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September 01, 2003

Yale and the unions

It's Labor Day; the clerical and technical workers of Yale are on strike; and I'm remembering Yale's labor negotiations in 1988. The two sides were working around the clock to finish a contract. I was president of the student government, and the union asked me and a bunch of other neutral representatives to observe—to make sure that both sides were bargaining in good faith. Since the University opposed the idea of observers, I sat on the union's side of the room. I was personally sympathetic to that side and have since written favorably about organized labor; but I was carefully neutral as a student leader. I think that the University's negotiators deliberately ignored me (not that I minded).

I remember that at about 2 am, the two sides took a long break. I went home for a nap and asked a union guy to call me when they were ready to start again. He called several hours later, and I asked to be excused because I was too sleepy to get back out of bed. I'm embarrassed that he made the call for no purpose.

Both sides complained about the cost of labor lawyers and their billing practices. I also remember the union identifying slackness and idleness in certain specific departments on campus that were staffed by their own members. They blamed management for poor oversight, but their motive was to save Yale money—so that the University wouldn't "outsource" union jobs as another way to reduce costs. This is an example of collective-bargaining serving both sides.

I'm not sure why Yale has a uniquely bad strike record. Part of the reason may be that the Yale unions are extremely well run, strategic, motivated, and deeply supported by the community. Even though they are in a position to demand higher-than-average wages, Yale resists paying much above the mean. The bargaining power of Yale employees is unusual, for only 13 percent of private-sector workers are unionized, and some of those face such intense competition from non-union shops that they have to make concessions constantly. In my view, the Yale locals are right to exploit their unusual power (which they created themselves, and which other workers should also enjoy). Yale should face reality and pay considerably higher-than-average wages.

Posted by peterlevine at September 1, 2003 12:26 PM

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