Opinion: Will Yale respect the heart of the university?

Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book Library

Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book Library

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On Monday, my colleagues and I are planning to deliver a petition calling on Barbara Rockenbach, the Yale University librarian, to protect our jobs from subcontracting.

At the Yale University Library, where I’ve worked since 1992, my colleagues and I are responsible for 15 million print and electronic volumes, including one of the world’s most prized collections of rare books and manuscripts. Although Yale regards the library as “the heart of the university,” years of understaffing have created a backlog in our special collections, with materials inaccessible to students and researchers until they are cataloged.

At the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, Yale leaders are paying millions to outside firms and shipping rare books out of state, instead of hiring union workers here in New Haven to process the backlog. If Yale’s leaders continue to subcontract work, what will happen to the job I’ve held for 30 years? How will Yale fulfill their local hiring commitments? It’s time for Yale’s leaders to respect their workers, their community and their own library.

The union standard that my colleagues and I have helped to build is a major asset to Yale. Our library attracts talented workers who want to support the world’s best research and teaching, while benefiting from the stability, excellent wages and benefits, and dignified retirement our contract provides. People build careers here: 66 percent of library staff have at least 10 years of service to the university.

As a result, in addition to our professional skill, we develop familiarity with the archives and personal relationships with faculty and students that can’t be replicated by short-term employees. If Yale shifts work to out-of-state subcontractors, how can they guarantee the same standard of excellence for our academic community and for the materials themselves?

There’s a better way forward, for the library and for New Haven: hire locally. In 2015, after months of community campaigning and a major civil disobedience, Yale University signed an unprecedented commitment to hire 1,000 local residents with 500 of these hires coming from low-income neighborhoods. As an alder, I was proud to take this news back to my constituents, who felt like they were finally getting a fair deal. As a library employee, I understood that hiring enough staff to support our acquisitions created a path for residents in neighborhoods like mine to get good union jobs.

The agreement has undeniably generated more opportunities for New Haven residents in low-income neighborhoods, but its deadline passed two years ago, and as of December 2020, the university was still falling short of its hiring goals in neighborhoods of need. If these positions had been filled, dozens of families would have had the stability of a good union job through the pandemic. Instead of paying out-of-state subcontractors for temporary assignments, Yale’s leaders could have hired additional workers to start long-term careers at the university.

Workers who are treated with respect and who receive decent wages and benefits want to commit to Yale’s mission of excellence. I know how much Yale has already benefited from the union standard we’ve fought for, and how much it stands to gain from having a relationship of trust with its community. When the university resumes operations in the fall, are workers and New Haven residents still going to be fighting for basic respect, or are Yale’s leaders going to honor their commitments and treat their workers and library with dignity?

Dolores Colon is a former alder, a Hill resident and a Local 34 member at the Beinecke Library. She graduated from Yale University in 1991.