Retirement into poverty, or retirement with dignity? With one quarter of Yale’s employees likely to retire in the course of the next contract, this critical issue for workers everywhere has become pivotal in the strike against Yale University and its teaching hospital.

From sit-ins to hunger strikes at Yale offices, retirees have electrified the strikers and dramatized the issues for the whole community.

Yale workers are fighting for their pensions at a time when retirement security is under attack everywhere. Defined benefit plans, like Yale’s, are being replaced by 401(k) and other contributory plans that leave workers at the mercy of the stock market.From Enron to the steel industry, workers have seen their “secure” pensions go up in smoke. Fewer employers are offering any pension plan at all. And the attack on Social Security will undoubtedly resume as soon as the 2004 elections are over. Workers are postponing retirement or going back to work; the proportion of older Americans in the workforce is rising, even while jobs are vanishing for younger workers.

This is a big concern for Yale workers, too. Virginia Henry, a Yale custodian, says, “I worry that at 65 years old I’ll have to get another job. For many of us, this [contract] is our last chance to achieve a good life after Yale.”

In 2002, the average union worker who retired from Yale with 20 or more years’ service got a pension of only $7,452 per year. Including Social Security, they are now living on an estimated $20,000. Lower-paid workers, of course, receive less. Under Yale’s offer, I estimate average pensions for new retirees at about $9,300 per year – $23,000 or less with the addition of Social Security.

Yale has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on full-page ads that give examples of workers who will receive $32,303 to $35,896 upon retirement. They get this figure by using workers in the top labor grades, with a full 30 years’ service, and by making various assumptions about Social Security and retirement options. None of these are typical of Yale retirees.

Lab Assistant Leona Polite says, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay my bills – utilities, insurance, car repairs, taxes, medication. Everything is going up except Yale’s pension.” Her fears are justified.

Harry Kashtan retired from the Yale library in 1989 with a pension of $7,104 per year. “My pension is so small my wife and I can’t afford to visit our grandchildren. We can’t afford repairs on our home and we even qualify for state assistance,” he says.

With no cost-of-living adjustment, Kashtan’s pension has remained frozen at its 1989 level. It has lost one third of its value since 1989; he would need another $3,432 per year to have the same buying power today. And Kashtan is lucky – inflation has been relatively low in the 14 years since he retired. If inflation rises to the levels of 1975-1985, a pension will lose half its value in only 10 years. With record budget deficits and a weak economy, gambling one’s retirement on low inflation is a poor bet.

Can Yale afford better pensions? It has reportedly offered its president a pension of $500,000 per year when he retires – fifty times what a typical worker will get. And according to the union, although Yale hasn’t made payments to its pension fund for the past three years, it still has a $200 million surplus. But Yale recently changed the way they calculate their pension fund, and the $200 billion surplus has conveniently disappeared.

Yale is trying to use the bad economy, including the widespread threats to workers’ retirement, against the unions. “Yale workers are greedy to be asking for more, at a time when other workers are taking cutbacks,” is the message implied in university statements. But that’s not the way the national labor movement and the New Haven community see it.

The Yale strike has become a national strike because the unions are taking on issues of national importance. The victory of Yale’s workers will help set a higher standard for other employers, and will strengthen the labor and community movements in their efforts to protect and strengthen Social Security and improve pension protection for all workers.

The author can be reached at


Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.