Yale’s workers, the members of unions Local 34 and Local 35, marked the commencement of the academic year on August 28 by going on strike. Since then, they have been buoyed, cheered, and encouraged by John Wilhelm, general president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), the parent union of locals 34 and 35 and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, by presidential candidates Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman, and by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. And three weeks into the school year, they’re still going strong, chanting offensive refrains in the streets, shaking noisemakers, disrupting classes, and forcing many classes off campus altogether.
Despite the unions’ contention that their goal is not to target or inconvenience Yale students, almost every one of their subsequent actions belies this claim. As freshmen attempted to move into their dorms on August 29, police arrested 83 people, including Wilhelm, for blocking major intersections and interfering with student move-in. Just three days later, the Reverend Jackson and 18 others were arrested for sitting in the street and blocking another major campus intersection. The Reverend used the occasion to relate the plight of Yale’s workers to the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. He has gone so far as to support the workers with his traditional doggerel -- “In many ways, Yale was founded on slavery. It must be saved by bravery.” Over the weekend, in another show of the unions’ “tough-mindedness,” close to 10,000 workers from around the country rallied in the streets as John Sweeney highlighted the paradox of Yale’s existence as “an institution of higher learning and lower morale.” The rally culminated in the arrests of Sweeney and 100 others.
The “bravery” and superior “morale” of the union workers lauded by Jackson and Sweeney wrought the postponement of freshmen convocation for the first time in Yale’s history. Never before has freshmen convocation been postponed: not during the Civil War, World War I or II, not during the Korean War, and not during the Vietnam War. This momentous event prompted Wilhelm to celebrate the unions’ “victory,” a “victory” that did real damage to the university by sabotaging one of the milestones of 1,300 students’ freshmen year.
Since the big “victory” and the start of classes, 157 professors have moved their classes off campus in an expression of support for the striking workers. Classes are held in pizza parlors, movie theaters, and even in City Hall. The banging of pots and pans and the hackneyed cries of victimization from the strikers punctuate the classes taught by professors tough-minded enough to remain on campus. Doors and windows are closed in unsuccessful attempts to drown out the repeated refrain, “Yale is cheap!”
Lost in the midst of the cacophony of union slogans are the facts of the dispute, and the nearly impossible position in which Yale’s president Richard Levin has unfortunately found himself. The facts are simple, and they were reported by James Kirchick in the Yale Daily News:
“In these uncertain economic times, Yale's contract offer is eminently reasonable. While unemployment soars, Yale is offering an average 14.3 percent increase in wages to members of Local 34 and an average 9.3 percent salary increase to members of Local 35…Yale offers nearly two months of paid leave a year. Yale offers free health care to all of its union employees, their families and retirees who have worked at the University for more than 10 years. Yale offers $25,000 to those workers who wish to purchase a home near the University. Yale offers up to $46,000 over four years in college scholarships to the children of its employees. Yale offers a pension plan that gives workers who have been here for 30 years over 90 percent of their highest salary every year for the rest of their retirement.”
Unsurprisingly, these facts haven’t garnered much attention from students, professors, or the union workers themselves. But even a cursory examination reveals that Yale offers benefits that would leave the average American worker’s jaw on the floor.
The issue union workers and their bosses harp on most, however, is Yale’s pension plan. In this case, facts are distorted and lies are promulgated to make the union case. The unions and their student supporters repeatedly claim that Yale workers are unable to live off of the pension plan Yale currently provides. A Yale sophomore argued (somewhat unintelligibly) in the Yale Daily News that “To defend a pension plan which left the average Yale retiree of 2000 with a $609 per month pension while proposing to offer Levin a $42,000 monthly pension and investing the rest of the fund is indefensible.” Yet the unions hold out as their examples “victims” who, having worked at Yale less than 30 years, are not long-term workers and, as such, have no right to the full retirement package provided under the current contract.
Unfortunately, President Levin stands alone in publicly defending an extremely reasonable position. Even at parents’ weekend last October, he was bombarded with hostile questions from parents who crossed picket lines to hear him speak at a Saturday morning forum. This year he will undoubtedly find the climate even more unfriendly. Ironically, it is the primarily the parents’ pocketbooks that President Levin is fighting to protect. But why not give in, when parents and professors—157 of them, at least—are aligned against him? It’s simple: Yale’s competitiveness, in terms of its tuition, with other schools, both inside and outside of the Ivy League, hangs in the balance. How long can this go on? How long can President Levin hold up his end of the battle when he lacks the support of his own “company”? It remains to be seen, but with any luck President Levin can hold out long enough to ensure the triumph of principle over Reverend Jackson, Senator Lieberman and Governor Dean, polemical parents, and misguided students, whose dishonest and self-serving rhetoric have clouded the real issues or distorted them beyond recognition.
Despite the inconveniences caused by the strike, many students have maintained their support for the strikers, the disruption they’ve orchestrated, and the circus they’ve brought into town. One Yale sophomore argued in the Yale Daily News that “Wilhelm is one hero of the Yale labor movement. There are a few thousand others marching through the streets right now.” In reality, the contrary is true. That is, President Levin is the hero of the day. And it’s a shame that there aren’t a few thousand professors, students, and parents of students marching—or even standing—behind him.
Eliana Johnson is a sophomore at Yale University and the president of Yale’s chapter of Students for Academic Freedom. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.