Storming Yale's Ivory Tower

Why can't the university learn how to make labor peace?

Given the tough economy, you might think Yale University would have sailed through labor talks with its clerical and service employees this year. After all, the prestigious Ivy League university didn't touch its virtually free health insurance at a time when employers everywhere are pushing more of the burden onto workers. Yale also offered annual pay hikes of up to 4% over six years -- better than deals gratefully accepted this year by the more powerful United Auto Workers and plenty of other unions.

So what's the hang-up in New Haven, where since late August 4,000 members of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) union have been on strike, the ninth since 1968? Part of the problem lies with employees' poverty-level pensions, which average $621 a month. And workers are trying to make up for what they consider a lousy deal in the last contract -- 2.5% annual pay hikes in 1996, even as the economy boomed and their counterparts at Harvard University and other elite colleges scored big gains.

But another, less tangible strain is mounting class and gender tension between an elite employer and its low-skilled, $32,000-a-year workforce. The problem, says Harvard University Economics Professor Lawrence Katz, who chaired a Harvard committee to examine treatment of its low-wage employees, is that economic trends have been kind to intellectuals, but cruel to service workers. "These growing inequities are only reinforced when you have a tradition of poor labor relations" as does Yale, he says.

In broad terms, the labor strife at Yale is similar to that at other elite colleges where lower-level staff have unionized. Harvard fiercely resisted unionization by its clerical workers for 17 years and fought a nasty dispute with its janitors in 2001 that eased only after the university made peace -- and dished out big pay hikes -- to resolve a divisive sit-in. Similar battles have been playing out with unionizing graduate students and teaching assistants -- another Yale issue -- at Columbia University, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, which is girding for a showdown when contracts covering 11,000 unionized graduate students at eight campuses expire on Sept. 30.

The bitterness at Yale, though, has been festering for decades. It was so bad after the months-long '96 strikes, when the university for the first time canceled strikers' health coverage and replaced some workers with temps, that President Richard C. Levin last year brought in John R. Stepp, a former Reagan Administration Labor Dept. official, to help improve morale. Stepp's firm, Restructuring Associates Inc., worked with both sides for months and interviewed more than 100 Yale officials and union members. In his recommendations, Stepp blasted the union for defending poor performers but came down much harder on Yale for disrespecting its workers. "A university that prides itself on developing critical thinking...could reap tremendous benefits from managing its own employees as if they were capable of independent thought," he wrote.

Stepp's firm was let go a few months later, and the two sides quickly reverted to the old animosity, resulting in the current strike. The parties can't even agree on why the reconciliation effort collapsed. Levin insists that the union walked away; HERE President John W. Wilhelm counters that Yale fired Stepp. Stepp says he stayed on until the non-economic issues were resolved but couldn't get both sides to agree to use his firm to deal with the tough economic ones. "Yale stopped bargaining after they dumped him," charges Wilhelm, who's a Yale graduate himself. "It just put out an offer 15 months ago and hasn't substantially changed it since."

Levin insists that Yale's offer will bring union wages and pensions in line with similar Harvard employees. He sees HERE as cynically playing off Yale's prestige to push the unionization of clerical workers. "It was clear in 1996 and in the past two years...that the union is focused on using Yale as a platform to advance its national agenda," says Levin. Indeed, Reverend Jesse Jackson was arrested on behalf of strikers at a Sept. 1 rally in New Haven; on Sept. 13 AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and three union presidents also were arrested.

HERE's high-profile tactics are winning some prominent supporters. Thousands have rallied in the community, where Yale has become the largest employer after the loss of most blue-collar factory jobs. Dozens of local luminaries signed a letter to Levin on the union's behalf, including clergy members, Yale graduate and Presidential contender Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), most of the state legislature, New Haven's mayor, and even the police chief. Still, many professors and students are losing patience.

Levin may want to consult with his Harvard counterparts when it comes to handling the dichotomies of a rich nonprofit institution -- Yale has an $11 billion endowment -- employing lower-wage workers. During the 2001 sit-in, Neil Rudenstine, then Harvard's president, eased tensions by setting up a committee, headed by Katz, to look into employees' demands. Harvard not only adopted the findings, lifting wages and limiting the use of subcontractors, but has followed up with yearly progress reports. It also has offered more education for low-wage staff and an office to deal with their complaints. It's not so different from what auto makers and other unionized employers do to maintain labor peace. If Yale and others can't learn how to live with a unionized staff, they're likely to see picket signs popping up again and again.

By Aaron Bernstein in Washington and William C. Symonds in Boston

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