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Victory at Yale? | The Nation

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Victory at Yale?

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About the Author

William Johnson
William Johnson is a freelance writer based in New York City.
Kim Phillips-Fein
Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She...

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While Kim Phillips-Fein is correct that some gains were made in the recent settlement between Yale University and the two HERE locals (34 and 35) representing its clerical and service workers ["Yale Workers Win"], she is wrong to unequivocally call the Yale contract a victory. Most obviously, the length of the contract--eight years--is a major concession to the Yale administration, which can now count on nearly a decade of labor peace on campus.

The militance of the Yale unions, which Phillips-Fein identifies as one of their key strengths, has been effectively neutralized by this unusually lengthy contract. This militance, and what Phillips-Fein calls the "deep culture of organizing and solidarity" among the Yale unions, were not nearly as apparent on the ground as they were in the news media. While the papers were filled with photographs of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and other notables being carted away from Yale protests in handcuffs, Yale workers reported that more union members were crossing the picket lines than not. This lack of solidarity was likely the result of two factors. First, Yale's workers sensed that the big demonstrations and "militant picket lines" that so impressed Phillips-Fein were for show, and actually having little to no impact on the university's bargaining position. The workers were right. The gains made on both wages and pensions in the eight-year contract are nowhere close to what the union was demanding on the eve of the strike.

The other reason that solidarity at Yale faltered during negotiations is that HERE leadership had already broken ranks with the coalition of Yale unions (which included graduate students struggling to form a union and hospital workers represented by SEIU), which had long ago agreed that no one union would sign a contract until all workers in this coalition had a contract. Fracturing the coalition by getting HERE to bargain independently was itself a substantial victory for Yale.

For many years, Yale's unions and workers have rightly attacked the university's administration (led by president Richard Levin) as exploitative and antiworker. Now that a contract is signed, union officials are calling Levin a model negotiator and well-intentioned, but naïve journalists are calling what is at best a mixed bag of a contract an unqualified victory. If these are our victories, what will our defeats look like?

WILLIAM JOHNSON
Assistant editor
Labor Notes


PHILLIPS-FEIN REPLIES

New York City

First of all, I'm truly stunned to hear a labor journalist like William Johnson repeating the boss's line on the strike. The union claims that more than 90 percent of Local 35 (service and maintenance) and a majority of Local 34 (clerical) members were out on strike, and while Yale tried to argue that a higher proportion of clerical workers were crossing the line, even the university did not dispute that nearly all Local 35 members were striking. The union's numbers are pretty close to what the proportion of striking workers has been in other Yale labor disputes, and claims attributed to "Yale workers," repeated by a journalist hundreds of miles away, just aren't convincing. Anyway, if no one was on strike and the pickets for "show," why would Yale have moved an inch?

But despite his suggestion that the strike wasn't much of a strike at all, Johnson raises an interesting question, one that political activists and writers must constantly face: How do we judge our successes and failures? The Yale contract is not perfect. Johnson is right that its eight-year length is its biggest flaw. But one way to measure a contract is by the hope that it holds out for other workers in the industry and region. Does the contract represent a significant improvement in the lives of workers that could never have been achieved without collective action? Can other workers look to the sit-in, picket lines, arrests and strike-related demonstrations at Yale as a model of how to better their own lives? The answer to both questions, in the case of the Yale contract--which, let us not forget, doubled pensions for many workers--seems to me to be an unequivocal yes. This doesn't mean that there isn't more organizing to be done and more to win, both at Yale, at the Yale-New Haven hospital and throughout academia and beyond. But well-intentioned or no, pessimism can be naïve too.

KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN

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