Yale strike ignites struggle for justice

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – As several thousand striking Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital workers picketed, rallied and sat-in, they were joined by Rev. Jesse Jackson, who likened their struggle for economic justice to the historic struggle for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama.

The 40th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom punctuated the first week of the strike by clerical-technical, service-maintenance and dietary workers, highlighting the growing unity of the labor and civil rights movements.

Marie Harris, on strike from her job in the hospital kitchen, addressed the congregation at Varick AME Zion Church on Aug. 31. “I am proud to be part of one of America’s top hospitals, but when it comes to how they treat us there is nothing to be proud of,” she said. Her co-workers have to rely on public assistance for medical coverage, and work more than two jobs to pay the rent, while CEO Joseph Zaccagnino’s salary tops $1 million a year.

The university has arro-gantly dismissed the unions’ pension, wage and job security proposals despite an $11 billion endowment and a pension fund over-funded by $200 million. The average Yale worker retires with a pension of $600 a month. Eight angry retirees occupied the university’s investment office as the strike began, demanding to know where their pension money went.

On the third day of the strike, 83 workers sat down in the main intersections surrounding old campus, as crowds of picketers chanted on the sidewalks. Traffic backed up for miles as parents and students attempted to transport furniture, clothes and computers to dorm rooms.

By Labor Day, the city was galvanized for a huge march of nearly 5,000 led by Jackson, who, along with 19 other clergy and elected officials, sat in the street in a civil disobedience action at the end of the event.

“We’ve started a fire here,” said Rev. Scott Marks, director of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE) in New Haven. “This march kicks off 15 months to get Bush out of the White House.”

In a nationally televised speech from the Aug. 28 mass strike rally, Jackson charged that America’s broken promise of jobs and freedom can and must be met now. Harkening back to the Civil War, he declared that “both civil rights and labor are born from emancipation. … When we come together across lines of race, region and religion we cross from racial battleground to economic common ground.”

Yale, one of the world’s wealthiest institutions of higher learning, sits in the center of the nation’s seventh poorest city with a majority African American and Latino population. New Haven, once a thriving industrial town, has lost many manufacturing jobs in recent decades. The university and hospital now employ a quarter of the city’s workforce. Only three percent of Yale workers are Latino, and African American workers are often stuck in lower-wage jobs.

CCNE has called for a social contract which would include hiring Latinos, training and promoting African American workers, and enlarging the university’s contributions to the city for public education, affordable housing and health care.

“This is far more than just a labor struggle,” said John Wilhelm, international president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union. “What happens at Yale is a struggle for the future of this community.”

Wilhelm, who graduated from Yale in 1967, called the Labor Day march of workers, students, graduate teachers, and community “the greatest coming together of all parts of this community in the history of New Haven. ... You are the backbone of the great struggle for justice.”

Underscoring the need for unity to win against the powerful Yale corporation, HERE Local 35 leader Mark Wilson told the Aug. 28 rally, “Yale tries to divide us by race, by nationality, by workforce. We will not tolerate being second class citizens.”

The workers have received support from city and state elected officials, national labor leaders and Yale alumnae Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean who publicly called on the University to sign a fair contract.

“Yale is our inheritance,” Jackson told Varick Church on Aug. 31, recalling the university’s beginnings from investments in slavery. “Our children must not only aspire to work at Yale and get a union contract, not only aspire to attend Yale, they should aspire to be its president.”

A solidarity fund has been established to help striking workers make ends meet. Contributions may be sent to: Hunger for Justice Fund, c/o Bishop Rosazza, 125 Sherman Ave., New Haven CT 06511.

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