Yale workers battle Ivy league economics

Job security, classifications, promotions and pensions are at stake when 4,000 Yale workers take a strike authorization vote on Sept. 4, as well as the right of graduate teachers and hospital workers to organize. But for many members of Locals 34 and 35, HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union), the bottom line is the bottom line: there’s just not enough money in their paycheck. Local 34 is asking for a raise of 10 percent per year for four years; Local 35 is asking for 7 percent per year.

Union workers at Yale earn between $10 and $21 per hour, with a “typical” wage of about $15. According to a study commissioned by the State of Connecticut, it takes over $18.50 per hour in New Haven to meet the minimum basic needs of a family of three. As a result, many single-earner Yale families get by only with family or government assistance.

Twenty years ago, the clerical and technical workers were just organizing into Local 34. Service and maintenance workers in Local 35 had already won relatively good wages in a series of bitter strikes. In 1985, Local 34 gained significant increases in their first contract, and both unions have since made progress in job classifications and security. But taking inflation into account, Local 35 workers are making about the same as 20 years ago, and Local 34 average pay only increased by an estimated 15-20 percent over the same period.

This is not surprising. Across the country, real wages have stood still or slipped backwards since the early 1980s. At the same time, productivity – the amount of wealth created by each worker – has soared.

Yale is no exception. University workers don’t produce anything easy to measure, like cars, or filing cabinets, or houses. But we can get a good idea by looking at the university’s budget.

In 1982-83, each dollar Yale paid its clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers supported about $6 worth of educational, research and other activity. By 2001-2002, that figure had doubled: Yale was getting $12 worth of activity for every $1 in union wages. The union’s proposal of 7 percent – 10 percent annual raises would increase the workers’ share of Yale’s budget, but would still leave payroll costs a far lower share than twenty years ago.

Yale has offered 4 percent per year for Local 34, and 3 percent for Local 35, for six years. At best, this offer would allow workers to stay about even with inflation, while the university continues to cut the share of workers’ wages in its overall budget. But the situation could easily get worse.

The country faces a large trade deficit, a federal budget shortfall caused by tax cuts for the rich and growing military spending, and the possibility of oil price increases. These were some of the causes of the raging inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s. Locked into a six-year contract with weak cost-of-living protection, an upsurge in inflation to double digits could leave Yale workers facing an effective wage cut of 5 percent per year or more.

In the last 20 years, Yale’s endowment has mushroomed ten-fold to $11.8 billion. Operating as a large corporation, the university and hospital have expanded their healthcare industry state-wide, and increased their property ownership in New Haven. This has contributed to gentrification of working class neighborhoods and the loss of affordable housing. Yale has become the dominant employer and economic force in New Haven.

In 1984, when clerical and technical workers struck for their first contract, unionized service and maintenance workers refused to cross picket lines despite intense pressure from the Yale administration. Local 35 members knew that if they were to make further advances, they needed more unionized workers on campus. The two groups stuck together and won substantial improvements for all workers.

Today, Locals 34 and 35, and Local 1199-SEIU representing hospital dietary workers, have joined their negotiations for better wages with support for other Yale hospital workers and graduate teachers who are organizing for union recognition. They have also tied their struggle with the needs of working class, multi-racial neighborhoods in New Haven in an unprecedented union-community coalition.

On Aug. 24, John Wilhelm, president of HERE, addressed a joint organizing convention of 750 workers from the three union locals and two organizing drives plus community leaders. “If we’re organized, there is nothing that the University can do to prevent us. Undoubtedly, our time is now,” he said.

The author can be reached at arthur.perlo@pobox.com