Yale Bites Unions | The Nation


Yale Bites Unions

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At Yale/New Haven Hospital, workers have followed a trajectory similar to that of the grad students. When they began organizing, they believed they were defending healthcare and their own jobs against an administration that endangered both. Now they see unionization as good in its own right.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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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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The seeds of the campaign at the hospital were sown in locals 34 and 35's last contract battle. In 1996 the university sought to expand its ability to use "casual" nonunion workers and to subcontract jobs. Locals 34 and 35 went on monthlong strikes to fight the proposed changes, and though they were largely successful, the unions concluded that Yale's aggressiveness augured badly for the future. Organizing at the hospital--like organizing the TAs, which HERE has supported financially from the beginning--seemed like a good way to counter Yale's plans and to build union power in New Haven. In an impressive example of cooperation between unions, HERE has been working with 1199 to organize the hospital for the past three years.

There are plenty of grievances at Yale/New Haven Hospital. Entry-level workers are paid $8.50 an hour, and many longtime employees make only $11 or $12 an hour. "A lot of people have two jobs," says Monica Osborn, an operating-room technical associate who cuts hair nights and weekends to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the CEO is one of the highest-paid hospital executives in the country. But the campaign really got going after the hospital "wholeheartedly embraced the concept of change in healthcare," a euphemism invoked by senior vice president Vincent Conti in 1994 to justify sharp staffing reductions.

The hospital has firmly opposed the organizing campaign. Last summer, armed security guards threatened workers with arrest for handing out leaflets in front of the hospital. Days after settling an unfair-labor-practice suit the union filed to protest the incident, the administration sent a memo to top management saying that the settlement "in no way changes the Hospital's position regarding the current unionization effort. We oppose it and will continue to do so."

Peggy Tamulevich, who's worked at the hospital for twenty-three years since graduating high school, says that if Yale doesn't recognize the union, she'll have to leave. "I used to be proud to work at Yale, but I don't feel that way anymore." Tamulevich and others now see the labor movement not only as a way to improve their personal conditions but as a source of collective power and idealism. As her co-worker Kent Hilton puts it, "If we can actually organize, and then hook up with the union workers at the university, we will have a stronger voice in New Haven." He goes on, "I'm not talking about riots in the streets, but wouldn't it be nice to have one big mass walkout? They can't just fire everyone. I mean, who would clean up if they did? Are they going to do it?"

Joseph Conrad once wrote that had Europeans looked directly at imperialism, they could not have dominated half the globe. But they did, because of their firm faith in the rightness--the obligation--of European rule. "What redeems" the "conquest of the earth," he wrote, "is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to." One might say the same of antiunion feeling at Yale. The university justifies its fierce opposition to unions through its exalted sense of purpose.

President Levin--under whose eight-year tenure Yale's endowment has increased 41 percent annually, now topping $10 billion--sees "the education of leaders" as Yale's mission in the new millennium. Yale, he boasts, trains "more leaders of US corporations than any other university." He has sought to place Yale at the pinnacle of the global economy, creating a World Fellows program and founding the Center for the Study of Globalization, to be led by Strobe Talbot, Deputy Secretary of State under President Clinton.

Yet the education of rulers of the globe takes place in the smallest of worlds. Nestled in quadrangles carpeted with magnolia blossoms, the university is a haven of intellectual discovery, which must be vigilantly protected from the fray. Within Yale's stone buildings, with their spiky iron gates and intricate Gothic carvings, meant to evoke the twelfth century rather than the twenty-first (although many were built in the 1930s), brilliant professors teach the bright-eyed leaders of tomorrow. Devotion to the promise of this intimate space is what brings the administration--and the faculty--to the barricades.

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