By Joshua Steinman
Maroon SG Correspondent
Yale University president Richard Levin was met downtown Sunday by a full-scale protest by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Members of the University’s Anti-Sweatshop Coalition were present.
The protest was in response to Levin and Yale’s attitude towards hospital workers who are attempting to unionize in New Haven. Last month, police at Yale’s teaching hospital arrested eight workers for passing out leaflets to their co-workers at their worksite. The workers have been charged with criminal trespassing and face up to one year in prison if convicted. Levin was in Chicago Sunday for a Yale alumni cocktail reception.
Officials at Yale maintain that they play no role in determining the outcome of the effort. “The hospital is not in any way part of the University,” said Tom Conroy of Yale’s Office of Public Affairs.
“The University respects their right to organize. Whether or not those workers at the hospital choose to unionize is up to them,” Conroy said.
Though Yale does not own the hospital, Union leaders insist that Levin is stonewalling their efforts. “President Levin sits on the board of trustees of the hospital, and appoints other members as well,” said Anthony Dugdale, a research analyst for the Federation of Hospital and University Employees.
According to the Chicago protesters, Levin has refused to sit down and talk with the workers who want the right to organize. The workers are calling for a fair organizing process, including neutrality from Yale.
“My thoughts are that as a world-class university and educational institution, Yale, of all places, should be in the forefront of ensuring the democratic rights to free expression, freedom of association, and dissent,” said Dorian Warren, a Yale Ph.D. candidate and visiting fellow at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. “It is absolutely unacceptable that anyone should be arrested for handing out literature that the institution happens to not agree with.”
“Over the last 50 years, the university has had a fortress mentality when it comes to New Haven, as opposed to attempting to be a responsible educational and corporate citizen to the larger community. To his credit, Levin has tried to address some of this, compared to his predecessors, but the thinness of his commitment has come through in recent months,” Warren said.
Levin is calling for a National Labor Review Board (NLRB) election at Yale, while also urging other universities to appeal their NLRB elections in the federal courts, the protesters say.
New York University, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown are several universities whose workers have sought to unionize over the past few years.
“All we want is a pledge from the university and the Yale-New Haven Hospital that they will stay out of the process so that we don’t have to go through the NLRB,” Dugdale said.
The comments result from the harsh anti-union atmosphere at the hospital. “There has been a lot of intimidation. Police arrested workers for distributing literature about the union and the hospital’s employees who come to work wearing pro-union stickers are harassed, and forced to remove the emblems,” Dugdale said.
There are already two unions at Yale: one for clerical and technical workers, and another for service and maintenance workers. Currently, graduate students and teaching assistants are also trying to organize within the university.
The effort to unionize at the Yale-New Haven Hospital has continued for over a year. The university and the University Hospital comprise the largest employment block in the city of New Haven, employing nearly 25 percent of all workers in the city.
The unionization effort at the Yale-New Haven Hospital could spell an increase in pay for employees. “Nationally unionized workers earn about 30 percent more than non-union workers doing the same work,” explained Deborah Chernoff, communications director for the Federation of Hospital and University Employees.
“Yale-New Haven Hospital is one of the top hospitals in the country, and yet some of the people working there cannot afford the premiums for health care, and need state assistance,” Chernoff said. These employees typically earn less than $10 an hour.
In addition to questions of pay, there are problems of influence. “These people want to have a voice in their workplace and be able to deal with issues facing them; equality, staffing: these are issues that unionized workers at other hospitals have successfully dealt with,” Chernoff said.
Known as a maverick among the educational elite, Levin has taken the opportunity several times to split with the greater Yale administration in proposing policy changes. His editorial last year in The New York Times criticizing early decision admissions among several top schools was a key step in re-opening debate on the subject.
An influential member of the New Haven community, Levin’s personal decision to support or oppose the unionization effort may be the decisive event in the struggle.
Levin could not be reached for comment.