Yale Workers Fight the Power

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Gordon Lafer

ON MARCH 20, 1,100 Yale University custodians, plant maintenance and dining hall workers walked off the job. With 97% of the workforce participating in this strike, all but one of Yale’s dining halls shut down; trash began piling up; managers are being paid $35/hour to scrub toilets.

Our unions adopted an “alternating strike” strategy in order to avoid the prospect of Yale starving us out over the course of a long strike. In February, Federation Of University Employees Local 34  representing 2,600 clerical and technical workers  walked out in a four-week strike. Following the two weeks of Spring Break, Local 35  the service and maintenance union  went out in the second phase of the strike.

With Yale’s $4.5 billion endowment, we were worried that the administration would try to force us all out and just wait until workers had exhausted all their financial resources and were forced to accept whatever terms the administration offered. Now, when each union is on strike, members of the other union have contributed $100 per week to support those who are going without pay.

The central issue of the strike is something which is fast becoming the overriding labor issue of the 1990s: subcontracting and outsourcing. Currently, the Local 35 contract allows subcontracting only of work not normally performed by union employees  e.g. large, one-time construction projects.

Yale wants to gut this agreement and insist instead on the unlimited right to fill all job openings  whether they result from expansion, retirement, or turnover  with outside subcontractors.

Yale workers have endured six strikes in the past 30 years, in order to establish the right to a living wage. No one is getting rich here  the average dining hall job pays $23,000, for instance  but workers are able to support their families at a minimally decent standard of living.

If Yale gets its way, these jobs will be replaced by low-wage, no-benefit, temporary jobs on which no one can raise a family. Furthermore, these workers will have no way of digging themselves out of this hole, since they will have no right to bargain with Yale managers.

As New Haven has lost more industrial jobs over the past two decades, Yale has become the company in a company town. If Yale evolves into an all-temp, or all-subcontracted workforce, this will put an end to thousands of local families’ hopes of making it into the middle class.

While negotiations have been stalled, Yale has been very active away from the negotiating table, using a wide range of pressure tactics. Yale has hired a high-priced Washington p.r. firm and an infamous union-busting lawyer. At the start of the clerical strike, Yale cut off the unions’ dues money and threatened to suspend workers’ health insurance.

Union members were disciplined for talking to “temp” employees, and several temps who joined in the clerical strike were fired for doing so. We have filed dozens of charges against Yale for violating federal labor law, but most of these are backlogged waiting a hearing.

Thugs on Campus

Most disturbing, Yale has hired an outside “security” firm, whose “special operations group” patrols the campus, subjecting workers to intensive video surveillance and often providing an ostentatious, intimidating presence at union events. Yale’s firm  called Professional Law Enforcement, Inc.  specializes in “strike security,” and has been involved in several violent incidents at other strikes, including a 1994 case in which a PLE “officer” allegedly beat a striker in the head with a heavy duty flashlight, causing a loss of vision in one eye.

As far as we can tell, PLE has never before been used on a college campus. We are concerned that PLE officers may be intentionally used to provoke some kind of confrontation.

Incredibly, Yale may be willing to spend more money trying to intimidate union members into submission than it would take to settle many of the outstanding contract issues. For instance, Yale is spending upwards of $1.6 million to keep PLE on campus  a sum which is greater than all the money Yale expects to save by cutting the wages of dining hall workers!

The situation at Yale is in many ways emblematic of that at other wealthy universities who have been stranded by deindustrialization in poor cities. Columbia and Morningside Heights, the University of Chicago and Hyde Park, USC and South Central, U. Penn and West Philadelphia  in all these places, poor communities have come to rely on rich universities as almost the only source of decent jobs.

In New Haven, Yale’s nearmonopoly in the labor market has made the defense of Yale jobs a critical fight for anyone who hopes to make it into the middle class. On the other hand, for University managers, New Haven’s poverty offers an irresistible temptation to force everyone down to the level of the most desperate workers.

Yale spokesman Gary Fryer recently suggested that workers should be happy with the administration’s proposals, given that in the current economy “most American workers are happy to be on the job at the end of the month.”

In addition to our rotating strike, we have filed petitions for 120 “casual” Yale workers — people who are supposed to be used only for special assignments, but who often work here for years — to join the FEU. An “alternative graduation” will take place on Memorial Day, May 27, when we expect thousands of people to come from all over, as well as prominent AFL-CIO officials.

Our members will be back at work during the summer. We are seeking to organize pressure on Yale president Richard Levin to have signed contracts in place before September, but if necessary we are prepared to resume our strike in the fall.

We know that the campaign to resist the downward spiral at Yale will also have an effect on other universities and their surrounding communities. We hope this is the beginning of a national effort to prevent universities from adopting the harshest and most ugly aspects of corporate downsizing.

Anyone who can help support the strike should make checks payable to FEU Strike Fund, 425 College St., New Haven, CT 06511. For further information call the FEU office at (203) 624-5161.

ATC 62, May-June 1995