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Interview with Yale Strike Leaders: How the Yale Workers Won

by staff |
February 1, 2004
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Two CT women at MN rally
Laura Smith and Shirley Lawrence, HERE Locals 34 and 35 at Yale University, at a rally for University of Minnesota clerical workers. (Fight Back! News/Brad Sigal)

Four thousand union members took on the management of one of America’s most elitist bastions of the rich - Yale University. Fight Back! interviewed two leaders of the Yale Strike: Laura Smith, President of Local 34, which represents the Clerical and Technical workers and Shirley Lawrence of Local 35, which represents Service and Maintenance workers.

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. 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.

Fight Back!: What did you win in your strike at Yale?

Laura Smith: We won all the major things we were fighting for. Local 34 won job security and we won a huge pension increase for members of both Locals. By the end of the contract our pensions will double. We won a very good wage increase. There was a change in Local 34’s wage structure that boosts up the lowest level of the salary structure and lessens the number of years to reach the maximum. The raises in both locals are significant.

Clericals and Techs signed an eight-year contract, though two years have already gone by since the old contract expired in January 2002. So, six years from now, there is an average increase of 44 to 60%. We eliminated the bottom two steps from the salary structure. New people will start at Step 3; and those who are already in got boosted up to Step 3. There is a lot of money for Local 34 - particularly for the bottom of the spectrum.

We also won ‘Best Practices Committees,’ that require the University and us to form joint committees within each department which will allow us to have better ongoing relations and solve problems of worker satisfaction.

The short version is, we won all the major things we wanted. A huge pension increase, salary increases, job security for Local 34 and, since we’ve had eleven strikes over 60 years, strong language to ensure better ongoing relations.

Fight Back!: How did you win?

Laura Smith: By struggle. It’s all about organizing - within our own locals; working with other employee groups seeking to organize, like graduate employees and hospital workers; and also organizing support out in the community. Politicians, community leaders, faith-based leaders, the AFL-CIO, Central Labor Councils - we created a giant network of supporters. We really reached out. We are building constantly, organizing for more.

It really is about zigging and zagging - being smart about the twists and turns. It turns out that you’ll do things you never thought you’d do. It’s about staying united and strong. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time and don’t worry if something sounds weird to do.

Fight Back!: Could you re-cap some events that led up the final strike?

Laura Smith: Our contract expired in January 2002. We started our fight before the contract ended by coalition building, being at Yale events, leafleting, etc.

Yale talked about having a ‘new model’ for labor relations, a partnership between labor and management. President Levin brought in outside consultants to find out what was wrong with labor relations at Yale. The consultants gave a scathing report towards Yale. One quote is that, “In an institution that prides itself on developing independent thinking, the institution would do well to treat its employees as capable of independent thought.”

Yale’s economic proposal was unchanged since May 2002, until the night before the strike. Then they moved, but not enough. They decided their offer was good enough for us and that they’d test us.
We took a strike vote in the fall of 2002 - it was an overwhelming strike vote. We continued to attempt to negotiate until March, but Yale still wasn’t moving. Meanwhile, we held rallies, etc.

In March 2003, we were going to strike for one week, to put them on notice, to show that we’ll do it, that we can do it. We had a great turnout for that - Local 34, 35 and grad teachers were out for that. More than two thirds of our folks were out, which was higher than ever. Still ,there was not much movement in negotiations, but they claimed they wanted to settle. We called the question and insisted they sit down and tell us what a settlement would mean. But it was clear they didn’t want to settle - unless it was on their terms. They just rearranged the same amount of money, the $9 million, and said we could put it where we wanted. If we put it all to pensions, it would have only increased pensions by $40 per month. Our pensions were so low - in 2001 a retiree got $621 per month - after 20 years of service.

Fight Back!: Tell us about the community support you got.

Shirley Lawrence: Yale’s President Levin was going around the country bragging about Yale’s relationship with the community. He put his foot in his mouth. He started talking about this during the 300-year anniversary of the University, about his great relationship with the community.

So we said we want a ‘new social contract’ with the people of New Haven. We started building our capacity in the community. We worked with faith-based community organizations of all denominations and civil rights organizations to try to help bridge the gap between economic and social injustice. Some thought, “those greedy union workers,” until we showed the workers were our family members. Churches spoke out because their members were working two jobs and couldn’t go to church! There were meetings in the churches and a lot of political action. We brought people the info and made them aware, to make them realize that union members are a part of the community. Churches were saying, “Wait, your causing hardship on our members!”

In September, we changed the dynamics of the city with the electoral primaries. Yale is a tax-exempt institution in the middle of a poor city. In the state constitution they have super-tax-exempt status. We got the Board of Aldermen to vote to make Yale pay their fair share to the city. Yale’s Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs had gone to the community to try to buy off the community and church leaders but we won it - so now we’re going to the state legislature to look into this super-tax-exempt status. For the few that voted against us on the Board of Aldermen, we did community organizing and ran people against them and unseated them.

Fight Back!: What is the relationship between Yale and the workers from New Haven?

Laura Smith: New Haven is 40% African American. Minority folks are only hired into entry level dining service jobs at Yale. Local 34 has an issue with training opportunities - people are dead-ended there with no opportunity to advance. One committee we won will include community leaders and will work to create a situation with training for entry-level jobs; to expand the number of people from New Haven that get into jobs at Yale and also advance their opportunities within Yale.

Community and political work continues. The contract is settled. Now we have six years to focus on organizing the hospital workers and graduate employees to get unions. We have lots of time to do organizing. We keep organizing and growing. Yale is the company in the company town. New Haven needs better schools and a couple days interest on Yale’s endowment could give New Haven better schools.

Shirley Lawrence: We have community support as long as we don’t get complacent - and we won’t - the struggle never ends.