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NEW HAVEN—Yale University threatened to grind to a halt yesterday morning, as thousands of unionized Yale workers—including graduate student teaching assistants (TAs)—went on strike.
Braving sub-zero wind chills, union members picketed at many of the campus’ most prominent locations, including Beinecke Plaza, outside Yale President Richard C. Levin’s office in Woodbridge Hall.
In the absence of union employees, basic functions like cleaning dormitories and performing administrative tasks were relegated to temporary employees or managers. All residential dining halls have been closed for the week—only the central Commons dining hall will remain open, staffed with replacement workers. And some courses have been moved off campus so that students would not be faced with the choice of crossing picket lines or going to class.
But for most at the university, life proceeded as normal yesterday. Students and professors were able to move about freely, and many even expressed surprise at what they viewed as the relatively small turnout.
“The strike’s been disappointing,” said first-year student Jeremy Ershow.
The strike—Yale’s eighth in the last 35 years—comes after a year of deadlocked negotiations and is scheduled to last five days, until undergraduates depart for their spring break. But union leaders said it might continue after break if issues remain unresolved.
The striking parties—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) Local 1199, which represents employees of Yale-New Haven Hospital—said they were demanding better wages and benefits from the university.
But in statements posted on the Yale Web site, the university defended its stance, claiming that it has already offered the unions a fair deal. According to the statements, workers’ insistence on tying their fate to that of GESO and the hospital employees is responsible for bogging down negotiations.
Union officials said participation in yesterday’s strike was monumental.
Local 35 reported that 95 percent of its 1,100 members went on strike, while Local 34 claimed two thirds of its membership participated, according to the Yale Daily News.
The university confirmed the participation estimate for Local 35 but claimed that half of Local 34’s members showed up for work, the Yale Daily News also reported.
Yesterday’s events culminated in a march led by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson down closed-off thoroughfares in downtown New Haven. At the end of the march, Jackson, along with other prominent area politicians, urged the assembled crowd to “keep hope alive.”
“Yale is too rich for the workers to be so poor,” he said.
Strike It Up
Strikers took to the streets beginning at 7 a.m. yesterday and were out in full force by 9 a.m. They wore red and black sandwich boards proclaiming “On Strike.” Many of the boards were also adorned with stickers, some of which announced the strikers’ union affiliation, while others read “Again!”—a reminder of Yale’s troubled history with labor.
In the early hours of the morning, protestors picketed prominent locations—including Elm Street, in front of the Law School and outside Woolsey Hall—marching in circles and chanting. Favorite rallying cries included “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” and “No Contract! No Work! No Peace!” In addition, cars passing picket points frequently slowed and honked repeatedly to show their support for the labor cause.
Some students complained that they were awoken by the strikers’ chanting and honking.
Later in the morning, picketers began to march around central campus, eventually gathering together in Beinecke Plaza outside Commons dining hall for a long rally before dispersing back to the picket points they had been manning.
The strikers were largely composed of members of Locals 34 and 35, but were joined by many graduate students from GESO as well as a few undergraduates.
Due to the biting winds, many protestors were forced to take refuge from the cold by ducking into buildings and sipping hot coffee.
Local 35 President Robert Proto described the turnout as “unbelievable, even with the weather.”
But given all the advanced warning, most students said they had expected more.
“I thought there were going to be some places where I was going to have to cross a picket line,” said first-year Kevin Roe, explaining that over the course of the day, he only noticed one.
While unions had planned to protest outside buildings with classrooms, students said they were not forced to cross actual picket lines, though some said they felt they did cross theoretical picket lines by simply entering Yale buildings for class.
And despite the absence of a number of TAs, most undergraduate classes kept on schedule.
But other parts of the university took stronger precautions. The School of Management locked its doors, and students with appointments had to call to be let in.
Proto said he thought the strike’s first day had been successful, and he said he hoped that the university would be spurred to negotiate.
“We’re hoping that this action has them understand how committed workers are,” he said. “We hope that they send decision-makers to the negotiation table, because so far they haven’t.”
At the same time, Proto said he was skeptical of Yale’s willingness to negotiate, citing its history with labor. He argued that Yale should not have rejected the binding arbitration that the unions had proposed.
“So far, all they’ve done is develop the worst labor-management relationship in the world. If there’s ever a place that needs third-party intervention, it’s this place,” he said.
The Big Tent
At the end of the day, Jackson led a parade of thousands—that included a band riding on the back of a Teamsters flatbed truck—into downtown New Haven.
The parade clogged Yale’s main arteries—Elm St. and College St.
Jackson then keynoted a rally at Woolsey Hall where he joined with prominent local figures—including New Haven mayor John DeStefano, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., as well as other religious figures and the labor leadership—in denouncing Yale’s labor practices.
Jackson rewarded the thousands who withstood the bitter cold to watch him with a rousing speech.
He admonished Yale for being so stingy with its workers, making multiple references to Yale’s $11 billion endowment.
“This wealth is our wealth,” he said.
Jackson encouraged the strikers to stay strong.
“We will march in the cold ‘till hell freeze over,” he said. “We, the workers, will not go away. For these rights we’ve marched too long, bled too much and died too young.”
DeStefano told the strikers that they had the support of the New Haven community. A multiple-term mayor, he had previously remained neutral in Yale labor strikes.
“This is our fight, this is our city, these are our values and principles,” he said.
DeLauro stressed that the strikers’ right to organize would not be abridged.
“On the principle, no one, but no one, pulls us apart,” she said.
And Local 35’s Proto laid out a “zero tolerance” policy for labor accepting inferior proposals from management.
Later this week, SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 will address the strikers.
Yale students had a mixed response to the labor protests yesterday. While most said they sympathized with Locals 34 and 35, they also said they did not agree with GESO’s position.
First-year student Scott Peachman said he thought Yale’s President Levin should have been more willing to negotiate. “I believe that Levin should have talked to them more,” Peachman said.
But first-year Ershow said that although he supported the workers, he thought the graduate students had nothing to protest.
“I think we’re all sympathetic towards the dining workers,” Ershow said. “I think most people are sympathetic toward the people in Local 34 and 35 who make this place run on a day-to-day basis, but at the same time the grad students have one of the sweetest deals in the country.”
And at the Jackson rally, support for GESO was far from unanimous.
Protesters booed some mentions of GESO while enthusiastically cheering the mention of the other unions.
GESO Chair Anita Seth said yesterday that she believes graduate students have a fundamental right to unionize.
“Many [undergraduates] have the same conceptions that I did—that unions are for poor people, perhaps maybe for blue-collar people,” she said. “I see unions as a means of anyone asserting democratic control in their workplace and therefore important for anyone.”
According to Kate Reed, a first year history graduate student who is a member of GESO, the organization represents about 1,350 of Yale’s 2,400 graduate students. The University does not officially recognize GESO as a bargaining representative for graduate students, which Reed says is GESO’s main complaint.
“I have money,” she said. “It’s just the right to organize [I want].”
Second-year history graduate student Louisa Walker echoed Reed’s call for the university to allow GESO to negotiate.
“It’s basically an issue of respect,” Walker said. “We just want to sit at the table with them.”
Yale Professor of American Studies Michael Denning spent the day picketing in support of the workers. He said GESO should be legitimized.
“GESO may not be officially recognized, but it’s been here for ten years and it’s part of the community,” he said.
But despite the day’s focus on labor, it was the issue of food that seemed foremost on the minds of undergraduates. Due to the closure of all residential dining halls, students received rebate checks for five days of their meal plan in their mailboxes.
The checks for first–year students, who receive close the maximum meal plans, were about $90, as opposed to the $170 originally reported.
Some students said they felt these rebate checks were insufficient.
“It really makes me angry that the amount of money we received from Yale wouldn’t even be enough to buy three meals a day in the dining halls for five days if you didn’t go to Yale,” said first-year Sarah Marberg.
The Yale College Council has arranged to operate complimentary shuttles every 20 minutes to Shaw’s supermarket. Shaw’s has also agreed to set up two Yale Express lines and to accept rebate checks as payment for food. They will give change in cash.
Local restaurants should see increased business over the next few days due to the closures. One restaurant, MexiCali, opened for business last Friday—just in time to capitalize on the strike.
College masters are trying to alleviate the difficulty of going out for food by holding study breaks. Most masters plan to provide food for their students at breaks like this throughout the week.
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at email@example.com.
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