`Wage struggle' or `fight for equality,' Yale-union bout goes on

The cardboard picket signs that peppered Yale University's campus last fall are nowhere to be seen. Garbage no longer fouls the ivy-covered entrances to its quadrangles. Classes are now being held in classrooms, instead of at movie theaters. Even so, things at Yale are not yet normal. The bitter walkout by 1,600 university clerical and technical workers which disrupted campus operations last fall became an early test for the controversial issue of comparable worth -- whether women should be paid the same as men for work of equal value -- and emerged as a symbol for white-collar unionization efforts around the country.

Union leaders Dec. 5 called what they said was a temporary halt to the strike's 10-week run. The issues that sparked the conflict remain unsolved, however, and the unionists have been working without a contract. If a contract is not settled on by midnight Friday, union officials say the workers will hit the streets again.

The on-again, off-again negotiations between Yale and the union have been marked by an acrimony that, depending on the observer, has either strengthened or undermined the national causes to which the strike is tied. At the same time, union officials admit, the issues this strike is seen as championing may have complicated their primary objective -- negotiating a first contract for the new Local 34 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.

``We're breaking new ground,'' says Local 34's chief negotiator, John Wilhelm. ``The next time around these [issues] won't prove to be such obstacles.''

The issue of comparable worth has little guiding precedent. Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti sees the strike as ``a classic union struggle over wages.'' Striking workers see it differently. ``This is a fight for equality,'' says librarian Janet Wexler, holding a strike placard as she paced in front of the university's Sterling Library last fall.

To support their case, the union has produced figures showing that its women members (who constitute 82 percent of the union membership) earn up to 12 percent less than male members. It compares truck drivers, who after a year of service earn $18,470 annually, with administrative assistants, who under the same conditions earn $13,524. So the union has demanded an across-the-board wage increase, as well as additional compensation for jobs it says have been affected by discrimination. That, university officials say, would mean a 40 percent wage increase over the next three years, ``something we are simply unable to afford,'' adds Dr. Giamatti, pointing out that the university has already raised clerical pay 37 percent since 1980. The university responded to the suit with an offer for an additional 24 percent increase over the next three years, and announced that it had ``reached the limits of its resources.''

As in cases elsewhere, the comparable-worth question is getting bogged down because of the difficulty of comparing dissimilar jobs without an independent scale by which to measure them. ``In comparable worth, you try to compare apples and oranges. It won't work unless they come from the same tree,'' says University of Chicago economist Edward Heckman.

Experts say such questions can be resolved if employers evaluate jobs through a points system. Many private and public organizations have done so; Yale has not. Such an evaluation was the basis for the biggest comparable-worth victory so far: In September 1983 a federal court ordered Washington State to pay $1 billion in back pay to 15,000 employees in positions held mostly by women, based on the state's own study that showed 75 percent of those in such positions earned up to 20 percent less than those in comparable male-dominated jobs. At Yale, Mr. Wilhelm wants to establish a permanent job-evaluation procedure.

The union's task has been complicated by the fact that white-collar unionization is a frontier in itself, comparable worth aside. ``Unions want to make the white-collar world their next stomping ground,'' says Warner Woodworth, a labor specialist at Brigham Young University. ``They're going to have to expect a lot of resistance to it, expecially in the universities.''

While labor has made inroads into the academic world, organizers admit the going has been slow, expecially at private universities. Facing workers that have never before given a thought to unionization ``really forces us to sell ourselves,'' says Kris Rondeau, who heads an organizing effort for the United Automobile Workers (UAW) at Harvard University.

Nationally, white-collar employees are organized at only a handful of universities. Nonacademic employees at Stanford University voted in October to join the Service Employees International Union, which also represents 34,000 of the 37,464 employees at the 19-campus University of California system. Workers at the University of Chicago and Boston University have also been organized. But attempts by the UAW to unionize Harvard Medical School were thwarted when the National Labor Relations Board decided in April that the union had to organize all nonacademic employees at the university or none. Although the union also won an election at Columbia last year, the university has challenged the results.

Still, union organizers say they're riding the crest of an trend for which Yale has become an emblem. Says AFL-CIO organizer Charles MacDonald: ``This is going to be a major wave in the labor movement.''

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