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Gary Younge
Strike exposes poverty behind scenes at Yale

Parents dropping their children off at one of America's finest universities were stuck in traffic for close to an hour.

For weeks now, Yale's colonial architecture has provided the backdrop for striking workers wearing sandwich boards demanding a living wage at the alma mater of the past three US presidents.

The dispute has seen mostly privileged students wearing university sweatshirts and carrying literary classics making their way to class through impromptu rallies, and strike leaders taking supporters to "sing to some scabs" in the Woolsey concert hall.

With more than 200 professors moving their classes off campus at the unions' request, lectures for the past fortnight have taken place in restaurants, front rooms, church halls and the city hall.

The dispute highlights America's ever growing economic divide, with one of the wealthiest academic institutions pitted against the residents of one of the US's poorest towns.

"It's supposed to be a place of learning", said Karl Mcellya, a university cook. "But they're acting like they're a big corporation that doesn't care about its workers."

Yale is the largest employer in a predominantly black town, where more than a third of families with children under five live in poverty.

New Haven has a higher infant mortality rate than Costa Rica; With its £6.9bn ($11bn) tax exempt endowment, Yale could cover Costa Rica's public health budget until 2015 and still have change left over to build a couple more hospitals.

Only 10 minutes' walk from the university lie increasingly decrepit homes, urban decay and deprivation.

On one side are restaurants called Educated Burgher and Ivy Noodle; on the other is Popeye's Fried Chicken and shops advertising a welcome for food stamps.

"The university for a long part of its history has insulted and patronised working class New Haven," Professor Douglas Rae, author of a soon-to-be published book about New Haven, called City: Urbanism and its End, told the New York Times.

Judging by the hoots of support from passing cars, the strikers have strong local support, although most students appear ambivalent - more eager for the inconvenience to be over than for the strike to be won or lost by either side.

But the dispute, now entering its third week, is becoming increasingly bitter. On Saturday the leader of America's largest trade union confederation, the AFL-CIO, was arrested when 10,000 workers from the north-east converged on the town to show solidarity. Two weeks ago, the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson was arrested.

Local Latino ministers last week accused the university of fomenting ethnic confrontation, after two cleaning firms brought 40 to 50 Latino cleaners past a picket line of mostly black strikers. Agustin Rojas of St Rose of Lima church, said the "university needs to focus on enriching people's lives rather than abusing those who, by ignorance, are being given scraps." The university insisted it was a routine case of subcontracting, needed to keep the place running.

The two unions that called the strike are seeking a six-year deal with pay rises ranging from 3% in the first year to 7% in the final year, as well as improved pensions and job security. Yale is offering an eight-year contract offering pay rises of between 3% and 5% and a signing bonus.

Powerful allies

Union members earn between £18,800 ($30,000) and £20,700 a year, less than their counterparts at Yale's principal competitor, Harvard. Union officials say the average worker with 20 years' experience retires with a pension of £390 a month, forcing them to take extra jobs.

Although the university claims that it offers a generous package, given the country's economic climate, it is no stranger to labour disputes. This is Yale's ninth strike in 38 years. But this time, the unions have some powerful allies.

Among the parents saying goodbye to their children was the leading Democratic presidential contender, Howard Dean, whose daughter studies there. As a student, Mr Dean tried to shut down the university's power plant in a previous strike.

"The struggle was the same then as it is now," said Mr Dean, who graduated in 1971. "What is needed in this country more than anything is economic justice."

Two other Yale alumni standing for the Democratic nomination, Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman, also side with the strikers.

Barbara Bush, daughter of the president, is also at the university, but her father has yet to comment on the strike.

Several attempts at negotiation have broken down, but the two sides have gradually moved closer on a number of key points. Nonetheless, the unions say they are in for the long haul. "We're prepared to sit down with the university and start a new relationship, but they're not interested," said Mike Schoen, a chef and union negotiator.

"The reason we've got the rights we have is because we fought for them, and we'll carry on fighting for them for as long as it takes."

The university appears willing to withstand the bad publicity and disruption. Referring to the media attention on this weekend's protest, a Yale spokesman, Tom Conroy, said: "Yale is just serving as a good backdrop."

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