On a Friday afternoon in late April, Woolsey, the great hall at Yale, is packed with Old Blues. Gilt scrolls frame the proscenium, and from the ceiling hangs an enormous screen bearing the word YALE. A sudden organ chord sounds. In their starched shirts and navy jackets, the alumni rise like a single body and, without prompting, sing the Yale anthem. At the last refrain–“For God, for country and for Yale”–they take out white handkerchiefs, waving them above their heads in a gesture resembling surrender.
It’s the first event of Yale’s Tercentennial Alumni Weekend, part of a yearlong festival celebrating 300 years of pomp and circumstance. Yale has always been self-conscious about its place in American society. Since it was founded by dissenting Puritans, the school has claimed crusading aspirations. Even a modern-day Thorstein Veblen like Lewis Lapham can’t help but extol his alma mater’s “antithetical spirit of remonstrance and dissent” in Yale’s alumni magazine. Three years ago, historian Gaddis Smith gave a course on “Yale and the External World,” featuring such topics as the reorganization of the provost’s office. In a telling misprint, the course was advertised as “Yale and the Eternal World.”
But the weekend’s first event is firmly anchored in this world. It is a chat with Yale alums Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary, and Janet Yellen, a former governor of the Federal Reserve. University president Richard Levin, a fellow economist by training, slyly jokes that perhaps Yale can take credit for the past decade of economic expansion–as well as for the last three Presidents. Levin trots Yellen and Rubin through a few paces, coaxing them to rehearse painfully conventional wisdom (why lower deficits are good for economic growth, why NAFTA is a boon to America and Mexico alike). The alumni grow dazed and bored. People start to drift out of the hall.
Outside in the street, there’s another restless crowd massing. Skinny grad students mingle with secretaries and chat with Yale’s service and maintenance crews. Children run underfoot. A huge sound truck blasts reggae, while police on horseback guard the street corners. A grad student from the French department gives a speech about grading papers, and an undergrad talks about what she’s learned from the labor movement. Carpenters and janitors cheer. Alumni passing by aren’t sure what to make of the noise. “What are they protesting now?” a middle-aged alumna asks. “It’s a little bit rude,” sniffs a gray-jowled man.
The demonstrators are from locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), representing Yale’s support staff and its service and maintenance workers; GESO, the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (affiliated with HERE); and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), District 1199, which is organizing workers at Yale/New Haven Hospital. (Yale does not own or directly control the hospital, but the university’s president sits on its board of trustees.) GESO has been organizing for the past decade; the hospital workers, for three years. Yale’s history of hostility to unions makes it impossible to hold a fair NLRB election, the unions say, so they’re demanding recognition for GESO and the hospital workers when a majority of both bargaining units sign union cards.