Of Strikes and Settlements: Unions Confront Universities

Since white-collar employees at universities across the nation first began to unionize about 15 years ago, administrators and union members have frequently clashed, creating tense and divided campuses.

The clerical and technical employees' unions, the newest wave of labor activity both inside and outside universities, have met with resistance from university administrations while organizing and, if they succeed in forming a union, during contract negotiations.

Among Ivy League and other universities, Cornell, Boston University (B.U.) and Stanford have experienced strikes by recently-formed unions, some of which include both white and blue-collar workers. Just after the clerical and technical employees' union at Yale was formed in 1984, the new union and its older blue-collar counterpart went on a highly-publicized 10-week strike when contract negotiations fell through.

And just last month, Yale narrowly avoided seeing what would have been the sixth strike by its workers in 20 years.

By the time Yale workers and administrators reached a settlement two weeks ago, the union had already extended the strike deadline by one week and was negotiating two days beyond their second deadline, having agreed to continue as long as they felt the university was bargaining in good faith.


After a 36 hour-negotiation session, the workers had a new four-year contract. The university agreed to union demands to change the present system of classifying jobs, which unions said allowed for discrimination against women and minorities. In addition, the new contract provides for a 26.2 percent pay increase over the four years, and guarantees that maintenance workers will not be laid off.

Yale administrators say the settlement this year signals a new era of cooperation for administration-union relations.

"I believe that in the long history of this university, this day will be recognized as a beginning of a new era of relative harmony and stability in our labor relations," Yale President Benno C. Schmidt Jr. told reporters in a press conference following the settlement.

But union officials, although hopeful, remain skeptical of the real benefits of the contract. While the university's concession to union demands for job reclassification was "certainly a change in heart, I don't know if it's a real change in attitude or just caused by the threat of a strike. The threat of a strike was immense and intense in those last 35 hours. The campus was on pins and needles," says Lee Berman, chief steward of the clerical workers union.

While the tension at Yale has subsided, workers at Columbia, B.U., and Stanford are just beginning to gear up for union-administration battles expected to accompany this summer's contract negotiations.

Clashes between unions and administration are nothing new at these schools and others. Stanford has seen two strikes, one in 1974 and the other in 1982. And when B.U. clerical workers began to unionize in the late 1970s, administrators hired outside people to assist in the anti-union effort. At Cornell last September, 900 service and maintenance workers went on a three-day strike, their third since 1980.

At Harvard, supporters of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) continue to hand out election cards to secretaries and technicians. HUCTW needs more than 30 percent of the employees to sign the cards, and the majority of workers to vote for the union in elections which would follow before it can become the legally recognized representative unit of the clerical and technical workers.

Taking Sides

In the drive for unionization, employees' unions and universities seem invariably to draw battle lines, at least initially, though union leaders say they believe unions help and do not hurt campuses, and that a polarized employee-employer relationship is not inevitable. But many university administrators say the unions, by their very nature, make adversaries of employees and employers.

When union leaders begin organizing, administrations often try to persuade workers to oppose unionization. Administrators barrage employees with mass mailings, pamphlets and also hold "captive audience meetings," which are held during the working day. Unions leaders say administrators instruct supervisors, who are often department chairmen, to discourage their office staff from joining unions.

University officials say they are attempting to protect employees from unions that, according to administrators, do not always represent the employees' interests. "The university position is to provide the other side of the story. There is nothing that a union will gain for its employees," says Pete Tufford, director of employee relations at Cornell University.

But workers disagree. "The administration tried to scare people and make them nervous. They say to the workers: `We're one big happy family. Let's give it some time.' They make the union look like outsiders," says Joan Bailey, a United Auto Workers organizer who helped establish the B.U. union when she was a worker there.

While union leaders may disagree with the administration's arguments, they use similar techniques to draw support. Employees meet one-on-one with their colleagues to present the union arguments for increased influence to gain better wages and benefits and more equitable review processes. And the unions send letters to warn workers of the arguments management may use and to assure them that a union does not necessarily mean increased animosity between the employed and the employers.

In the efforts to block unionization, university administrators have sometimes filed complaints with the courts against the unions.

In the early 1980s, Columbia pressed litigation against its union before it was elected as the official bargaining unit with the university. Columbia administrators called upon the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which certifies union elections, to redefine the union's constituency, according to union officials. The university claimed that lowranking administrators should be defined as support staff and consequently union members. But the NLRB rejected the proposal, which workers said would have allowed for too much administrative influence in the union.

The appeal to the NLRB and other delays resulted in a lapse of four years between when the union distributed cards and when the first contract was signed, in 1985.

"The university attempted to use long legal delays knowing that unions want to solve problems quickly," says Maida Rosenstein, an organizer for Columbia's union District 65 and a former employee there. "Delays are discouraging. There's a danger that the union's momentum will drop."

At Stanford in 1984, 10 years after the United Stanford Workers (USW) was established as the official union for technical and maintenance workers, the administration refused to recognize the union when it became affiliated with a national labor organization.

Stanford administrators brought the case before the NLRB, which rejected the administrators' claims and instead charged the university with unfair labor practices. In the end, the USW won a confidence vote, the NLRB dropped the charges, and the university resumed recognition of the union.

United We Stand

Despite university efforts to block unionization, clerical and technical workers have over the past 15 years often succeeded in establishing locals.

Workers at Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, B.U., Yale, and Princeton have unionized partially. Organizers at Princeton and the B.U. Medical Area are beginning to form white-collar unions, but their counterparts at Brown and Dartmouth remain largely unorganized. District 65, a national union dominated by university locals to which the B.U. and Columbia unions belong, is currently investigating the possibility of heading union drives at area schools, including Simmons, Northeastern and Suffolk.

But union organizers at several schools say they continue to meet resistance when they meet administrators at the bargaining table. They add that, as a result, even long-established unions have not always gained contracts competitive with those of neighboring corporations. But however inconsistent unions have been in gaining pay increases and improved benefits, union officers point to clarified job descriptions and just grievance procedures as major and consistent union successes.

"I don't know if they would've got whatever they got without the threat the union poses, but I think anything is effective. Unionization itself is effective, just so people know who they are," says B.U. Professor Freda Rebevsky, who heads a non-bargaining faculty association there.

At Stanford, USW officials say a workers' strike had the long-term effect of strengthening the union's bargaining position. In 1982, a four-week walkout by the 1300 maintenance, crafts and technical workers over a contract dispute had little impact on the terms of the settlement. Three years later, however, the union gained a 7.5 percent pay increase for the first year and increases of approximately four percent for the next two, a union spokeswoman says.

"While we didn't make immediate gains, we did make clear that we wouldn't stand for their low offers. And I think our strike helped our next negotiations, because they knew we could strike," says Linda Crouse, chief steward for the USW.

Crouse says she expects the university to continue to take a hard-line toward union demands when they meet to negotiate a new contract by August 31. The union will probably include a better pension plan and increased job security among its demands, Crouse says.

At B.U., which faces a June 30 deadline on a new contract, relations between management and the union are growing strained, as union representatives are beginning to organize employees at B.U. Medical Campus, according to local head Lisa Mizarro.

Until this year, the union, which was established in 1979, has helped improve relations between workers and management, according to Mizarro.

"There was a misconception that the people in the unions were malcontents. But in fact, since we established ourselves and B.U. knows were here to stay, we've been a lot more cooperative. The fact is, middle-level managers need to have guidelines for working with their employees, and workers need to have precise job classification," Mizarro says.

At Columbia, the union and administration also face a June 30 deadline for a new contract. Union organizer Rosenstein says she expects Columbia to maintain its hard line toward the local, despite concessions made three years ago, when the union got a six percent per year across-the-board raise, dental and major medical coverage and a grievance procedure.

But while the three-year old union has not succeeded in forcing Columbia to accept all of its demands, it has brought about a change in the administration's attitude toward the workers, Rosenstein says. "It's completely different than before. Now we have a right to go to an impartial arbitrator as a final step in a dispute. The union contract has made the university treat its employees with greater respect," she says.