NEW HAVEN – Even as jubilant members of Locals 34 and 35 at Yale University cheered, sang, and celebrated the best contracts in their history, they vowed to keep up the fight in support of their sisters and brothers in the dietary department of Yale New Haven Hospital. University officials agreed to the major demands of the unions, affiliated with Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), within six days of a solidarity march of 10,000 union members from the East Coast.

The 140 members of District 1199 went on strike along with the clerical and maintenance workers at the university. While the giant struggle forced Yale to offer strong contracts, accepted nearly unanimously by the 2,500 striking university workers, it did not yet force the hospital administration to change its stance. At a sober meeting early on Sept. 19, the District 1199 members voted to reject a final offer from the hospital that included only merit pay raises and severe cuts in health coverage. They then voted to return to work and continue the struggle for a new contract from the inside. Their last contract expired three years ago.

The Service Employees International Union, parent of New England 1199, immediately launched a national campaign to expose Yale New Haven Hospital’s vicious anti-worker and anti-community practices. In a New York Times ad on Sept. 22 headlined “There’s a sickness at Yale-New Haven Hospital and it’s spreading,” the union announced a new report which details the health system’s practices of suing patients and placing liens on their homes instead of utilizing “free bed funds” for those who cannot afford necessary hospital stays.

On the same day, a press conference in front of the hospital, attended by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Mayor John DeStefano, members of the clergy and local and national union leaders put the Board of Trustees on notice that the struggle will continue until dietary workers achieve parity with university workers and 1,800 additional hospital workers are afforded the unimpeded right to choose union representation.

“We will fight until we get a fair contract no matter what it takes,” Mamie Evans, an original member of 1199 at the hospital, said defiantly as she and her co-workers prepared to go back to work.

“On the picket lines, workers in Locals 34 and 35 at the medical center bonded with dietary workers in 1199,” HERE President John Wilhelm said. “They are our friends, comrades, sisters and brothers. We will not rest until unfinished business is taken care of and justice comes to this medical center.”

The historic contracts won by Locals 34 and 35 include a “revolutionized” pension formula which will increase payments by about 40 percent, along with improved provisions for early retirement. Workers will receive wage increase of three percent to five percent a year, with retroactive paychecks ranging from $1,500 to $6,000. Use of subcontractors will be reduced resulting in new union jobs. A union-university-community committee will be established to increase hiring, training and promotion of Latino and African American workers.

The three-week strike was marked by many marches and rallies involving the entire New Haven community, a sit-in by retirees, participation by Rev. Jesse Jackson, and a walk-out by Latino contract workers who joined the strike, all part of organizing efforts by the Connecticut Center for a New Economy. In Democratic primary elections held the second week of the strike, every candidate who supported the Yale administration over the unions was defeated.

The day before the final negotiations, hundreds of delegates to the Connecticut AFL-CIO convention marched on Yale to join a retirees vigil protesting poverty-level pensions. Following a passionate address by Wilhelm, union after union offered large contributions for the Yale workers’ strike fund. Especially meaningful was a presentation of $5,000 from International Association of Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger and 48 striking machinists at Standard-Knapp in Portland, Conn., fighting to save their jobs. “We share each others’ pain,” said Buffenbarger.

The contracts won by university workers strengthen the bargaining position of hospital dietary workers and also give a boost to organizing efforts by hospital workers and graduate student teachers. While the university publicly dismisses the mass pressure exerted by the unions and their allies, the unity was critical to achieving decent contracts.

“The eyes of the nation are upon you,” exclaimed a joyous Congresswoman DeLauro, emphasizing that the achievement of improved pensions at a time when they are being dismantled by other employers gives inspiration to workers everywhere to take up the fight. DeLauro and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had issued a letter condemning Yale’s use of racial divisions during the strike.

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com

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