Yale University in the United States is facing a major confrontation with its graduate teaching assistants and workers at its teaching hospital over union representation as it celebrates its 300th anniversary.
Yale's critics recently embarrassed university officials and well-heeled alumni by picketing celebration events and demanding the right to organise free from fear and intimidation.
Union organisers at Yale's teaching hospital have been met by armed police while peacefully distributing literature, and managers have disciplined workers for union activity. Yale professor Paul Kennedy has sent emails threatening not to hire graduate teachers who are union members. He later "clarified" this by saying that only those who agree in advance not to engage in certain union activity may work for him (see story, page 12).
Over the past 30 years the university has provoked seven major strikes. And once again Yale has chosen confrontation by seeking to interfere in the choice of union representation for its teaching assistants and hospital workers.
The university's authorities have taken their stand with the backing of weak US labour laws. These allow employers to violate freedom of association and to interfere in the free choice of workers to form a union. Under US law, workers can be subjected to "captive audience" meetings in which the employer controls the discussion. It also allows one-on-one meetings in which supervisors can make thinly veiled threats disguised as "predictions". And the penalties for firing someone for union activity are so weak as to be little deterrent.
Kemel Dawkins, Yale's acting vice-president for finance and administration, says in a recent article that the university "aspires to be a national model of good labour relations". He has many good models to follow, none of which includes interfering in the right of workers to organise or refusing to engage in collective bargaining. Many enlightened US corporations have not campaigned against unions or tried to influence the union selection process.
In many UK institutions, constructive industrial relations have led to successful partnership built around common interests - a model our US counterparts should take to heart.
By choosing a hard line, the Yale administration is disrupting the academy and putting the faculty in the awkward position of being frontline supervisors in an anti-union campaign.
Yale's decision to oppose union organisation on campus guarantees that more faculty will be drawn into unnecessary conflict with their graduate assistants. Yale should accept the free decision of its employees and celebrate its tercentennial by replacing confrontation with cooperation.
Trades Union Congress