"In many ways Yale was founded on slavery. It must be saved by bravery!" Thus did Jesse Jackson, in his usual cringe-inducing doggerel, rally the striking proletariat against the Robber Barons of Woodbridge Hall. As summer turned to fall, the theme in New Haven seemed to be: Let classes, and class warfare, begin!
With a history of labor unrest, Yale has long been a coveted place for leftists to make their bones. (No, not W's Skull & Bones, the secret society -- and bête noire of conspiracy theorists -- on High Street.) Like 17-year cicadas, work stoppages are a normal event in the lives of Yalies. My earliest memory of the school, in fact, is being shouted at by a truckload of disgruntled union-types to "Go to Harvard!" while on a campus visit as a high-school senior.
This year Jackson arrived to stalk the picket lines as Locals 34 and 35 -- unions representing clerical/technical and service workers respectively -- struck again, for the ninth time in four decades. Joining in too on various occasions were Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Class of '64, and Howard Dean, Class of '71. (No sign yet of sometime Yale Political Union President John Kerry '66, but it's early.) What better platform could there be to mouth vague platitudes about "economic justice" and "forgotten ordinary Americans" than a prestigious Ivy League college, supposedly an aristocratic redoubt of privilege, wealth, and elitism?
This casts the Yale administration in the surprising role of conservative bogeyman. As at many of its academic counterparts, Yale's faculty and leadership hardly abound with fundraisers for the Bush campaign. Still, there is a certain institutional conservatism, born in part of the university's decentralized structure, and a proud tradition of upholding free speech against the shrill, totalitarian demands of PCers. On the whole, the professoriate, while predominantly liberal, is also admirably non-ideological, though some teachers have moved classes off campus to "honor the picket line."
The student body, too, leans noticeably to the Left. (In the 2000 election, for example, more ballots were cast for Ralph Nader than George W. Bush.) But ideological indifference is more common than political passion, and priorities among Yalies tend to be more grounded and practical than abstract and utopian. Sophomore Daniel Koffler summarized the undergraduate mood to the New York Times: "I think a lot of students start with an upper-middle-class sympathy with the strikers, but when they see the effect the strike will have on them, it might turn the students against them." Although some undergrads pool their meal money for the picket fund, with the strike approaching its fourth week, most dining halls closed, and union bullhorns sounding an early-morning reveille, solidarity may soon reach its limit.
So what is at issue here? The unions' principal demands are traditional: higher wages and pensions. (At present, Local 34 workers average $33,000 a year; Local 35, $30,000.) In response to these worker grievances, Yale has offered a generous package of pay increases: an immediate raise of up to 14 percent for Local 34 and a total raise of 44 percent over the life of the contract. Local 35 would get at least 3 percent more a year for six years. Regarding pensions, the university proposes to boost spending to allow those who have devoted their lives to the Yale community by working 30 years or more to retire on 83-93 percent of their net salaries, counting Social Security. Present benefits -- including health care, tuition aide for employees' children, and $25,000 toward the purchase of a New Haven home -- would continue as before.
The union bosses scoff. According to the Yale Daily News, "Local 35 President Bob Proto said the University's proposals will force people to 'retire in poverty.'" The rank-and-file, however, appear unconvinced. While Proto's service workers mustered 93 percent participation in the strike (which began on Aug. 27 -- dorm-opening day for upperclassmen), between 40 and 59 percent of their clerical and technical brethren turned up at their desks as usual. Perhaps they remembered the brief strike last March, when bosses forced workers to man the lines for long hours and days in below-freezing temperatures to claim their meager $150 a week in strike pay. The minority of union-minded graduate students cannot be happy either: One of the Locals' first concessions was to drop their demand to fast-track teaching-assistant organization.
Even though their position in this case is extreme, no one begrudges university employees just compensation for their labor. It is therefore sad when the unions forget with whom they have their quarrel and instead target civilians. On Thursday, Sept. 4, the School of Music was set to christen a newly renovated Sprague Hall with the School's opening Convocation. In an outburst of acoustic vandalism, striking workers disrupted the concert with a cacophony of car horns.
This ugly behavior is perhaps what prompted a thoughtful but firm e-mail from the University Secretary, Linda Koch Lorimer. With a hint of Ronald Reagan in her style, the Secretary, in an exquisitely worded display of quiet strength, reaffirmed Yale's commitment to free speech and acknowledged the unions' right to picket, but then noted,
The long-standing University policy provides as follows:
"It is a violation of University regulations for any member of the faculty, staff, or student body to prevent the orderly conduct of a University function or activity … Demonstrations or protests which exceed these limits will subject the participants to temporary or permanent separation from the University."
It is difficult to say how, or when, the strike will be resolved. Negotiations are stalled. Some fear it will drag on all semester. The unions insist upon binding arbitration; Yale refuses, desiring to settle an internal matter in house. In seeking an equitable settlement, both sides should spare a thought for the students, without whom there would be no university, and no jobs.