Yale strikers draw national support

News Analysis NEW HAVEN, Conn. – As picket lines went up at Yale University and its affiliated hospital Aug. 27, striking workers were electrified by the news that eight union retirees had occupied the university’s investment offices. Denied food, water and bathroom facilities for five hours by Yale police, the retirees – all in their seventies – held their ground, protesting poverty-level pensions. They were joined overnight by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees President John Wilhelm, with union members standing vigil outside.

Jackson connected the action to the national struggle by seniors to save Medicare and Social Security and for affordable prescription drugs. At a negotiating session days before the strike, one of the retirees declared, “I’m going to fight you Yale, until there is no breath left in my body.”

Yale workers walked out this week after two years of fruitless negotiations for a new contract. The immediate issues are pensions, wages and job security. The strike has national implications.

Attacks on workers’ rights and living standards by the Bush administration and big corporations set the stage for this battle. Yale University has openly referred to the climate of layoffs and takebacks as justification for its tough bargaining. The resistance of Yale workers to this offensive is giving inspiration to unions and working-class communities across the country.

Yale, a leader in producing national political leaders and CEOs, is also a leader in running a university like a multinational corporation, including high executive compensation, increased use of subcontracting and outsourcing, and an aggressive anti-union stance. Yale’s record of forcing nine strikes in 38 years is unmatched, and the university has taken the lead in encouraging other universities to deny graduate teachers the right to organize.

According to the unions, Yale is “a model of the new post-industrial company town. One out of four jobs in New Haven is a Yale job. Yale sets the labor market for the entire area and enjoys tremendous economic and political power in one of the nation’s poorest cities.” Large educational-medical complexes have emerged as the dominant economic force throughout urban America, they say, and the strike’s outcome “will determine and be an example to the nation as to whether this new economy will provide decent livings and security for people of every occupation.”

The unions and their allies have developed an innovative and inclusive organizing model. “Never before have such a seemingly disparate group of workers of a single employer joined together for a common goal,” says labor historian David Montgomery.

The union workers, in three locals of two international unions, are united in the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. Representing service and maintenance, clerical and technical, and hospital food service workers, the leadership and members of the three unions work closely together and have a common strategy for winning new contracts.

Also part of the struggle are 2,000 workers at Yale New Haven Hospital and graduate student teachers at Yale, each seeking union recognition. Other unions are lending their support, too.

An unprecedented movement has emerged, bringing together many church denominations, social clubs, elected officials and community leaders. This multiracial movement for a “social contract” between Yale and New Haven calls for hiring and upgrading the jobs of Latino and African American residents, and increasing Yale’s contribution to the city. Local organizing for the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride have brought graduate teachers and researchers at Yale, hundreds of whom come from other countries, together with thousands of Latino immigrants in New Haven. Very few immigrants get hired into union jobs by Yale, and instead have to work for low-wage, low-benefit, non-union subcontractors that Yale increasingly uses.

There is a remarkable coming together in New Haven – an awareness extending from the neighborhoods up into City Hall, that the city’s interests lie with the Yale workers. At a rally held 36 hours before the strike deadline, HERE Local 35 officer Virginia Henry summed it up: “We have no choice but to fight.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org