Something historical is happening this week at Yale University and reflects merely another stop on a bullet train speeding across America. This week thousands of students and community members joined 5,000 striking janitors, cafeteria workers, secretaries and graduate teaching assistants in the New Haven cold to support workers trying to negotiate stronger pensions, obtain job security, fair wages and a voice on the job. One of the most prestigious and powerful universities in this country is currently at a standstill because it continues to prioritize profit over the health and security of its employees.
Yale employs nearly one in four New Haven residents and has more than 11 billion dollars nesting in the bank. They maintain that they can’t afford higher wages and yet Harvard pays as much as 57 percent more for comparable clerical jobs. Clerical workers at state colleges, including the University of Connecticut, are paid 29 percent more. At Yale’s hospital, dietary workers are paid as little as $8.88 an hour. Yale says they cannot afford to increase worker pensions. This seems suspect given Yale’s pension plan for a 20-year employee dictates they would retire on an average of less than $700 a month, yet University President Richard Levin is seeking to increase his pension to $42,000 a month.
Yale has also aggressively suppressed workers legal rights to organize and form their own union, and the university rejected the union’s offer to go into binding arbitration to avoid a strike. For more than 35 years, Yale University has forcefully tried to deny workers fair concessions and refused to bargain in good faith. The university has also continually refused to recognize the graduate TAs’ union after a vast majority demonstrated support for it.
Student support has been critical for the gaining momentum in helping Yale campus workers improve their lives, similar to the labor struggles at Harvard in 2001. Harvard University’s lowest-paid workers such as janitors, groundskeepers, dining hall workers and others earned a living wage after dozens of students, with wide support from the union movement, occupied the university’s administration building for three weeks to force the school to fairly pay the workers.
The success of the Harvard campaign has inspired students to become active in labor struggles on campuses nationwide, such as efforts at GW in support of J Street workers, and a nationwide week of action this April.
The movement at Yale marks the first time in recent history that such a diversity of workers at a higher learning institution have come together in such a coordinated and united fashion. It also reflects a growing unrest at private universities across the country. Adjunct faculty and teaching assistants are growing tired of low wages, absent health benefits and having to work two or three extra jobs merely to get by.
Yale is just one extraordinary example of new ground being broken in regards to higher education and its workers. New York University paved the way this year when adjunct professors formed a union and were the first workers to bargain a contract at a private university.
As schools like Yale and GW continue profit at the expense of its students and employees, these two neglected members of their respective university communities will continue to work together to demand accountability, fairness and a seat at the negotiating table.
–The writer, a graduate student in the school of political management, is a Hatchet columnist.