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Workers at Yale Win

by staff |
October 1, 2003
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Using a variety of innovative tactics and gathering national media attention, 4000 union members took on the management of one of America’s most elitist bastions of the rich - Yale University. By combining some flexible tactics with impressive community support, union members represented by HERE Locals 34 and 35 were able to win major gains in wages and pensions. After working without a contract for two years, the workers went on strike Aug. 27 and struck for 23 days before settling.

Workers at Yale faced an arrogant management that refused to budge. Rather than strike when their contract expired in January 2002, the workers worked over a year and half past the expiration date. During this time the unions built up a relentless community campaign against the employer, focusing on issues that had community appeal, such as the Yale Hospital’s ruthless collection practices for poor patients and Yale’s unsavory investment policies.

Then, in March 2003, the workers went on a short-term strike for five days. A short-term strike is not meant to conclusively win the strike, but is used to put political and public pressure on the employer. It also shows the employer what will happen on a longer strike.

By the time the current school year rolled around, the Yale unions had isolated the university and built a powerful community-union coalition. After striking on Aug. 27, the workers continued to use militant tactics during the strike. On the first day of the strike, retirees held a sit-in at Yale. Major national elected officials, many of whom are actually anti-union, supported the strike. On the third day of the strike, over 83 union supporters got arrested blocking traffic. While less than half of the clerical unit struck, over 90% of the building and grounds workers struck.

The final agreement reflected substantial gains over management’s prior position. Wages will go up 44% over the life of the agreement, pensions got a substantial boost and gains were made in job security. The major downside is the acceptance of an eight-year agreement, in line with a bad trend in the labor movement towards longer contracts. Longer agreements lock in the unions and limit their ability to wage class struggle. Striking dietary workers at the hospital, represented by SEIU, went back to work without a contract.

In the U.S., workers fight with their hands tied behind their backs. The law and the courts allow workers in the private sector to be fired for striking; its called ‘permanently replacing’ them.

When workers strike, the full power of the government is used to ensure the owners are able to keep the business open. Therefore, to win, workers must use smart and innovative tactics.

The Yale union struggles show that with determined leadership, creative tactics and a willingness to fight, gains can be made for workers even in tough economic times.