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HERE members on strike at Yale
"This struggle is about dignity"

By Meredith Kalman | September 5, 2003 | Page 12

SOME 2,500 workers at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., are on strike for better pay and pensions--and dignity. The walkout by members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Locals 34 and 35--including office workers, food service workers and maintenance employees--began August 27.

Strikers and their supporters held protests and kept up picket lines from day one. On Labor Day, unions organized the biggest demonstration so far, with more than 3,000 marching through New Haven to a rally on campus. Some 38 strike supporters, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and other clergy members, were arrested in an act of civil disobedience as they blocked an intersection for a second time.

An estimated 60 percent of the 3,127 members of Local 34, which represents white-collar workers, are on the picket line. And of the 1,175 members of the blue-collar Local 35, more than 90 percent are out. Nevertheless, the Hartford Courant deemed the strike action--the ninth in 38 years--as "the largest and most disruptive work stoppage in the long, tangled history of the university and its employees."

Yale workers--who have been working without a contract since January of last year--went on a five-day strike in March to press their demands for wage increases, a substantial pension plan, retroactive pay and job security. This time, the unions are on an indefinite strike.

They are supported by GESO (the graduate teachers' and researchers' union), who are moving classes off campus, and SEIU District 1199, which represents maintenance and health care workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Both unions are, along with HERE, part of the Federation of Hospital and University Employees--and both are fighting to gain official recognition by Yale. In addition, 150 dietary workers who are members of 1199 are striking for a contract.

The walkout began with a sit-in staged by Yale retirees at the office of University Investment Officer David Swensen. The action forced Swensen to meet with protesters, as 2,000 people marched outside. "Morale among workers is very good," Shirley Armstrong, a worker at Yale for 33 years, told Socialist Worker.

"After putting in so many years at Yale, [workers] are left in a situation where they couldn't live a good quality life. At 65, they might have to take a second job. I don't want that. I'd rather lose a few days of work now and gain a decent pension in the end."

The second day of the strike fell on the 40th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Jesse Jackson recalled the occasion as he spoke to a crowd of several hundred in front of Yale-New Haven Hospital about the strike's connections to the larger fight against racism and sexism, describing New Haven as a "microcosm" of the struggle of working people everywhere in the U.S.

Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, a Yale graduate, also visited strikers, telling them that they should be able to "retire with dignity." This, despite Dean's proposal to roll back the Social Security retirement age to 68 or even 70!

On August 29, Yale's annual freshman assembly was canceled as a result of the work stoppage. About 80 strikers took over one of downtown New Haven's busiest intersections, halting traffic until some were arrested.

Yale is taking a hard line. To the clerical workers in Local 34, administrators offered a 25 percent raise over six years, including the time since the old contract's expiration 19 months ago. The union is demanding 34.5 percent over the same period. This increase may sound large, but clerical workers at Yale make only about 57 percent as much as their counterparts at Harvard. For the manual workers in Local 35, Yale is offering an 18.5 percent raise over six years, while the union wants a 23.5 percent increase.

Pensions are an equally important issue. Today, the university contributes less than 1 percent of the payroll toward pensions. The union proposes increasing this to 1.95 percent. Even with an increase proposed by Yale, a 30-year employee at the highest pay scales would get a pension of between $900 to $1,100 a month--and this doesn't rise along with the cost of living.

Yale can afford to pay. With an endowment of $11 billion, it is one of the richest corporations in the U.S. "Whether we get our demand met or not...the fight is what is important," declared Shirley Armstrong. This is about dignity and respect, and we already won by fighting."

William, a maintenance worker and member of Local 35 agreed. "We need to fight together," he said. "Solidarity is how we [are] going to win."

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