An Ivy League clash over blue-collar pay

At Yale, an epic battle with unions brings together a rich university, a poor city, and presidential politics.

For 37 years, plumber Nathan Cohn has crawled beneath sinks and into dark basements to patch up pipes and rework the water systems at the Yale Medical School.

Today, he stands before the Beinecke Library amid the ivy, rhododendron, and granite halls with a bright red sign: ON STRIKE. "Everything we ever got here we had to fight for," he says over the clamor as almost 1,000 other demonstrators mingle in the plaza.

For Mr. Cohn, and the almost 4,000 other striking maintenance and clerical workers here, the decision to stay off the job has become more than a fight for a new contract. Indeed, he says he's "somewhat satisfied" with the pay increases Yale has offered, although pension and other benefits remain concerns. Beyond that, however, this is about regaining some of the ground lost over the past decade as the gap between rich and poor has grown in America, undermining his standard of living and that of other workers.

The fight to create a so-called living wage is going on around the country, from Knoxville, Tenn., to San Diego. But this strike has taken on a symbolism that goes far beyond the size of Cohn's retirement check. The reason: Yale is one of the nation's most prestigious universities, home to US presidents like Bush and Clinton and more than a few of their children. Yet all the splendor and pomp is based in a struggling old manufacturing city where per capita income is about $17,000. Parents often have to work more than one job just to get the rent paid.

With these contrasts, the strike has gained national stature, attracting presidential candidates like Howard Dean - another alum who happened to be dropping off his daughter Friday - and activists like Jesse Jackson.

When Mr. Jackson was arrested over Labor Day weekend for blocking an intersection, the civil rights leader compared this strike to the fight for racial justice. "This is the site of national Labor Day outrage," he said. "This is going to be for economic justice what Selma [Ala.] was for the right to vote."

From Yale's perspective, it is a far more mundane dispute over pay and pensions. The university has offered what it believes is a generous contract with pay increases of between 3 and 5 percent a year, as well as some increased pension benefits and signing bonuses of between $1,000 and $1,500.

But for workers who've been without a contract for almost two years, that's not enough to make up for the earning power they lost during the booming 1990s, when their salaries were tied to an earlier contract. They want the school to go to go to binding arbitration to resolve the issue. The university refuses, noting this is a private, not a public dispute.

"We also see resorting to binding arbitration as an admission of failure," says Tom Conroy, a Yale spokesman. "It's both sides throwing up their hands and saying they can't do it, and we're not there."

For the freshmen who arrived over the weekend to be confronted with strikers, pickets, and Mr. Dean debating the state of the economy, the ensuing turmoil provided an early start to their advanced education.

After driving six hours from her home in Virginia in pre-Labor Day traffic, and then another three hours at the height of the holiday havoc, Sarah Peterson arrived at Yale to find her dormitory blocked by picketers.

While she's withholding judgment on the strike until she fully understands all the issues at stake, she feels like she's already in the center of a key national debate. "It gives me a look into what I'm going to be seeing over the next four years, being surrounded by people who are going to be having an effect on the country and the world," says Ms. Peterson, who will be a member of Yale's gymnastics team.

Talks between the university and union leaders resume Wednesday.

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