Organized Crime

In the days before 675 people were arrested
on College Street, New Haven’s labor unions prepared for action. At the
First Methodist Church, 100 students, workers, and interested community
members listened to the instructions of Steve Thornton. Thornton is a veteran
national labor activist who calls himself a "non-violent direct action
civil disobedience organizer." This means that he trains people to
get arrested for the cause as quickly, painlessly, and effectively as possible.
His tone was curt as he reeled off advice: wear comfortable shoes and eat
something beforehand, since "getting arrested might be a time commitment."
Meanwhile, a handful of union employees distributed "pre-arrest cards."
Committed arrestees, they instructed, should submit their names, addresses,
dates of birth, and social security numbers to the New Haven Police Department
before the mass arrest. That way, the cops could pre-print tickets and distribute
them efficiently. With careful planning, they could make a forceful but
orderly point.

The group broke into drills. They lined up in "hassle lines,"
with half the group in arrest formation-arms linked in a long chain-while
the other half acted like hecklers. Then roles reversed. This time, instead
of hecklers, participants were supposed to impersonate journalists, asking
"hard questions about why they’re out doing what they’re doing."
With any luck, their answers might in a few days end up on the front page
of The New York Times.

Union headquarters, meanwhile, buzzed with activity. Organizers shouted
into phones over the drone of copy machines running overtime to produce
recruitment materials for potential arrestees and pamphlets for the hundreds
of witnesses expected to show up for Wednesday’s event. The conversations
consisted mostly of gentle persuasion. "Getting arrested will be a
fine experience," an organizer explained. "Fill out the card and
the cops will have a ticket right there waiting for you. There’s a fine
of $30 or $40"-it turned out to be $88-"but you can do, like,
eight hours of community service instead, and we’re also selling t-shirts
to set up a fund for people who can’t pay." Periodically, someone stood
up waving a stack of papers and yelled victoriously, "I got another
committed"-moving closer, signature-by-signature, towards their professed
goal of orchestrating "the biggest civil disobedience since civil rights."

Around New Haven, similar conversations were taking place in churches,
community centers, coffee shops, and classrooms. I was riding with one organizer
as he sped between Thornton’s training session and a prayer meeting at a
local church, where labor activist preachers were invoking the light of
the divine to boost numbers on the arrest tally. Every few minutes, a colleague
checked in via cell phone to give an update or announce another small victory.
20 people came forward in a rousing "altar call" at a Fair Haven
church; at another church, a man had come to a prayer meeting just to watch
but "was so moved by the spirit there" that he signed a pre-arrest
card before he left.

One union organizer summed up the hopes for the event to me with a sly
pitch: "You know, this is the one time when your body being on the
right side of the line makes a huge difference. The possibility of averting
a strike is directly proportional to the number of people who get arrested
on Wednesday."

And so went the recruiting line: After months
of increasingly acrimonious-and, by this point, stagnated-negotiations between
the Yale administration and Locals 34 and 35, the unions that represent
the University’s clerical and maintenance staff, the labor community needed
to send a stronger message to the administration in hope of breaking an
apparent deadlock and avoiding a University-wide strike. While University
spokesmen had uttered their typical line about the continuing progress of
bargaining, union leaders had grown pessimistic. Their demands, it seemed,
just weren’t getting through to the administration; they needed some new
way to communicate if negotiations were to continue.

Recent media attention had focused on the negotiators’ inability to reach
an agreement on bread-and-butter issues, but the more fundamental, and more
nebulous, concerns of the unions had not even been addressed, especially
the organizing rights of Yale graduate students and workers at Yale-New
Haven Hospital. District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union
and the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (geso) are working
to unionize hospital workers and graduate student teaching assistants respectively,
and have united with Locals 34 and 35 under the Federation of Hospital and
University Employees. Each is demanding that its employer accept what is
known as card-check neutrality-impartiality in the organizing stages and
official recognition once more than half of each workforce has signed cards
expressing solidarity with the union. Both 1199 and geso report that more
than 60% of their workforces have signed such cards. For months, Locals
34 and 35 have made the University’s acceptance of these signatures a basic
condition for the signing of a new contract-an allegiance that is surprising
to many given the disparate characters that make up the four groups.

The recognition of these groups as unions is not the only sticking point
in talks. To Locals 34 and 35, however, Yale’s stubbornness on this front
reflects its general inability to see the need for a "fundamental change"
in its relationship with its employees. "The situation with geso and
the hospital cuts to the heart of how Yale thinks of and treats people who
work here," union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff said. "If you take
away the hoopla, geso and hospital workers are just saying to Yale, ‘Let’s
sit down and have a real talk.’ That’s really what we’re all saying."

In September, Yale President Richard Levin distributed a letter to the
community that criticized unions for their confrontational stance and tendency
to "demonize" Yale. For many union organizers, Levin’s harsh new
tone signified that an amicable outcome to negotiations was all but impossible.
So they set a date: September 25. That day, provided no contract had yet
been signed, union forces would mobilize for a mass arrest.

From that point on, recruitment was frantic and planning was meticulous.
Having inflated the public’s expectations, organizers had to ensure that
the actual numbers would back them up. Originating with the central committee,
union networks extend like tentacles into every segment of the Yale community.
When lead organizers first announced the action, the message traveled to
unionized clerical and maintenance employees, hospital workers, embattled
graduate students, the clergy, local politicians, and activist undergraduates
at a remarkable pace. The strategy was to work through existing relationships:
a history graduate student would approach another history graduate student,
a minister would preach politics to his congregation. Passed along like
this, the recruitment line was retooled for the recipient every time it
was uttered.

The night before the event, the Reverend Scott Marks, a prominent figure
among labor leaders and the activist clergy, held a sort of prayer meeting
for students in the heart of Yale’s campus. Marks is built like a linebacker,
speaks in the cadence of an old-time preacher, and once justified his political
involvement to me by bellowing, "I am a stickler for prayer and worship,
but when you’re done praying, you have to get off your knees." But
that night, with fifty Yale students crowded around him under the lights
of Cross Campus, he ended his pleading and sermonizing with a hollow appeal
to self-interest: "You are not doing this for the people of New Haven.
You are doing this for yourselves."

By the next morning, all the elements were
in place. The unions had the signatures of some 700 people, from all camps
and all backgrounds, committed to being arrested. The police department,
working closely with union organizers, had devised a fail-safe plan to ensure
that everything went smoothly. The media, of course, was alerted.

With such perfect orchestration, the event went off without a hitch. Hundreds
came to witness, hundreds to participate. Linked arm in arm, they were a
microcosm of the New Haven community and reflected the incongruous alliance
that makes up the local labor movement. The line included not only union
workers but also 200 geso members, 65 undergraduates, 35 clergymen, four
aldermen, and three State Representatives. Photographers and journalists
swarmed around them. A squadron of New Haven police officers had prepared
the scene earlier that afternoon. They had readied barricades to redirect
traffic when the arrest line crossed the busy intersection of College and
Elm Streets. As the 675 participants filed across the Green, Andrea Cole,
an organizer for Local 34, soberly directed the crowd of witnesses as if
reciting a dialing menu on an automated answering service: "I need
you to listen very carefully to these instructions. We are asking every
person to maintain order and respect." After the participants were
warned by the police and then arrested, they lined up to collect their citations
at tables that had been set up beforehand. The cops thanked union leaders
for cooperating so well. "We couldn’t have asked for a better time.
Everything went very smoothly and everyone was very helpful," said
one department spokesman.

All had gone according to plan. But the next day, press accounts focused
largely on the orchestration of the event, foregoing any substantive discussion
of the underlying issues for accounts of its overt theatricality and barely
veiled criticisms of its flat tone. Labor leaders must have reacted with
some dismay when The New York Times scoffed, "the two-hour spectacle
… looked like a cross between a voter registration drive and an arts-and-crafts
fair."

Three years ago, Yale’s left-wing community
was convulsing over another, more distant cause: the use of sweatshop labor
in Central America and Southeast Asia to manufacture Yale clothing. In the
debate over what course of action to follow-more protests, a mass public
arrest, a hostile take-over of an administration building (as Harvard living
wage activists did last year, generating a month-long national media frenzy)-the
fall of 2002 became a central concern. Even then, those in the know were
anticipating a serious showdown over labor issues-which would, naturally,
demand impassioned involvement by committed students. "Don’t go and
get arrested now," one savvy veteran of the activist scene told me
somberly. "You have to save yourself for 2002, when the contracts are
up. That’s when shit will really get crazy."

As recently as last spring, however, both union leaders and the Yale administration
were heralding a new era in labor relations at the University. In his Tercentennial
address a year ago, President Levin effectively staked his legacy as a New
Haven visionary on the outcome of negotiations:

In the years ahead, I hope that we can achieve the same kind of progress
with our labor unions, whose members make an essential and valuable contribution
to the life of the University. We are eager to work with Locals 34 and
35 to find a new way of structuring our relationship, relying on day-to-day
collaboration rather than periodic confrontation. Just as our work with
the city of New Haven required participants on both sides of the town-gown
divide to cast aside long-held prejudices, working collaboratively with
our unions will require participants on both sides to overcome years of
distrust.

While the gulf between the union and administration on issues like geso
and the hospital workers was obvious to anyone who looked beyond the fulsome
headlines-one organizer referred to it as a "media love fest"-union
leaders look back on that time as one of sincere hope. "People really
expected something when President Levin talked about collaboration and change,"
Chernoff said.

But Locals 34 and 35 had also learned some crucial lessons since the last
time the labor battle flared up, with a brutal two-month strike in 1996.
Now, union leaders look back on that action as largely a failure. They ceded
to the administration the right to sub-contract jobs in new buildings, which
would have otherwise gone to union members. A year later, when Levin announced
the start of a capital campaign and one of the most ambitious building sprees
in the University’s history, union leaders felt they’d been tricked. Subcontracting
embodies the greatest threat to the survival of unions: irrelevance. On
a national level, organized labor has struggled to adapt to an economy in
which service jobs outnumber those in traditionally unionized industries,
and union membership has plummeted to 13% of the workforce. At Yale, the
administration’s decision to subcontract directly undermined the leadership
and negotiating power of Locals 34 and 35 by slowly starving them of members.

Taking up the cause of graduate students and hospital workers, therefore,
fit into a deeply pragmatic calculation: If successful, the organizing drive
would increase union membership at the University from 4,000 to 8,000. "The
secret’s out: The unions want to grow," Chernoff explained. "We
can do things better when we represent more people." Yale, meanwhile,
has refused even to engage negotiators from 34 and 35 in a dialogue about
geso and 1199, issues that they dismiss as immaterial to bargaining. In
the case of the hospital, the University has long disavowed an actual institutional
connection-despite the fact that President Levin sits on the hospital’s
board and has the power to appoint several of his fellow board members-and
has said that it has no jurisdiction over the hospital’s union-bashing administrators.
Work floor managers at the hospital are notorious among workers for their
chilling intimidation tactics: "You come out of there scared shitless,"
one employee told me. Last month, eight people, including two Yale graduate
students, were arrested while leafleting in front of the building. Yale
administrators have also resisted geso’s attempt to gain formal recognition.
In their most recent move, they have suggested holding a National Labor
Relations Board election while acknowledging that they would forestall a
final decision through years of lengthy appeals. Since the alliance between
these aggrieved groups and the established Yale unions started taking shape,
the administration has repeated to the 4,000 members of Locals 34 and 35,
as University spokesman Thomas Conroy did again after the arrests, "What
the University hopes is that the Yale unions’ support for other unions that
are trying to organize workers does not delay contracts for Yale employees."
This divide-and-conquer strategy, however, misses one thing: that the alliance
is as much pragmatic as it is ideological.

Early this year, the unions and the administration
jointly hired John Stepp, a labor consultant who served in the Department
of Labor under President Reagan, to make negotiations more productive and
more personable. Stepp’s goal was to make each side better understand the
"feelings" of the other, so that bargaining would include more
of a "non-traditional, problem-solving process" and less bickering.
He conducted some 100 interviews with everyone from rank-and-file union
members and University middle managers to President Levin and New Haven
Mayor John DeStefano. The consultant-speak report that emerged was deeply
damning of Levin and the Yale negotiating team, which soon relieved Stepp
of his services. It delineates "a highly adversarial and dysfunctional
relationship, non-productive at its best, but often destructive, and ultimately,
demoralizing for both union and management." It is dotted with phrases
like "caste system," "underclass," "union ghetto,"
and "disdain for working people."

At the end, Stepp lays out a set of bullet-pointed recommendations. First,
the University must understand "the union’s long-term need to grow
its business"-in translation, it must come to terms with the expansion
of unions to previously unorganized communities, like graduate students
and hospital workers. It also calls for "a profound change in the way
the University manages its non-academic workforce and the union’s role in
representing it." After sounding the call for this "profound change,"
the report ends on an ominous note: "If the next bargaining round were
conducted in a traditional manner … a great opportunity would be missed
and the residual negative climate would make the launch of a new relationship
highly unlikely."

As negotiations break down into squabbling over percentage points and pension
numbers refined to meaningless abstraction, union leaders talk more and
more about this "profound change." "Union members came to
the bargaining table with the expectation that there would be some fundamental
change," said Chernoff. "That has nothing to do with x and y percent.
We want to be looked at as assets, not just numbers." I asked Chernoff
to explain in concrete terms what this fundamental change might look like.
She offered a few case-specific examples-training time for clerical workers,
advancement opportunities for the custodial staff-but then ironically slipped
into the same platitudes that Levin continues to express in his public statements
on Locals 34 and 35, mentioning "partnership" and "collaboration."
Finally, she concluded, "I don’t know how possible it is to do that."
But then a few minutes later, she backtracked. "Actually, this is what
it is: the University accepting that there’s nothing fundamentally different
about workers from any other segment of the community."

The University’s official recognition of geso and 1199 is inseparable from
basic respect for its employees as equal members of the University community.
If the administration were truly serious about a partnership with its workers,
union leaders ask, why would they so underhandedly try to derail every new
effort to organize? "Yale has never committed to making people who
devote their life to working here feel trained and respected," Andrea
Cole charged in the week after the mass arrest, as negotiations plodded
along in typical fashion. "Once they decide to sit down and talk in
a real way, I have no doubt we can make progress. But up until now, they
haven’t been serious about talking at all." But Yale, after the arrests
more than ever, has emphasized its adherence to business as usual. As Conroy
said, "We think that the focus should be on the bargaining table, and
now that the demonstration has been held … we can get back to business
and continue negotiating." But when I asked Conroy if a strike can
be averted, he hesitated and tepidly responded, "There’s still some
hope. There’s certainly some." Locals 34 and 35, for their part, along
with members of geso and organized hospital workers, have voted to authorize
a strike-a decision that will likely go into effect this fall if this round
of talks fizzles.

Before the mass arrest, union organizers offered a range of purposes for
the event. First, they highlighted the need to make the Yale administration
listen to a point "that they were just not hearing." This point
was often cast in terms of union expansion and training opportunities, but
had more to do with the murky concept of "fundamental change."
In the weeks since, union leaders seem to have recognized their failure
to get this message across. But the more central purpose of the event may
have been internal, and may explain why union leaders have convinced at
least themselves that the bad press and dismissive attitudes in the wider
community do not matter. "We have learned not to focus on what the
media says," Cole said. Instead, she pointed to the effect on union
members themselves. "It’s strengthened the conviction of those who
participated. They did something they were afraid of, and they came through
on the other side. That’s very powerful." At the moment when 675 people
linked arms on College Street, the most important point may have gone unstated:
The unions are ready for a strike.

 

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a senior in Berkely College, is
editor-in-chief of TNJ.
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