NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Thousands of Yale workers, students and residents of New Haven neighborhoods took to the streets April 24, stopping traffic as they pounded drums and carried placards to a rally in front of Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Waving flags and chanting, “A better Yale, a better community,” the workers marched in support of contract negotiations by service and maintenance and clerical and technical workers, and demanding union recognition for hospital workers and graduate student teaching assistants.

As the huge rally convened, reports from negotiations by Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Locals 34 and 35 indicated new gains in job security language had been won.

In addition, a majority of workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital and a majority of graduate teaching assistants had signed cards for union representation. These union drives would add 4,000 additional union members in the city, the largest organizing drives currently underway in the state.

Looking out on the massive crowd, Laura Smith, president of Local 34 exclaimed, “This is the highest level of unity we have ever had.”

For workers at Yale, the most stubborn, long-term issue is the use of non-union, no-benefit subcontractors, casual workers and temporary workers. This practice undermines the bargaining units and short-circuits fair hiring and promotion procedures.

Service and maintenance workers in Local 35 are seeking to reverse a five-year trend of contracting out work in new and renovated buildings. They are also negotiating for improved guarantees against layoffs and to preserve the size of the bargaining unit.

Clerical and technical workers in Local 34 are negotiating for limits on the use of casuals and temporary workers, and a commitment for at least 40 new union jobs. Tentative agreements have been reached on these issues.

The negotiations have been conducted amidst mutual commitments for improved relations between Yale and the unions. While the university has said it wants “labor peace,” it has yet to live up to a consultant’s report, which emphasized that the unions at Yale have to have the opportunity to grow.

The Yale Corporation, Yale’s governing body, refuses to agree to card-check elections.

The union members are calling for an “equal partnership” in which workers’ rights are respected. “We are not visitors from another planet,” declared Local 35 president Bob Proto. “We are the workers that make Yale work.”

The Yale Corporation has also tried to block the election of Rev. David Lee, pastor of Varick AME Zion Church, and an alumnus of the Yale Divinity School, to be a member of their body.

Lee, who has the support of the unions and an impressive array of national elected officials, including the Philadelphia City Council and Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), is campaigning on the basis of bringing the interests of Yale’s home city to the table.

The rally was the culmination of a series of large neighborhood meetings that called on Yale to enter into a social contract to increase contributions to the City of New Haven.

Yale, a university of international acclaim with an $11 billion endowment, is the city’s largest employer.

Unlike other similar educational institutions, this university makes only minimal contributions to the city in lieu of taxes.

While Yale students enjoy a world-class education, children in the City of New Haven face high poverty and large class sizes.

The unions have built strong alliances with churches and community groups that are advancing demands for hiring, training and promotion of African American and Latino New Haveners, and more Yale support for public education and housing in the city.

Workers at the rally were hopeful of a big victory. “We are at a turning point in history,” said State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Yale alumnus. “We must seize this moment to make sure these rights are achieved.”

Proto called on the workers to be prepared to come together again at Yale’s commencement ceremonies if the contract agreements are not reached by the end of May.

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

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