Late last week, Yale clerical and maintenance workers who had been striking for three weeks won a contract that will transform the standard of living of clerical workers at the university, as well as future retirees. Under the new contract, the average salary of Yale clerical workers will rise from $33,000 to $42,220 over the next eight years. The average pension for a Yale worker after twenty or more years of service has been $7,450; under the new contract, many workers will receive twice that amount.
How did the Yale workers win? Through militant picket lines and community support. The strike began with six retirees engaging in a twenty-nine-hour sit-in in the investment office. Thousands of union workers came to the region to protest Yale. Hundreds of graduate student teachers and faculty honored the picket lines and moved their classes off campus. Negotiations were held in the offices of the New Haven mayor. The city began to charge Yale for the overtime of police officers who were spending weekends and evenings arresting demonstrators. Yale, after all, is a corporation that does not pay any taxes, is run by a board of trustees that includes millionaire venture capitalists and the president of Pepsico, and that will pay its own president (Richard Levin) a pension of $42,000 a month. Shipping in hundreds of strikebreakers–which the university was beginning to do as the strike went on–did not go over well in the impoverished city of New Haven.
Most fundamentally, though, the unions won because they have cultivated a deep culture of organizing and solidarity and a willingness to take risks and challenge power. The victory at Yale was only possible because of countless individuals who gained the courage, through the union, to defy powerful authorities to seek greater security and freedom in their own lives. Today it is hard–even for unions and progressive activists–to escape the market mantra telling us we can’t ever win anything corporations don’t give us out of the goodness of their hearts. But in this broader context of political defeat, the victory of a few thousand workers at Yale should remind us all that through unity and the bravery that comes from it, we still can win.