2019 August 2019

Labor Organizing in Higher Ed: Lessons from the 1984-85 Yale Strike

The failures of the Hormel plant strike in 1985-86 captured the U.S. public imagination, setting a defeatist tone for the labor movement. But what might the labor movement still learn from the successes of the 1984-85 Yale strike of mostly-women clerical and technical workers?

By Jacob Remes

One of the most widely consumed depictions of the American labor movement in the 1980s was Barbara Kopple’s documentary American Dream about a meatpackers’ strike at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota in 1985-86. Facing deindustrialization, an employer set on extracting devastating concessions, a hostile government, and a paralyzed labor movement, the workers of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union Local P-9 lost their strike. The film ends with the local union denied home rule by its international parent, the workers fired, the town devastated, and families ripped apart. As the credits roll, the union anthem “Solidarity Forever” plays ironically.[1]

Around the same time as the Hormel Strike, another strike also captured the imagination of the public, the labor movement, and intellectuals like Kopple. In the fall and winter of 1984-85, the mostly female clerical and technical workers at Yale University, members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Local 34 battled the administration for their first contract. After they won, a group of sympathetic Yale academics—historians Toni Gilpin, Dan Letwin, and Jack McKivigan and lawyer Gary Isaac—wrote a short book describing how the women successfully organized in Ronald Reagan’s union-hostile, deindustrializing America.[2] At a mere 96 pages, it was a literal handbook on how to beat the boss during the 1980s.

The 1984 Yale Strike, Photo attributed to www.peoplesworld.org and Art Perlo

American Dream and On Strike for Respect were both attempts to wrestle with Reagan’s attack on unions and, more generally, with what we have come to know as neoliberalism. The crisis that Kopple, Gilpin, Isaac, Letwin, and McKivigan already perceived is the crisis from which the labor movement has still not emerged. Labor’s dominant legal and organizing model, based on large steel and automobile plants of the 1930s, has faltered in the neoliberal service economy. Pushed by ever-more-aggressive management-side labor lawyers, the state has become less supportive of unionization. Union density—the measure of union members as a proportion of all workers—has fallen drastically, from 23.4% in 1979 to only 10.5% in 2018. Meanwhile, demographic changes render the American working class more diverse by nationality, race, and gender, than was imagined in earlier generations.[3]

Both the film and the book asked how unions could respond to the crisis. Kopple’s answer was pessimistic: neither the innovations of Ray Rogers’ Corporate Campaigns directed against Hormel’s banks and business partners, local militancy, nor International concessions could beat the bosses. In contrast to Kopple’s bleak film, On Strike for Respect is hopeful. But the book about women in the growing education sector who had beaten their employer was published by a small left-wing press. Even when, a few years later, it was republished by the University of Illinois Press, it found only a meager readership; all told, the Illinois edition has sold approximately 2,500 copies in the past 24 years.[4] The film about men in a factory who lost, on the other hand, won an Oscar and was seen by many more people.[5] Indeed, public perceptions of working-class organizing in America continue to be dominated by stories of losing battles waged by white, masculine protagonists. What if it had been the other way around?

In Gilpin et al.’s telling, Yale workers faced the same difficulties that all workers did in the 1980s—the rise of anti-union consultants who taught bosses how to break and bend the law, an increasingly union-hostile government unwilling to enforce it, and economic changes that made workers feel dependent on their employers. But they also describe how Yale was an especially difficult place to organize. Rather than working in a large factory, Yale’s C&Ts were distributed across 250 buildings, often in offices or labs of two or four. This meant they worked in close proximity to their managers and that it was logistically difficult for organizers to reach them.[6] These workers were overwhelmingly women, at a time when most union members were men. Many of their jobs revolved around emotional labor and took advantage of patriarchal conditioning. “Women in our society are socially conditioned to try and please everybody,” a member explained. “We’re the great compromisers, and try to make sure that we’re not to assertive about our own rights or needs.”[7] This allowed bosses to take advantage of workers’ heartfelt belief in the university’s mission. At the medical school, physician-bosses accused unionists “of both personal disloyalty and a lack of concern for patients,” and on the teaching side, “even those who detested the administration could feel genuine regret over the disruption the strike brought to the students’ lives.”[8]

The biggest difficulty Local 34 faced, however, was that traditional strike strategy could not work. At its heart, a normal strike deprives management of the labor required to make (or design or distribute or sell) the product, thus costing the boss money until he capitulates. Indeed, it was Local P-9’s inability to stop production in Austin that led to the failure Kopple documented. But such a strike was never possible at Yale. Although clerical and technical work was essential to the long term and smooth functioning of the university, its mass withdrawal could not shut down the university. Moreover, unlike canned meat, which consumers pay for as they buy it, universities get paid by the year or by the semester—or even worse, they depend on their endowment for income—and so even stopping classes would not deprive the administration of its budget.

Strikingly, the list of things that in 1988 made Yale seem unusual describes today’s standard conditions of labor. New Haven led the trend of old industrial cities becoming “meds and eds” cities dominated by universities and hospitals. Local 34 struck five years after the Winchester Rifle factory, once New Haven’s biggest employer, had shut down for good, making the university and its hospital two of the city’s three largest employers.[9] Education, health care, hospitality, and retail are ever-growing sectors nationally, and they all share much with Yale. Workers are often in small, distributed workplaces, or even, as with freelancers, home-care workers, or telecommuters, not in traditional workplaces at all. Jobs require emotional labor, whether a barista needing to earn a tip or a sales clerk needing to make a sale, or more explicitly, as with a teacher or a health-care worker. And the nature of contemporary merchant capitalism—never mind broken American labor law—is that strikes are rarely able to shut down production. Janitors work for contractors, not landlords, and so cannot legally picket the front entrances of buildings; fast food workers are employed by franchisees, not the corporations that set the conditions of their work; hotels are often owned by investment trusts and managed by their public-facing brands. Given that under neoliberalism corporations are simultaneously fragmented while certain players hold monopoly power, workers’ ability to win by strikes alone is substantially reduced, even if they were to revive large-scale strikes in the face of legal bans and court injunctions.[10] There is simply not enough power at the point of production.

The purpose of Gilpin et al.’s book, though, was to teach unions how to fight back. And so the tactics and strategies Local 34 developed in the then-unusual context of Yale University today seem like a blueprint for the labor movement. Each of the apparent difficulties the union faced became, instead, a strength. That C&Ts were spread around campus forced the union to develop a structure that relied on workers organizing each other: Union staff organized the organizing committee, and the organizing committee organized the workers. This committee structure lasted beyond the initial organizing stage, through negotiations, and continues today. This led to a social movement-style, democratic union that has been emulated around the country.[11] The predominance of women meant that the union became explicitly feminist. The crucial demand during the strike was the feminist call for equal pay for comparable work or—as the picket posters put it, that they were “on strike for respect.” Feminist demands and rhetoric were important for the strikers themselves as well as for observers and allies. By emphasizing the gender makeup of the bargaining unit and the feminist commitments of the union—for instance by holding a one-day strike for 59 Cent Day to highlight wage inequality—Local 34 was able to attract the support of feminist organizations on campus and farther away.[12] That unions would have political aspirations beyond better wages and conditions for their members or that they would collaborate in community organizing were, of course, not new ideas. But they have been unusually integral to HERE’s success. One of the founding member-organizers of Local 34, Andrea van den Heever, developed an extensive community organizing program in New Haven, which she has now expanded nationally; locally, the Yale unions continued to move beyond the workplace, organized in neighborhoods, and in 2011 effectively took over city government.[13]

Crucially, Local 34 took what appeared to be Yale’s two greatest strengths—the sense of mission shared between the administration and workers and the inability of Local 34 to “stop production” or slow “sales,”—and turned them against the bosses in ways that are relevant to unions in other sectors. While Local 34 “could not close the place down in the manner of a strike at a coal mine or an auto plant,” Gilpin et al. wrote, “Yale was quite vulnerable on another front—that of its image to the outside world.” Yale’s most valuable asset was its reputation, but it was that very reputation as a world-leading university that made it vulnerable, because it made a local labor dispute a national story. The strike got national press, and national feminist and civil rights leaders came to New Haven to support it.[14] In Washington, HERE Local 25 held a fundraiser for the strikers in the AFL-CIO building and invited the eleven senators and thirteen congressmen who were Yale alumni. The event raised $4,000, but more important was that the very invitations were bad publicity for Yale. “As an alumnus of Yale University, you are familiar with your Alma Mater’s dedication to the rule of reason,” HERE’s legislative director wrote to members of congress. “We feel that the University has, in recent months, departed from this tradition in dealing with some of their employees.”[15] The goal was to tarnish Yale’s reputation, and the audience was not only the administration but the strikers themselves. Because C&Ts were often proud of their participation in a university, support of alumni, faculty, and students—even if it was only ever minority support—was “a powerful emotional boost.”[16] In contemporary parlance, this mobilization of Yale’s reputation against the administration was an attack on the brand. The logic of the rise of branding as a marketing technique is that companies develop “brands” that communicate a narrative, a set of ideas, or a set of values that the consumer wants to affiliate with by buying the product.

Movie-goers who emerged from American Dream in the early 1990s would be forgiven for thinking that the labor movement had no good choices. Indeed, many Americans spent the next twenty years thinking just that. As Kopple had depicted in the film, the government remained hostile, even when Democrats were in office. Employers and the state continued to defang strikes and to find ways to defeat the alternatives unions came to rely on. The labor movement continued to fall into bouts of internecine warfare.[17] It seemed that Barbara Kopple was right: “Solidarity Forever” could now only be sung ironically.[18]

And yet on 2,500 bookshelves sat a much more optimistic vision, which opened, rather than closed, with “Solidarity Forever.” It told of a union that defeated an intransigent and powerful employer through building rank-and-file leadership and getting members to organize each other into the union. It emphasized building power at work, rather than focusing on wages or other material questions. It taught unionists to build power off the job, in neighborhoods and communities, by prioritizing solidarity with other unions and movements. Crucially, for people who care about the crisis of American democracy, Gilpin et al. offered a solution born of our current mode of production rather than a stilted effort to reproduce the New Deal Order. It showed a way to build power in postindustrial, meds-and-eds cities by centering the service and educational sectors and the women and people of color who work in them.

If only more people had read it.

Photo Credit New York University

Jacob Remes is a clinical associate professor in New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and associated faculty in the Department of History. He is the author of Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (University of Illinois Press, 2016) and the co-editor of the forthcoming Critical Disaster Studies: New Perspectives on Disaster, Risk, Vulnerability, and Resilience. He is on the board of the Labor and Working-Class History Association. He is working on a book about the Yale strike and the organizing model born from it.

Further Reading

[1] Barbara Kopple, dir., American Dream (Cabin Creek Films and Prestige Films, 1990).

[2] Toni Gilpin, Gary Isaac, Dan Letwin, and Jack McKivigan, On Strike for Respect:  The Clerical and Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University, 1984-85 (Chicago: C.H. Kerr, 1988; republished Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

[3] Lane Windham, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Gerald Mayer, “Union Membership Trends in the United States,” Congressional Research Service report, 31 Augus 2004; “Union Membership (Annual) News Release,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 January 2019, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.htm. As has been the case for years, union density is substantially lower—6.4%—for private-sector workers.

[4] Personal communication from acquisitions editor James Englehardt, 23 August 2019. This number likely excludes some early sales, which are not included in the press’s current database; beyond that, publishers’ book sales numbers are of course a poor proxy for readership, since they cannot account for library readership or used book circulation.

[5] Audience numbers are hard to come by because the film played festivals and special audiences for several years before its theatrical release in 1992. It grossed a total of $269,823. See Boxofficemojo.com, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=americandream.htm. But as another indication, Worldcat lists its DVD in 724 libraries. In contrast, On Strike for Respect is in 179 libraries.

[6] Gilpin et al., On Strike for Respect, 24.

[7] Gilpin et al., On Strike for Respect, 30.

[8] Gilpin et al., On Strike for Respect, 30, 56.

[9] Joe Dubrow, “A Farewell to Arms: Winchester Repeating Arms Company and New Haven, Connecticut,” Journal of the New Haven Colony Historical Society 39, no. 2 (1992): 20-65.

[10] Joe Burns, Reviving the Strike (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ig Publishing, 2011).

[11] Gilpin et al., On Strike for Respect, 24-25, 37; Julius Getman Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010).

[12] Gilpin et al. On Strike for Respect, 46.

[13] Nancy MacLean, “A Conversation with Andrea van den Heever,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 9 no. 4 (2012): 9-27; David Huyssen, “Triumph in New Haven: The Labor-Community Alliance that Defeated the Yale-Democratic Party Establishment,” New Labor Forum 21 no. 2 (February 2012): 67-75.

[14] Gilpin et al., On Strike for Respect, 53-54.

[15] Robert Juliano to James Jeffords, 12 December 1984, folder “4/30/82” in box 2, HERE Legislative Department Files, collection 6199/001, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; copy of Local 25 newsletter Local 25’s two-bits worth vol. 10, no. 2, February 1985, in folder “LOCAL 25 Washington,” box 2, HERE Legislative Department Files.

[16] Gilpin et al., On Strike for Respect, 56.

[17] Steve Early, Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011).

[18] Barbara Kopple denies that they used the song ironically or that the film is a tragedy. See Gregory Brown, Barbara Kopple: Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2015), 44-5, 51.

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