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Yale Union Victory Has Broad Labour Significance

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Sept. 25, 2003

Union Victory at Yale Has Broader Significance for Labor Movement

Interview with John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

On Sept. 19, workers at Yale University overwhelmingly approved new contracts after a strike lasting more than three weeks. The 1,100 maintenance and dining hall workers, joined by almost 3,000 clerical and technical workers, won higher wages, better job security, another step on the advancement ladder, and perhaps most importantly, a substantial increase in pension pay.

The Yale unions, Locals 34 and 35, belong to HERE -- the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union -- whose president, John Wilhelm, a Yale graduate, began working for the union 35 years ago. He participated in negotiations at different points in the 19-month period after the last contract expired and the strike started on Aug. 27. But once it did start, he sat in on every meeting, going head to head with Yale President Rick Levin in talks mediated by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

The strike was settled on a Sept. 19. Three days later, Wilhelm appeared at a news conference outside Yale-New Haven Hospital with other labor leaders, elected officials, clergy and hospital workers. They were there to push for contracts for the 150 dietary workers who are members of Local 1199/SEIU and for a fair process to organize the other 1,700 service workers at the hospital.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Wilhelm about the unique aspects of the successful fight at Yale and the significance of this victory for the rest of the labor movement.

John Wilhelm: I think there's something very special going on here, and I think it ought to be celebrated. Locals 34 and 35 realized over the last decade that New Haven has become a company town, and the company is the university and its hospital. Years ago, when I first came to New Haven, there were large numbers of unionized manufacturing shops, large numbers of unionized shirt and apparel shops. New Haven really had a three-legged economy, and there were a lot of good jobs available to ordinary working people -- good union jobs. Now all that industry's gone, all the manufacturing, all the shirts and apparel. So the town has turned into a company town. Our unions came to the realization that in order to successfully advocate for the interests of workers in a company town, we needed to be part of a movement. That movement has to be not just in support of union issues, but a movement in support of the issues of all the parts of the community. So I think what we saw in the strike at the university in the past 3 1/2 weeks, and what we're going to continue to see in the struggle for justice at Yale-New Haven Hospital, is an extraordinary coalition, a coalition of Locals 34 and 35, which is service and maintenance and clerical workers at Yale University, 1199, which is dietary workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital, other hospital workers who seek to unionize, graduate teachers and research assistants at Yale, who are such an enormous and important and vital part of this strike and this whole struggle, the community -- the clergy, the elected leadership.

We've seen all of the parts of this community come together really in an unprecedented way, and I've been in or around New Haven for almost 40 years. It's a remarkable thing, something that ought to be celebrated, and it's something that the labor movement, in order to be successful in advocating for workers, needs to do much more of around the country.

Between The Lines: So this is a good model for a company town. But what about organizing workers in a town and a city that has a lot of diversity still? What can people in those struggles take from what succeeded here that might help them, if it's a diverse economy and it's not really controlled by one or two employers?

John Wilhelm: I think the best reading of American labor history is that, when the labor movement is part of a broad movement for social justice, workers do better. Conversely, when we have a strong labor movement, our country does better. We sort of take for granted the existence of the American middle class, but the middle class was literally invented by the labor movement. We take for granted that manufacturing jobs -- which we're now losing by the millions because of globalization -- we take for granted those were good jobs. Well, those were not good jobs until they became unionized in the 1930s and 1940s. Manufacturing jobs used to be terrible jobs, just as most service sector jobs are today. I think our country is stronger when we have a strong labor movement, and the labor movement is stronger when we reach out and form coalitions and support the issues that other people in the community have and when we're part of a movement for justice.

Our country is unique in the world. It's the largest country to which people came from everywhere else. Unless you're a Native American Indian, everybody in their family came from somewhere. That's what makes our country great. That's what's made our unions great. The backlash against the rights of immigrants after 9/11 is not in the interest of our country. Nine-eleven was not perpetrated by immigrants.

Our union lost 43 members who worked in the Windows on the World restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center. Nobody feels more strongly against the people that perpetrated that criminal act than we do. But that act on 9/11 was not perpetrated by immigrants; it was perpetrated by criminals. And we need to celebrate the contribution of immigrants to this country. This country needs immigrants. We need to make sure that we don't engage in the hypocrisy of welcoming immigrants here to work and then denying them their rights. People who come here work hard at jobs, pay taxes, join unions, join churches, build communities, revitalize cities. They should be honored.

For more information on the labor struggle at Yale, call HERE at (203) 624-5161 or visit their website at

Additional links on our website at


Melinda Tuhus is a producer with Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 30 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending Oct. 3, 2003. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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