front and center in the crowd of thousands.
Leading up to the rally, the assembled strikers danced to songs like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
One picketer summed up this sentiment with a sandwich board sign that read, “Respect for all Yale workers and this community.”
SEIU District 1199 President Dennis Rivera said the strike would have national impact.
“You are a great inspiration to people across the country,” he said.
SEIU President Andrew L. Stern repeatedly admonished Yale to “practice what you teach.”
“Call Yale what it really is: a hypocrite,” he said. “Yale is the worst—it’s the bottom of the class when it comes to labor relations.”
Stern said that if Yale wants to be a world leader, it needs to start leading by example at home.
“It’s time to end the dual standard,” he said. “It’s time to crawl out of the cellar of class warfare.”
New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr., also spoke at the rally, telling workers to “Keep truckin’!”
National politicians have also taken an interest in the fray.
Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., and Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., issued a joint letter in January supporting the organizing efforts of GESO and hospital workers, according to the Yale Daily News.
Lieberman issued a letter to the Yale community saying that he had urged Yale President Richard C. Levin last week to negotiate in good faith with labor and community leaders. Dodd has also reiterated his support for the cause.
Local 34 President Smith said Yale’s union workers aspire to the conditions that Harvard employees enjoy.
“The salary minimum at Harvard is our salary maximum here,” she said.
She specifically cited benefits packages and provisions for attending classes as areas where Yale workers hoped to gain similar contracts to their Harvard counterparts.
A Boston contingent, including a Harvard janitor and two Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) members—siblings Daniel DiMaggio ’04 and Sara T. DiMaggio ’06—went down to New Haven yesterday to join the strikers.
Daniel DiMaggio said he was impressed by the size of the strike.
“I wanted to show my support for the strike at Yale as a student and a labor activist, and I wanted to see exactly what was going on down there,” he said. “I wanted to see how big things were—and things were big. It seems like the whole school’s on strike.”
DiMaggio said he, unlike many Yale undergraduates, supports GESO just as much as the other workers.
“I support all of them equally,” he said. “If you feel the need to form a union to protect your rights, you should have that right.”
He said the strike would show union members at Harvard what labor solidarity could accomplish.
While he said he thought Harvard administrators would worry about the ramifications of the strike in New Haven, he was skeptical that the University would learn from the Yale strike .
“I’m sure that Harvard would have no qualms, despite the struggle at Yale denying [graduate students] their rights,” DiMaggio said. “I’m not trying to write [the strike] off—I just have very little faith that the Harvard administration will take note.”
Labor organizers said the protests would be larger today and tomorrow, and picketers would converge on the heart of campus rather than spreading out to a variety of posts.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney is scheduled to address the protesters today, and former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 will speak tomorrow.
On Thursday, many students plan to join the action.
Sophomore Zoe Palitz, a student organizer who was handing out flyers, said over 500 students had signed up to walk out of classes at 11 a.m. tomorrow to do teach-ins.
Union officials also said that buses of students were scheduled to come from Columbia University and New York University tomorrow to join the strikers.
The Administration’s View
Smith said Yale administrators refused to discuss the unions’ grievances. She dismissed the university’s current offer as inadequate.
“Yale has not so far dealt with us fairly on any of our important issues,” Smith said. “There is no good contract on the table right now.”
She complained specifically about job security and Yale’s history of subcontracting out union jobs.
“We’re very concerned about that, and they won’t even discuss it with us—they just say no,” she said.
Yale spokesperson Tom Conroy said the strike had not changed Yale’s position, and defended the university’s stance.
“We have a very reasonable offer on the table,” he said. “We are an excellent employer.”
Smith said she disagrees with Conroy’s assertion that the strike wouldn’t change Yale’s offer.
She said Yale administrators had considered a strike unlikely and now would be forced to take the unions more seriously.
“It is our goal that Yale will view this now as a much more real and credible threat,” she said.
While union leaders have spent much of the strike criticizing Yale’s history with labor, Conroy said that the university alone shouldn’t shoulder the blame for past strikes.
“If in the past it has been difficult to reach agreement on contracts, the blame is on both sides, not just one,” he said. “It’s the unions today who are more interested in repeating that history than the university is.”
He said no progress in negotiations would be made until Locals 34 and 35 unlinked their complaints from those of GESO and hospital workers.
“The obstacle is union leaders’ decision to link these negotiations,” Conroy said. “A contract will be settled when they cut links between the unions and decide they want to focus on issues for their workers.”
But Deborah Chernoff of the unions’ umbrella organization, the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, said the hospital workers’ need a settlement just as much as the other unions do.
“The most telling thing, given that it’s a hospital...is that workers there can’t afford health insurance for themselves and their families,” she said.
GESO representatives have said their primary goal in striking is to gain recognition for their union.
While the standard procedure is to get an election through the National Labor Relations Board, GESO leaders say they are seeking Yale’s recognition first, citing instances at Brown University, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, where the administrations have been able to tie up the organizing process indefinitely.
Conroy said Yale does not believe a union is good for graduate students, adding that because GESO does not officially represent students, it is not clear that the majority actually want to unionize.
“Yale doesn’t believe graduate student unionization is in the students’ interests or in the interests of higher education,” he said. “We think it’s wrong to say that graduate students at Yale want to unionize. It’s never been demonstrated.”
Life on a Striking Campus
Despite an increased police presence the last two days, Conroy said the University is not concerned about protests getting out of hand.
“Our union employees are respectful of people’s rights and know the law regarding demonstrations and strikes,” he said. “It’s never an issue here of safety. It’s overwhelmingly peaceful and always has been.”
While many students say they expected the strike to be more disruptive, it has still had a major impact on their lives.
The strike has accomplished its goal of bringing labor issues to the forefront—the campus is abuzz with talk of the strike.
“I think many people on this campus are seeking ways to become more informed, and to become more involved,” wrote Joshua Eidelman, a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, in an e-mail.
First-year Alyssa Rosenberg, who was handing out flyers with Palitz, criticized Yale for not settling its differences with the unions.
“My mother was making sandwiches for striking workers here 32 years ago,” she said. “It’s ridiculous that Yale still hasn’t solved its labor issues.”
Dean of Yale College Richard H. Brodhead sent a letter to students about the university’s plans for the strike on Feb. 21, the day after the strike was announced.
He wrote that classes would go on in spite of the strike, and students would be expected to attend class, regardless of picket lines.
“Since academic instruction and activities will continue even in event of a strike, undergraduates will be expected to meet their academic responsibilities as scheduled,” he wrote. “Students should understand that they are free to cross a picket line to meet their academic responsibilities.”
In response to the strike, many professors have moved classes off campus, so students will not have to cross picket lines.
Anita Seth, chair of GESO, said Yale is forcing faculty into the middle of the debate.
“Right now, what the university is doing is trying to throw professors in the middle of the debate,” she said. “I think it’s the administration’s actions right now that are endangering faculty-student relationships.”
Rosenberg said she planned to respect picket lines—even “theoretical” picket lines in front of university buildings not surrounded by picketers.
“I’m not going to two of my five classes this week because my professors have chosen to keep my classes in buildings that are being stricken,” Rosenberg said. “Even if there aren’t picket lines, I feel committed to not entering spaces that are being struck.”
Residential dining halls remained closed yesterday as students had to find food off-campus. While some made use of their $90 rebate checks—provided by the university so students on the university’s meal plan could purchase their own food—others said they would try to keep the money.
“Most people…are going to try to live frugally,” said first-year Scott Peachman.
By The Numbers
Yale officials and union leaders agreed that thousands of workers were out on strike.
According to Smith, about 1,700 of Local 34’s 2,800 members—mostly clerical and technical workers—were on strike.
But University spokesperson Conroy said that only around half of Local 34’s workers failed to show up to work on Monday. He said he expected similar attendance yesterday.
Neither GESO nor Conroy had numbers for GESO strike participation.
Conroy said it would be hard to estimate GESO participation because many teaching assistants in GESO do not have sections until later in the week.
According to Conroy, the many members of Local 34 who went to work helped minimize the disruption.
“We’re very pleased with that because it helped keep operations normal, and it showed that half of them would have preferred their union not to call a strike and continue to negotiate,” he said. “So it’s heartening.”
But Smith said the Local 34’s numbers were right, making it their largest strike ever.
“We actually count,” she said. “We’re very confident in our numbers.”
Smith estimated that about 1,000 members of Local 34 had been out picketing both days.
Over 100 members of SEIU—dietary workers at the hospital—turned out for yesterday’s rally, according to union officials.
And approximately 1,000 members of Local 35’s 1,100 members—mostly service and maintenance workers—went out on strike, according to both Conroy and Chernoff of the unions’ umbrella organization.
Chernoff said counts on picket lines can be deceptive, because they fail to take into account strikers assisting in other ways.
“Some people are participating in the strike, especially those with physical problems, by making sandwiches and answering phones,” she said. “They are doing strike activities—they’re not staying home.”
She also said that the hospital workers’ union is trying to organize 1,800 other hospital workers, many of whom are participating in “work and walk”—walking picket lines in their off hours.
While Smith said turnout was “massive” both days, some students said they saw more strikers yesterday.
Palitz said that participation in Monday’s protests had been dampened by freezing temperatures.
“We had trouble getting students to sign up for things [yesterday],” she said. “Today, people are interested in engaging in discussion.”
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.