March Presses Yale On Contract Talks

May 5, 2021 9:20 pm

Hundreds of Yale union members and dozens of labor-decorated cars closed off Prospect Street to issue the Ivory Tower a contract-negotiation ultimatum: Do right by your workers, or else.

That rally, march, car caravan, and protest took place Wednesday afternoon on Prospect Street between Grove and Edwards Streets.

Despite overcast skies and on and off rain, hundreds of local labor advocates and union members gathered in the shadow of Yale’s downtown campus—and atop a recently painted “Yale: Respect New Haven” street mural—to demand that the university reach fair contracts with its two UNITE HERE-affiliated unions, the blue collar Local 35 and the clerical and technical worker union Local 34.

The event, billed as “5/5@5” and organized by the unions and New Haven Rising, saw rank and file members, union leaders, and local, state, and federal elected officials turn out to put the pressure on the university as negotiations continue for the Local 34 and 35 contracts, which expire next year.

The mood at the event was festive, even joyous, buoyed by the relentlessly danceable Motown-filled soundtrack spun by DJ Tootskee.

The speeches by top union officials, by contrast, were as ominous as the grey skies overhead.

“The university, with $31 billion in the bank, feels as though they need economic relief from food service workers, from custodians, from secretaries, from cooks, from electricians,” Local 35 President Bob Proto bellowed from atop a Teamster-provided flatbed trailer that served as a stage in front of Yale’s dome-topped Schwarzman Center. “I can tell you right now, the university is going in the wrong direction as it related to negotiations.”

Proto said that the unions have settled peaceful contracts with the university since 2003 after a history of strikes. These contracts are viewed as some of the best in the country. Now, he said, Yale wants to “roll the clock back, reset wages for lower labor grades, and gouge us as it relates to changing pensions for new hires.”

“We do stand committed to labor peace,” he continued. “We do stand committed to stay at the bargaining table. This university should not make the mistake of thinking their unions are weak because we’ve settled peaceful contracts in the past.”

While the university has a $31 billion endowment, Proto said, the local unions have a different type of power: “We have votes and we have people, and the fact is that we’re gonna use all our means to hold Yale accountable.”

Local 35 Chief Steward and Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers framed her criticism of the university, and the potential consequences of bad-faith negotiations, more bluntly.

“Either you deliver fair contracts, or we’re gonna shut this city down,” she said to cheers. “There’s nothing else to talk about.

“We was essential when you needed us. When you needed somebody to clean, we showed up. When you needed somebody to feed people, we showed up. When you needed somebody to keep the lights on, we showed up.”

Now, she said, Yale is repaying that hard work by its employees by threatening salary and benefit cuts in a new contract.

“You need to respect our union. You need to respect New Haven and pay your fair share. And if you don’t, this shirt I’m wearing that says, ‘Ask about labor peace,’ it’s going to be totally changed. We’re not afraid to do what we have to do for our workers.”

“Let’s really show Yale that either they make a decision and get to the table, or they know what it is after that.”

In response to Wednesday’s union rally, university spokesperson Karen Peart told the Independent by email that Yale “remains committed to the hard work of settling fair contracts and fully intends to honor its commitment to New Haven hiring.”

She wrote that Local 34 and 35 members “enjoy unprecedented job security benefits.” She listed a number of steps Yale has taken to protect its workers during the pandemic, including not laying anyone off as a direct result of Yale’s Covid-19 response and providing premium pay to staff required to work on campus last spring. See below for Peart’s response in full.

The rank and file union members who turned out for Wednesday’s action, meanwhile, stressed the importance of job stability, sustained healthcare and retirement benefits, and increased hiring by Yale of New Haven residents as necessary remedies to economic pain caused by the pandemic.

“We don’t want any layoffs. Enough people are hungry already. Layoffs would only add to that hurt,” said DJ Tootskee, who when not spinning records works at Yale’s “the docks” on South Frontage Road delivering packages to university labs.

“We have to protect our living,” said Aida Hernandez, a 32-year Yale veteran who currently works as an admin assistant. She said she fears that, with so many university staff members still working remotely during the ongoing pandemic, the university may try to seize this moment to outsource work to non-union, part-time workers .

“I know the importance of supporting the union. It’s always a fight” to protect salaries and benefits gained in union contracts. Showing up to events like Wednesday’s is part of that work.

“We came to work every day, and we’re not getting good treatment from Yale,” said Fair Haven resident and Yale medical van driver Rolo Lopez, Sr. “They should have called this city ‘Yale Haven.’ They have to give to New Haven, give it to the people.”

Yale Athletics staffer Joel Furtek pointed out that the university’s endowment and its operating surplus have only grown and grown during the pandemic, even as many of the residents it shares a city with have suffered.

“Yale is doing very well. And it’s an incredibly wealthy institution.” It’s only fair for the university to commit to maintaining jobs, pay, and benefits for its workers.

Annex resident and Yale histology tech Garnett Alexis agreed.

“People are losing their jobs everywhere” during this pandemic, he said. When asked for what message he’d like to send to Yale by showing up to Wednesday’s rally with his daughter Cayla, he said, “Hire from the community and pay your fair share in taxes.”

And when asked why she showed up on Wednesday, Yale account assistant Tonya Ricks replied, “I need to keep my j-o-b.” Rally moves to Hillhouse Ave.

See below for Peart’s email response, printed in full, when asked for comment on Wednesday’s union rally. Click on the Facebook Live videos at the bottom of the article to watch parts of the rally.

The University remains committed to the hard work of settling fair contracts and fully intends to honor its commitment to New Haven hiring. Members of Local 34 and Local 35 unions enjoy unprecedented job security benefits. Staff in Local 35 can only be laid off in very limited circumstances which have not been exercised. Staff in Local 34 with more than 6 years of service obtain a minimum of 18 months of job security with full pay and benefits, and career support to obtain another position at Yale. Union staff at Yale receive generous wages and a full and generous benefit package, including healthcare for the employee and their dependents, a pension, and a supplemented healthcare plan for retirees.

Local 34 and Local 35 represent approx. 5,000 staff of Yale University in clerical, technical, clinical support, dining, custodial, and maintenance roles at the University. We appreciate the critical role our staff have played in supporting University services throughout the difficult period of the pandemic, including many who reported to campus throughout and many others who worked from home.

As required by a bargaining timeline in the 2017 contract with Locals 34 and 35, Yale is currently in bargaining for a 2022 contract renewal and looks forward to continuing productive discussions and seeking creative solutions to both parties’ interests. The University remains committed to the dialogue and problem-solving approach that has fostered a productive period of labor peace since 2003. Since forming the…

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