Thirty years later: Yale strike victory remembered



September 26 marks the 30th anniversary of a turning-point struggle in the United States for unions, for women, and for the working class. On that date, the clerical and technical workers at Yale University went on strike for a first union contract.

Many currents contributed to this victory. The civil rights and anti Vietnam war movements changed attitudes of millions of youth who brought changing attitudes with them into the workforce and into their unions. At the same time, there was a flood of women into the workforce, both reflecting and contributing to the growth of the women's movement and its working class component. In the late 1950s, 42% of prime working-age women (25-54) were in the workforce. By 1984, this had increased to 68%, with most of that increase in the previous decade. This was also the decade that saw the start of the long stagnation and decline of men's wages and the increasing proportion of women whose income was essential to maintain their family.

The successful organizing drive and strike were conducted in the teeth of the anti-union offensive signaled by President Reagan's 1981 breaking of the air traffic controllers' union. It was one of a handful of nationally-watched struggles that helped revive and expand a militant, membership-based class struggle unionism and propel a new generation to leadership of the national labor movement. The struggles of fast food, big box retail, janitorial, car wash and all low-wage workers today are in this tradition; Locals 34 and 35 today, while facing challenges to defend their hard-won gains against outsourcing and speedup at Yale, are in the forefront of a labor-community coalition demanding good jobs for New Haven residents.

In the weeks leading up to the strike, a number of Yale workers came together and formed the Yale Workers' Club of the Communist Party. In addition to regular picket duty, club members wrote regular stories about the strike for the Daily World, helping inform a national audience of activists and union leaders of the strategic importance of this struggle. One thousand copies of the Daily World were distributed on the picket lines each week, and were eagerly received. (The Daily World, successor to the Daily Worker, now appears on the internet as After the strike was won, the Yale Workers' Club prepared this analysis, Thirty years later, the Yale Workers' Club continues its work, building support for the union on the job and linking union struggles with broader labor, political and people's movements. The following article on this groundbreaking strike was printed in the July 1985 issue of Political Affairs.

Victory at Yale

by Yale Workers' Club, Communist Party USA 

Reprinted from Political Affairs, July 1985

The recent organizing victory of Yale's workers, after years of struggle, including a ten-week strike, has implications far beyond the ivied walls of academia and the 3,600 workers within them. The organizing drive which led to a successful contract spanned five difficult years for the labor movement. This period included the first election of Ronald Reagan, the smashing of PATCO, the wide acceptance of concessions; the conversion of the NLRB into an anti-labor board, the introduction of two-tier wage systems, and the reelection of Reagan.

But the Yale victory reaffirms the value of class-struggle trade unionism, unity on an industrial basis, organizing the unorganized (including women and clerical workers) and proves the old adage that the best defense is a good offense.

This article discusses some reasons for the Yale workers' victory and its implications for the labor movement.

Description of work unit

Yale's non-academic employees include 1,000 service and maintenance workers, 2,600 clerical and technical workers (c&t's), and 1,500 managerial and professional employees (m&p's).

The service and maintenance workers are organized in Local 35, Federation of University Employees, affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, AFL-CIO (HERE). Local 35 came through four long strikes between 1969 and 1977, defending itself against union-busting tactics and achieving an excellent contract in the process. Nevertheless, the union's size has been shrinking in recent years in the face of subcontracting.

Before this organizing drive, the clerical and technical employees had a low level of union consciousness. Few of them had ever been in unions, and many c&t's accepted anti-working-class stereotypes which were encouraged by management, and had a negative image of the "blue collar" workers in Local 35. Furthermore, they saw the difficulties of union struggle, which were made clear by Local 35's 13-week strike in 1977.

The clerical and technical workers, 82 per cent women and 13 per cent Afro-American, come from a wide geographic area around New Haven. There is a huge variety of job classifications, ranging from stock clerk to accountant, secretary to library assistant, electronic technician to research assistant and lab aid. These varied working conditions made the organizing task even more difficult.

The family and financial situations are equally varied. Some workers are spouses of [graduate students] and know they will be at Yale only a few years. Some are working for a year after college before going on to graduate school. Others have been at Yale for 15-20 years without any real advancement. Approximately 30 per cent of the c&t workforce are heads of households, including many single mothers; in addition, there are also many part-time workers. Turnover is high, about 25 per cent per year.

The c&t's are spread throughout 200 buildings covering several square miles of New Haven. In addition, groups of workers are located in surrounding towns and throughout Connecticut. Although a few buildings have large concentrations of workers, many have 10, 5 or even 1. Even in large buildings, workers on different floors, or even neighboring offices, frequently did not know one another before the organizing drive began.

It seemed, at times, that the only thing the c&ts had in common was that they all worked for Yale University. In the end, that proved enough.

Return of class-struggle trade unionism

The initiative, for the Local 34 organizing drive came from Local 35. This union had achieved perhaps the best contract in a U.S. private university in terms of wages and job security, but it had become clear that the strength of its 1,000 members was insufficient to meet Yale's growing attacks. A decision had to be made: retreat from hard-fought positions, or go on the offense and organize the white collar workers. Standing alone. Local 35 was Vulnerable; if it could organize the c&t's into a-sister union, both could negotiate in strength and unity.

There had been earlier drives among Yale's clerical workers, but they had assumed that the c&t's would not be willing to associate with the organized service and maintenance workers in Local 35. In 1971, District 65 lost an election by a large margin. In 1977, an OPEIU effort received 45 per cent of the vote. In 1982, the UAW withdrew from an ongoing drive in favor of Local 34. None of these earlier drives committed the massive resources and emphasized the class-struggle approach of the HERE organizing drive.

Previous drives offered, sometimes explicitly, "no-risk" unionism. The argument went: When we bargain with the university, we will start with what we have, and try to convince the University to give us more. There's no reason we should have to strike. Besides, if you don't like the contract, you can vote it down and vote out the union, you will have lost nothing.

This approach represented a lack of confidence in the workers' ability to understand their own self-interest; it also reflected illusions that the University would negotiate in a "reasonable" manner, just because the union won an election. It reflected "class collaboration' attitudes, based on the concept that management will cooperate with the union for their mutual benefit.

Even before the Local 34 organizing drive, the leadership of HERE had shown its commitment to organizing the unorganized. Back in 1973, the New Haven Local 217 of HERE hired four young organizers and extra office workers to undertake "the most aggressive organizing drive Connecticut has seen in many years in any industry." As a result. Local 217 grew from 440 members in 1973 to 3,000 today. The organizers who got their training in the Local 217 drive played a major role in the Yale campaign. Now, based on victories in Las Vegas and at Yale, the HERE International has announced a drive which will send 40 organizers to Boston, Washington DC, Chicago and Orange County, California.

In 1980, HERE entered the fight to organize Yale's c&t's with a massive commitment of resources. On the average over the four-year struggle, there were six paid organizers on staff, plus help from others on loan from HERE and other local unions.

The drive was strongly backed by Edward Hanley, International president of HERE, and Director of Organization Vincent Sirabella. John Wilhelm, the New England Vice President of HERE and Local 35 Business Manager, headed the drive and became Local 34's chief negotiator.

From the start the Local 34 drive rejected the class collaboration concepts of earlier drives. The question of the workers' power was repeatedly emphasized. Alone, anything can happen to us, but through a union we have the power to make Yale change. Yale is not going to give us better wages because they suddenly see the light. They will give us better wages because we have the power to make them give us better wages.

From here, the next step was class solidarity. We should associate ourselves with Local 35 because together we have more power to accomplish the things we want.

In workshops for the organizing committee before (and since) the union election, the class struggle nature of the drive was made clear. It was explained that the Yale Corporation (Yale's governing body) is run by rich and powerful men who are associated with the largest banks and corporations, in the country. They hate the idea of workers having any say in how Yale will be run and they fear the effect a successful union at Yale will have on workers everywhere.

Local-34's class-struggle approach was not restricted to rhetoric.

When the union filed for an election in January 1983, the University adopted stalling tactics which could have postponed an election indefinitely. The union leadership dismissed suggestions that hiring a hot-shot lawyer would speed things up. We will get an election, they said, when we force Yale to agree to one.

To do this, a publicity campaign was organized which exposed Yale's stalling tactics. But more important, the workers themselves were organized around the "stalling" issue. Every day of the hearings, a different group of 15 rank-and-file workers took a personal day off work and traveled 50 miles to the labor board hearings in Hartford. Over the weeks, hundreds of workers witnessed Yale's obstructionism. They returned to work angry and determined. They talked about what they saw and urged their fellow workers to join the union and attend the hearings. Weak union members became stronger. The workers held protest meetings on their lunch hours to demand the stalling stop. After six weeks of hearings, Yale gave in, and an election date was agreed to.

The dialectic of class struggle came into play. Yale's stalling tactics heightened the organization and anger of the workers and this, in turn, made the election victory possible. Even so, the vote was close: the union won by only 39 out of 2,500 votes on May 18,1983.

After the union's election victory, the workers had to elect a negotiating committee. At this time, and throughout the negotiating process, the theme of the union leadership was, "negotiations take place in the offices and the labs, not at the bargaining table."

While negotiations dragged out through 10, 20, 30 sessions with no progress, the union responded by organizing workers' actions. Groups of workers marched into their supervisors' offices to protest the lack of progress in negotiations. Mass protest meetings were held at lunch time. In February 1984, close to 1,000 c&t' s participated in a candlelight vigil in front of Yale President Giamatti's house. Finally, as a March 26 strike deadline neared, over 1,500 c&t's came to work wearing bright red buttons declaring, "I don't want to strike. . . . But I will!" In the face of this determination, Yale agreed to a partial contract, which allowed the union to build its strength while negotiations continued through the summer.

Thus, throughout negotiations the emphasis was on the power of the workers as an organized force. This continued during the strike, which began in September 1984 and, perhaps most important, is continuing today as the union moves to consolidate its victory.

Local 34 handles grievances in the same spirit. The goal is to have one steward in every office or lab, or about 500 stewards for 2,600 workers. The union constantly emphasizes that grievances will be won not merely by knowing the contract, but by organizing the workers in support of the issues. In this way, not only can the contract be enforced, but it can also be extended. For example, in a department which had no Afro-American workers among its 85 c&t's, an angry delegation of stewards forced the hiring of two Black women who had been laid off from Yale.

The class struggle approach is again seen in the continuing effort to organize the unorga- nized. The managerial and professional (m&p) workers at Yale are still unorganized. Under current labor law, it would be almost impossible to have an election for this group of workers. The response of Local 34 organizers to this situation is, "If we can organize the great majority of m&p's, we don't need an election. We can go to Yale and demand recognition. If they refuse, we can threaten a recognition strike, now backed by Locals 34 and 35."

On the picket line

When, in September 1984, it became clear that Yale was unwilling to come to a fair settlement, and was unwilling to agree to any form of arbitration, the members of Local 34 voted to strike. Out of 2,600 c&t's, the overwhelming majority of union members, and a number of non-members, joined the strike. Over 1,500 c&Ts were out, joined by 95 per cent of the 1,000 members of Local 35.

Before the strike, the union signed people up for picket duty on three different shifts at over 100 different locations.

These picket lines played a vital role in the strike. While it was impossible to cover every entrance to every building, the picket lines stopped or delayed many deliveries and services. More important, they were a constant reminder to students, faculty and administration at Yale that business was not as usual. They also served as a constant reminder to the residents of New Haven, who passed dozens of picket lines whenever they traveled through downtown New Haven.

The picket lines played an equally vital role as the main source of organization and communication. Picket captains had meetings almost daily, and were able to keep their lines informed of developments in negotiations and around the campus, and to mobilize them for important actions. The picket line became the basic unit for organizing aid to strikers facing particular difficulty. Picketers were also involved in maintaining communication with strikers who were not picketing, and trying to involve them in activity. More than one striker agreed to come by the picket line "for a few minutes" and ended up becoming a regular picketer or even a picket captain.

The strength and solidity of the strike surprised even the union organizers. Although almost all were completely new to unionism, only 200 strikers returned to work over the 10 weeks of the strike, despite pressure from creditors, managers and (sometimes) family members.

Local 35's support was both vital and inspirational. The membership was almost unanimous in respecting Local 34's picket, line, despite numerous threats from the University.

This support was repaid in January, when Local 35's contract expired. Following their own 10-week strike, 1,300 Local 34 members signed a letter promising to respect Local 35's picket lines should they find it necessary to strike.

Community and labor support

When the c&t's struck in September 1984, support came pouring in from all sectors of the labor movement, the local community, students and faculty, not only at Yale but from other universities as well.

Area unions mobilized their members for support rallies before and during the strike. Before the union election, local unions combed their lists for members with relatives at Yale, to persuade them to vote for the union. As the strike loomed, financial support poured in, and there was even discussion in the New Haven Central Labor Council of calling a general strike if it would help the Yale workers.

The national labor movement also pitched in, with letters and donations coming from around the country. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland spoke at a support rally early in the strike, endorsing the concept of equal pay for work of comparable worth. Unionists from the whole Northeast converged on New Haven in December 1984 for a support rally.

Local support was not confined to the labor movement. In the country's seventh poorest city, Yale University is widely recognized as a parasite, occupying prime downtown land, consuming services, but paying no taxes. One New Haven alderman referred to the Yale Corporation as a bunch of absentee slumlords.

Support from the local community took many forms. The New Haven Board of Aldermen passed a strong resolution calling for a settlement. The Association of New Haven Clergy, representing the city's Black clergy, met with Yale's president, and followed up with a prayer meeting and press conference for a settlement. Local bakeries sent their products to the picket lines every day of the strike. And horns blared continuously as residents expressed support as they drove past the picket lines around town.

The overwhelming percentage of women in the union, their leadership in the rank-and-file committees, and the emphasis by union organizers on the issue of comparable worth all struck a special chord of support in women's organizations both locally and nationally. Judith Goldsmith, president of NOW, spoke at a support rally at the same time as Reagan's advisers brought the issue to national attention by denouncing comparable worth as "looney tunes."

The union put major emphasis on developing support from the Yale community, including students, faculty, m&p's parents and alumni. This support directly affected the operation of the University. Nearly every student had to go off campus for one of the 500-plus classes which had been relocated because faculty and students refused to cross picket lines. There were consistent student support rallies and actions, and some students withheld tuition for the second semester at the risk of being dropped from school. A three-day moratorium on classes heightened student and faculty participation in demanding a negotiated settlement.

Campus organizing spread from Yale to other universities, and by the time a settlement was reached, there were support groups on at least 60 campuses from Boston to Ohio. The strike was watched with special-interest by the clerical organizing drive at Columbia, and the Yale settlement was followed quickly by recognition of the union there.

The Comnunist Party, through the work of its Yale Workers' Club, the Daily World, and support from the Party and its friends in the labor movement throughout the Northeast, played a role in many aspects of community and labor support. The 1,000 copies of the Daily World distributed weekly during the strike came to be looked for and welcomed on the picket lines. They helped many workers recognize some of the most important aspects of the struggle: the unity between Local 34 and 35, the strong national and local support movements, and the national and even international significance of their struggle.

The important role of the Daily World was reflected in the enthusiastic response of Yale workers to a slide show shortly after the strike settlement. The show, billed as a fundraiser for the Daily World Committee, consisted of photographs chosen to illustrate the high points of the strike, taken by a volunteer Daily World photographer who is a member of Local 34.

Union democracy

From the start, Local 34 emphasized that participation of the workers was essential.

Union organizers insisted that union supporters had to talk to their coworkers. There was a lot of resistance to this. It meant identifying with the union before coworkers and supervisor, and it meant standing up for one's beliefs.

This approach paid off. The "outside agitator" image could not stand up when, instead of receiving a leaflet from a union organizer, c&t's were invited to lunch by their coworkers to discuss the union. Union supporters learned that if they wanted a union, they would have to run it themselves. And hundreds of workers, mostly women, for the first time in their lives took an active part in determining their future.

In the fall of 1981, the union published the names of 435 Yale c&t's in a statement of support for the union entitled "Standing Together." The signers, proud to have taken a stand, formed the core of what was to become the Local 34 contract committee: solid union supporters who would do union work on the job, in their offices and labs.

In addition to the contract committee, there was a steering committee. This group, eventually growing to about 140 workers, met after work once a week in each of the three major geographic areas of Yale. It was the main place for educating the emerging union rank-and-file leadership and implementing union programs.

Finally, there was the "rank-and-file staff" (or simply "the staff"), a body of 60 to 75 workers who met once a week on a campus-wide basis, and more frequently in informal area groups. In this body, the full-time organizers discussed all programs, and staff members took responsibility for organizing work in specific departments.

These bodies were not elected. In practice, any worker who wanted to could be on the contract committee, and was likely to be drafted onto the steering .committee, and then the staff if he/she showed any sign of willingness and ability to work. The only requirement was to put in the time organizing on the job, making phone calls and house visits at night, and attending meetings.

From union program to union contract

The great emphasis on broad membership involvement continued after the union's election victory, when a negotiating platform was constructed. Meetings were held in every department, where all c&t's, both union members and nonmembers, were invited to make suggestions. There were intense discussions over what the salary structure should be like, what kind of seniority system was best, etc. The proposals were submitted to John Wilhelm, Local 34's chief negotiator, who combined them into a draft proposal. This was circulated to the membership, and a revised draft was issued based on the discussion.

Finally, a membership meeting was held to approve the proposals. While the issues were discussed and a consensus reached in advance, members were urged to attend the meeting to show the Yale administration that the demands had the backing of the entire workforce. Before the meeting, the steering committee asked members to sign up to attend the meeting after work. Contract committee members were responsible for carpooling with their coworkers, so that no one got "lost" on the way to the meeting.

The Local 34 contract - as it was finally ratified on January 22, 1985, after 15 months of negotiations and 10 weeks on strike - reflected all of the demands of the membership and was considered a victory by everyone involved. There were substantial wage gains and a complete overhaul of the promotion and transfer and job security provisions, along with a dental plan, substantial increases in pensions and medical care for retirees, and numerous other gains.

The Local 35 contract, signed six days later, also reflected substantial gains. In previous years, the University was forced to yield financial improvements with one hand, while they eroded the strength of the bargaining unit with the other. This will be a thing of the past, because there are now 2,800 union workers at Yale, instead of 1,000, who have shown their willingness to strike, if necessary, to reach a fair contract.

Structure for the future

With the contract signed. Local 34 has turned to organizing for the future. Its style of work is institutionalized in a new set of bylaws, approved by the membership on April 25th.

There are six full-time staff members, six officers, three trustees, and a 50-member executive board, all drawn from the ranks of Yale workers. These 65 people correspond, in function and largely in person, to the old rank-and-file staff. The contract provides for department stewards, averaging about 1 for every 25 workers, who correspond to the old steering committee, and for ordinary stewards in every "work unit," corresponding to the old contract committee.

The bylaws specify duties for the officers, but emphasize that their main job is to organize:

To fulfill its purposes, the Union requires a clear program, rooted in the needs of the members and the situation confronting members at any time. The major responsibility of the Union leadership is the planning of such programs and the organization of the membership to carry them out. (Emphasis added.)

An indication of the direction of the new union's program is given in the section of the bylaws outlining the purpose .of Local 34. In addition to promoting the interests of the members of Local 34, the bylaws call for working with Local 35, with students, faculty and the rest of the Yale and New Haven communities and the labor movement to "advance the interests of workers generally and working women in particular, to repay in full measure the solidarity of the labor movement and the .community which helped give birth to Local 34."

The vision of Local 34's leadership for an activist union with membership involvement and control, and strong ties to the labor movement and the community, is inspiring, and the progress to date impressive.

The struggle against discrimination

Before the Local 34 organizing drive, most of the c&t's had never been in a union and never been on strike. The experience opened a new world view for many of them. An identification with brothers and sisters in the broader labor movement and with their struggles begaan to grow. This class consciousness was fostered in particular by the staunch refusal of Local 35 members to cross the lines, although their own contract carried no protection for supporting a strike by another union in this manner.

The experience on the picket line strengthened class unity through a new understanding by many white c&t's of the divisive role of racism, and its role in generating superprofits for the bosses. Before the strike, a union study showed that women at Yale average $1,000 per year less than men, and Afro-American workers make $1,000 less than the average. This linked the concepts of comparable worth and affirmative action as methods of ending discrimination. While Local 34's demands did not include an explicit affirmative action clause, demands were incorporated with the specific goal of closing the gap. Most significant were the upgrading of the lowest job classification and reevaluation of jobs. Local 35 won explicit provisions for affirmative action in hiring.

The union adopted methods of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with massive civil disobedience demonstrations involving hundreds of union members and their families as well as support from Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Rustin. The first "witness for equality," involving the arrest of over 100 strikers in front of Yale President Giamatti's home, was a major step in the development of most of the participants.

A Black Caucus, formed during the strike, played a decisive role in winning active support for Local 34's battle from Afro-American student and community organizations. As well, the caucus served to bring Black union members into leadership during the strike. With no Afro-American paid organizers, few Black rank-and-file staff members and a slowness to address the University's racism through public contract demands, the union was not initially seen as fighting for all the workers. The results of the strike show that objectively, those measures which served to address the inequities against Black workers pushed the whole union forward. The strike experience, including the picket lines, meetings, a large Christmas Party, victory celebrations, and smaller social gatherings also served to foster new social and personal relations between white and Black union members.

A major challenge for the fledgling union will be to build on these conditions to insure full participation by Black members at every level and to develop key demands in regard to hiring, training, promotion, job security and working conditions that will end inequalities in every area. If will be especially important to address the fact that only 13 per cent of c&t's are Black, while Afro-Americans constitute more than one-third of New Haven's population.

Consciousness raised

The experience of economic victory has carried over into a heightened awareness and involvement in political struggle by the membership of Local 34. Although this has never been initiated by the union organizers from HERE, it follows directly from the tactics they employed during the organizing drive and strike, and from the recognition that the union needed support from other members of the university community, other unions and from various political forces in the surrounding community.

Union members were in the front row of an anti-apartheid march from the New Haven Green to the headquarters of the Yale Corporation to demand divestment from South Africa. Contingents from Local 34 marched behind the union banner in the mass demonstrations in Washington on August 27, 1983, and April 20, 1985, and led the New Haven Labor Day parade in September 1984. Local 34 members participated in a recent delegation of New Haven area trade unionists who were hosted by the All Union Central Council of Trade Unions in the Soviet Union.


The long struggle at Yale has shown that it is possible to organize unorganized workers; that it is possible to organize white collar workers; it is possible to organize women workers. It is possible to organize these workers in a militant organization, and it is possible to win substantial victories against a powerful foe. Locally, the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council is discussing a major area-organizing drive based on the success at Yale.

There are many lessons to be learned from this victory. Standing out is the vital importance of unity. Unity within Local 34; unity between Local 34 and Local 35; solidarity with the rest of the labor movement; support from the Yale and New Haven communities; support from women's, civil rights, peace and other progressive organizations: all reflected a wide recognition of the importance of the Yale workers' struggle and played a vital role in its success.

Objectively, the key ingredients were class struggle and class solidarity. The events at Yale came to be seen as an important part of a struggle by the working class to break away from the setbacks of recent years and to go on the offensive. This struggle requires the solidarity of all who are affected by it.

The new union recognizes that the struggle goes far beyond a single contract, or even contracts to be gained in the future. To quote from its victory statement:

Nationally, our success will provide hope to millions of others resisting the antiworker offensive by management today, and especially to working women and minorities determined to end economic discrimination in America.

The hope provided is demonstrated by the dozens of invitations Local 34 has received to speak to unions and unorganized workers. Future historians may record the Yale victory as one of the first harbingers of the great labor upsurge of the 1980s.








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