(Updated: 7:30 p.m.) Larry Daniels joined a roar of “yes” votes inside a downtown church, as Yale workers ratified a historic, early agreement on next year’s contracts.
Daniels (pictured) joined about 700 fellow Yale employees in an apparently unanimous voice vote to approve UNITE HERE Local 35’s contract shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Center Church on the Green. Hundreds of Local 34 workers followed in suit, approving their contract shortly before 7 p.m. at Yale’s Battell Chapel.
Daniels, who’s 52, was thankful to avoid what could have been another labor strike in January 2010. He said he felt blessed to have a guarantee of no layoffs, given the bleak economy.
“Everything is going downhill,” he said, “but we’re going up.”
Bob Proto (pictured), president of UNITE HERE Local 35, has stood on the picket line 11 times during his 35 years at Yale. He joined other labor leaders and university officials in an unprecedented love-fest Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the tentative agreement on two new contracts for Locals 34 and 35, nine months before their current ones expire.
The pact, first reported in this Independent story, marks a breakthrough for Yale’s campus labor relations, which as recently as 2003 were considered to be some of the worst in the country. (Click here for a background story.)
The deal will largely extend the existing contracts another three years. For Local 35, that means a guarantee of no layoffs; for Local 34, which has no such clause, Yale has agreed to enhance job security procedures for those who are laid off.
Confident of a “yes” vote in both unions, officials heralded the agreement Tuesday morning as “a historic labor relations milestone.”
“This is a historic day for Yale University,” declared Yale President Rick Levin.
After years of bitter disputes, “we’re so proud and pleased that we can stand up here together” with labor officials and announce a peaceful agreement on two, three-year labor contracts, effective January 2010, he said.
Taking the mic in a room packed with smiling elected officials, Yale workers, union staff and Yale management, Proto detailed how the former adversaries came to be standing side by side.
In the past, he said people would urge union officials to “fix your broken relationship.”
“Well, I would argue that we didn’t have a relationship. And that’s what happened this time around. We actually developed a relationship,” said Proto. He and others have credited a new problem-solving approach by which decision-makers sat down with union representatives and addressed problems as they arose instead of letting them fester until the end of the contract. (Click here to read a dining hall worker’s perspective on that process’s success.)
Proto said the two sides stopped “talking past each other.” “We listened to each other this time. That’s where the change really took effect.”
He ended his speech with this announcement:
“I’m putting down my strike sign and I’m carrying a new one,” said Proto, pulling out a green peace sign, eliciting laughter from the room.
Levin credited the work of Proto and Laura Smith, president of Local 34, in making progress and building relationships of trust over the past six years.
“I think it’s astonishing,” chimed in John Wilhelm, national leader of UNITE HERE and a Yale College alum, “and enormously in the credit of everyone here, that in the mess that our country is in, and the mess that our city and region is in economically,” to come to an agreement that maintains good jobs and ensures unions’ growth.
“That’s an astonishing achievement, and I hope it’s one that the rest of the country will look at it, and I hope the rest of the labor movement would look at as well,” he said.
“It is a new day at Yale,” added Smith (pictured).
Both sides sought and apparently won some changes in the new contracts.
Both contracts guarantee new union jobs when Yale opens its new western campus. Local 35 has also been guaranteed jobs in several new buildings, including two residential colleges, said Proto.
Yale also agreed to boost pension benefits for some 860 people who retired before 2002 and have been waiting for an adjustment to “poverty-level” pensions. The group includes one person who’s 99 years old. It also includes some fearless retirees who staked out Yale Chief Investment Officer David Swensen’s office during the last round of contract negotiations in search of better pensions. The overnight stakeout was seen as a “breakthrough” in the labor struggle, but the group didn’t benefit from the gains included in the contract, because it only affected current employees.
Labor leaders also touted gains in health care: The Yale health plan coverage has been expanded, and all employees are moving to a new prescription drug program that will bring most members “significant” savings.
There’s one catch: New employees won’t get a choice of health plans; for the first three years, they’ll have to use Yale’s health plan, which is entirely free except for prescription co-pays.
Both sides have agreed to a so-called labor peace plan intended to break the cycle of strikes: 18 months into the contract, they’ll start negotiations on the next contract.
Two big differences in the Local 34 and 35 contracts concern pay raises and job security.
Local 35, which has a no-layoff clause for another three years, will be afforded the following raises: 2 percent in 2010, followed by two 3.25 percent pay hikes in 2011 and 2012.
Local 34 will endure a wage freeze for one year, followed by two 2 percent pay hikes. That union, significantly bigger than Local 35, is also subject to layoffs. Some members have already received pink slips. The new contract will provide for an enhanced process to help laid-off employees find new jobs, union officials said.
One other change: Yale was looking for new rules for when some Local 34 members can take vacations. New hires will receive less paid vacation than current 34 members and will have “floating holidays,” on a more flexible schedule for managers. That’ll put them in line with Local 35 members. Yale sought those changes because an increasing number of Local 34 members, such as medical researchers, work on a year-round calendar the way the blue-collar union workers do, rather than academic-year calendars, the way professors’ support staff do.
The deal left labor leaders, and most workers, smiling wide.
“In good times, this would be a good contract,” said Proto. “In these times, it’s incredible.”