by Melissa Bailey | New Haven Independent | Jun 27, 2012 7:10 pm
Labor peace struck New Haven Wednesday evening as office and blue-collar workers at the city’s largest employer unanimously ratified new four-year contracts.
The surprise ratifications—six months before the expiration of their contracts—took place at kitty-corner meetings in Yale’s Battell Chapel and the First & Summerfield United Methodist Church.
The votes by Locals 34 and 35 of UNITE HERE completed a remarkable turnaround in Yale’s once-turbulent relationship with its workers. The votes paved the way for Yale to avoid political conflict around the construction of two new residential colleges and guaranteed workers ongoing employment in the midst of an ongoing recession.
Blue-collar workers in Local 35 won “unheard of” 14 percent raises over four years; office workers in Local 34 won a 15.35 percent increase plus a $500 bonus for early ratification. Local 35 won a no-layoff clause for four years; Local 34 didn’t.
In return, Yale got concessions in pensions and health care: All new hires will have to enroll in Yale Health Plan instead of Aetna’s plan; and new hires won’t receive Medicare Part B supplemental pay when they retire.
Yale also agreed to “formally establish a jobs pipeline” to connect out-of-work New Haveners to jobs at Yale. In doing so, the university answered a top priority of the new slew of labor-backed aldermen who took office this year. Yale agreed to create a custodian-in-training program and a painter’s apprentice program to help new “pipeline” graduates find long-term jobs.
Local 34 represents 3,500 office workers on campus. Local 35 represents about 1,200 blue-collar employees such as custodians and dining hall workers.
Workers from both camps celebrated with music, balloons and Modern pizza on the Green after the votes.
“We have just ratified one of the best contracts in the nation,” declared Gale Iannone, a founding member of Local 34.
“These agreements recognize the outstanding contribution to Yale’s mission provided by the 4,700 members of Locals 34 and 35 throughout the University,” President Rick Levin said in a 7 p.m. press statement. “The contracts will allow us to continue to attract and retain the talented and dedicated staff who help make Yale one of the world’s greatest universities. We are pleased to extend the cooperative working relationship with our unions that began nearly a decade ago.”
The votes cement President Levin’s legacy of having established a new relationship with Yale’s workers. When he came to office 19 years ago, Yale for decades had had a reputation of having one of the stormiest labor relationships in the country. Yale endured seven strikes in 34 years before coming to a breakthrough agreement in 2003. Both sides reached a peaceful accord in 2009.
Now Levin and union leaders have successfully negotiated two straight contracts without a street fight or a strike.
Unions kept quiet about the breakthrough in the days before the vote. Posters appeared on campus Wednesday promoting the ratification meeting.
Explanations abounded for the agreement.
Addressing his members before the vote, Local 35 President Bob Proto offered two theories.
Theory No. 1: Yale settled because the union has gained political power.
“Right now, we control 20 out of 30 seats on the Board of Aldermen,” Proto noted. The university is planning to build two new residential colleges. “Any brick” they want to lay down has to get approval from the new supermajority on the board, Proto said.
Proto said Local 35 convinced Yale to start giving Local 35 workers more construction work, on contracts between $200,000 and $1.5 million. The new colleges will be “wall to wall Local 35 workers,” he pledged.
Yale agreed to the contract “because we showed power by marching, power in politics,” Proto said.
Theory No. 2: “Rick Levin”—the longest-serving president in Yale’s history— “wants to be sure he leaves with a feather in his cap” about labor-management relations.
Proto offered one explanation of why the union settled.
“Years ago, the other unions marched with us. But now,” he cautioned, Yale’s unions are prospering more than their brothers and sisters in other lines of work.
“If Yale put a full-page ad” in the newspaper detailing the terms of workers’ contracts, “what kind of sympathy would we get” from other unions?
The Fine Print
Proto rattled off the wage hikes to come: 3.25 percent the first year, then 3.50, 3.50, and 3.75.
Why the higher number in the final year? The unions wanted a three-year contract, Proto explained. “Yale wanted that fourth year and they had to buy it.”
Proto said the union stood firm on some aspects of health care. Starting with the last contract, he said, Yale wanted workers to take on co-pays, but the union balked. “Once they get their foot in the door,” he said, it’s over.
He was proud to announce Wednesday that “we kept the [Yale] Health Plan 100 percent free.” Workers also secured patient-doctor ratios so that workers don’t have to wait so long to get appointments, he said.
Proto said Yale “tried to totally eliminate” workers’ alternative to the Yale Health Plan, an alternative offered by Aetna.
“We beat ‘em back on the health plan,” he said. In the next contract, “everyone on the Aetna plan stays on that plan.” Some 17 percent of workers in Local 35 are on the Aetna plan, he said.
The union did make concessions. For instance, the employee contribution on the Aetna plan will go up from 8 to 12 percent, Proto said.
And new hires to Yale will have fewer choices. New workers will not be allowed to join the current Aetna plan. And new hires will be required to use the Yale Health Plan for their first three years, after which they’ll be offered a new alternative plan. The same goes for Local 34.
Local 35 gave up other concessions for new employees’ retirement benefits.
Yale currently offers free lifetime retiree medical benefits for workers with 20 years’ service. Under the new contract, new hires will get only 80 percent of those benefits paid for by Yale.
Yale currently pays towards the cost of Medicare Part B for retirees over age 65. It’s called the Medicare Part B supplement. Yale wanted to “take it away,” Proto said. The union settled on a compromise.
“We had to drop that for new hires,” he said.
“Nowhere Can You Get No Layoffs”
Workers agreed to take a voice vote instead of a ballot vote. They issued a cry of unanimous approval and poured out of the church.
“It’s beautiful!” declared one worker.
Lee Mack (pictured), a senior custodian with 18 years on the job, declared himself “happy with the results,” especially the medical benefits and the pay raises.
“Nowhere in the country can you get no layoffs,” noted Local 35’s James Carr.
“We have a strong union,” he said.
A physical plant worker named Al (pictured), who declined to give his last name, said he hadn’t heard the details until he walked into the church Wednesday. He was impressed enough to cast his vote on the spot.
“Tremendous!” he said as he bit into a piece of celebratory pizza. “The wage increases are unheard of. And the job security!”
Even before the new contract, Yale already had “the number one contract in the country” for a university workforce, Proto said. He said that’s based on market comparisons discussed during contract negotiations.
Local 34’s contract mirrors 35’s for the most part, except for a slight difference in wage hikes.
Both unions targeted Yale for using too many casual workers instead of permanent ones.
Yale had 269 contract violations related to using casual workers instead of permanent ones, according to Local 34’s Jess Corbett. The new agreement turns casual positions into permanent jobs. The new jobs will go, in this order, to: laid-off workers, inside hires, and people who come through the city’s jobs pipeline.
People in that “pipeline” will get access to five new apprenticeships at Yale.
Battell Chapel filled with applause as a battery of Local 34-ers announced new benefits, especially the wage hikes.