Yale workers begin strike over wages, pensions

By DIANE SCARPONI
Associated Press Writer
August 28, 2003, Thursday

Two unions' strike at Yale University is so contentious that the two sides could not even agree Thursday on how many workers walked off the job.

Locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International, which represent about 4,000 workers at Yale, went on strike Wednesday.

The unions said about 2,600 were off the job Wednesday. Nearly all the custodians and maintenance workers from Local 35 joined the strike, but only about half of the secretaries and technical workers from Local 34 joined them, officials said.

A chief Yale negotiator, Janet Lindner, said more workers are choosing to stay on the job this time than during a five-day strike in March.

"Whether it's describing their offer, our offer, and now the numbers of workers on strike, Yale has the continued arrogance to believe that just because they say it, no matter how phony and false, people will believe it," said Laura Smith, president of Local 34.

The workers hit the streets to demand higher wages and pension benefits, job security and retroactive pay for the 20 months they have worked without contracts.

Five pensioners who conducted an overnight sit-in at a Yale office left Wednesday after the university responded to their demands for a meeting with the head of the investment office.

The strike was timed to start just as students returned to campus. Upperclassmen began arriving on campus Wednesday, and most freshmen are to arrive Friday.

Yale pledged to keep the campus running using managers and temporary workers as needed. Classes begin Sept. 3. The unions have gone on strike during eight of their last 10 contract negotiations. Workers said Wednesday they were prepared to walk the picket lines for months this time.

"We're fighting for our survival here," said striker Sandra Weber, who works at Sterling Memorial Library. No new contract talks were scheduled.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson rallied a crowd of more than 1,000 in front of Yale President Richard Levin's office and later met privately with Levin. Jackson said he would review the proposals from both sides.

"There are bound to be some points of bridge-building so the university wins, the union wins and workers win," he said.

Earlier Jackson said it was shameful that Yale, which has an endowment of about $11 billion, will not pay its workers decent wages and pensions. He said after the meeting that Levin "conceded something needs to happen" on pensions but gave no specifics.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the university was planning an increase in benefits for workers who have already retired.

"We still have some data-crunching to do," Conroy said.

The university said it has offered a fair and competitive six-year package, including raises of between 3 and 5 percent, pension increases, step increases, a signing bonus and other items.

Yale also has not asked for any givebacks, such as contributions toward health insurance, which the university provides free and without employee copays.

Local 35 seeks raises of 3 percent the first year, going up to 5 percent in the sixth year. Local 34 wants raises of 4 percent in the first year, rising to 7 percent in the sixth year.

Members of Local 35 on average make more than $30,000 a year, while Local 34 members make on average more than $33,000, Yale said.

Pensions also are a major issue. The unions said the average worker with 20 years on the job who retired last year gets a monthly pension of $621, forcing many to get other jobs after they retire from Yale.

Yale said it has offered pension benefits that, combined with Social Security, would provide retirees with between 83 percent and 92 percent of their final salaries.

John Wilhelm, the president of the national union, said the Yale claim is "a lie." The five Yale retirees who occupied an office overnight demanded to know how the university's $200 million pension fund surplus was being invested, and why that money was not being spent to increase pensions.

The school's investment officer, David Swensen, met with them Wednesday afternoon, but the retirees said they were not satisfied with his explanations.

"We tried to get him to commit himself morally - not to our position, but to say to the corporate trustees, 'We have plenty of money here in this fund.' He kept repeating that his only function was to manage the investments," said Bill Lewis, 77, who worked at Yale for 11 years.

Temporary workers helped students move into dorms Wednesday. Connie Choi, a junior from Vineland, N.J., said Wednesday that she felt conflicted about the strike.

"The things they are fighting for seem reasonable in a way," she said. "But Yale is projecting its image also as reasonable. It's kind of hard to take sides."

The university planned to rebate a portion of the board fees paid by upperclassmen, to provide the students with money to buy groceries or eat out for the duration of the strike. Managers would staff other dining halls for freshmen. Local 35's longest strike - 13 weeks - was in 1977. Local 34 went on strike for 10 1/2 weeks in 1984 before agreeing to its first contract. About 150 dietary workers at the hospital went on strike along with Locals 34 and 35. They have been seeking a new contract for over two years.