On Bill and Hillary Clinton’s First Date in 1971, They Crossed a Picket Line

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein February 9, 2016

Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale Law School stu­dents Hillary Rod­ham and Bill Clin­ton were both mem­bers, along­side future Con­necti­cut sen­a­tor Richard Blu­men­thal and Bill Clinton’s even­tu­al Sec­re­tary of the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor Robert Reich, of the Yale Law School Stu­dents Com­mit­tee for Local 35, the uni­ver­si­ty’s blue-col­lar work­er union, and sig­na­to­ries, dur­ing the week before the union went on strike, to a state­ment assert­ing WE BELIEVE THE UNION DESERVES THE SUP­PORT OF YALE STU­DENTS AND FAC­UL­TY.” Bill Clin­ton was even, for­mer UNITE HERE Pres­i­dent John Wil­helm would note decades lat­er in his eulo­gy for Vin­cent Sir­abel­la, the Vot­er Reg­is­tra­tion Chair­man of the Sir­abel­la for May­or Campaign.

And yet, on her first date with class­mate Clin­ton in 1971, Rod­ham would lat­er recall:

We both had want­ed to see a Mark Rothko exhib­it at the Yale Art Gallery but, because of a labor dis­pute, some of the uni­ver­si­ty’s build­ings, includ­ing the muse­um, were closed. As Bill and I walked by, he decid­ed he could get us in if we offered to pick up the lit­ter that had accu­mu­lat­ed in the gallery’s court­yard. Watch­ing him talk our way in was the first time I saw his per­sua­sive­ness in action. We had the entire muse­um to our­selves. We wan­dered through the gal­leries talk­ing about Rothko and twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry art. I admit to being sur­prised at his inter­est in and knowl­edge of sub­jects that seemed, at first, unusu­al for a Viking from Arkansas. We end­ed up in the muse­um’s court­yard, where I sat in the large lap of Hen­ry Moore’s sculp­ture Drape Seat­ed Woman while we talked until dark.

The rela­tion­ship between Rod­ham and Clin­ton, two instru­men­tal fig­ures in the decou­pling of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty from the pri­or­i­ties of the main­stream labor move­ment, thus began with the cross­ing of a pick­et line. 

When Rod­ham and Clin­ton picked up the garbage strewn about the art gallery court­yard (if, indeed, they ever did so), they were doing exact­ly what every­one from Vin­cent Sir­abel­la to the Black Stu­dent Alliance at Yale had asked stu­dents not to do: they were per­form­ing — or at the very least offer­ing to per­form — the work that mem­bers of Local 35’s Grounds Main­te­nance divi­sion, had refused.

Rod­ham and Clin­ton were offer­ing them­selves as replace­ment labor, blunt­ing, if only tem­porar­i­ly, the effects of the strike on the uni­ver­si­ty. The two law stu­dents then bartered their lit­ter pick­up, which was, in essence, scab labor (or maybe just the promise there­of) into access to a struck building. 

The art gallery and oth­er nonessen­tial build­ings were closed because the uni­ver­si­ty did not have enough man­agers to keep them open dur­ing the strike. They were closed because the peo­ple who usu­al­ly cleaned and repaired them, whose labor helped make the university’s dis­play of art pos­si­ble, had been forced to absent them­selves by the neces­si­ty which fueled the ongo­ing strike. 

For Rod­ham and Clin­ton, the work­ers’ con­cerns were at best sec­ondary to the romance of the emp­ty muse­um, the sophis­ti­ca­tion and trans­gres­sive plea­sure offered not only by the mod­ernist art, but also by the act of vio­lat­ing the strike. Hillary Rod­ham Clin­ton offers this anec­dote in her 2003 mem­oir Liv­ing His­to­ry not in her dis­cus­sion of how her time in New Haven affect­ed her under­stand­ing of urban pol­i­tics and life, but rather in a dis­tinct chap­ter devot­ed entire­ly to the ori­gins of her rela­tion­ship with the Viking from Arkansas.” The labor dis­pute,” not even named here as a strike, is not only abstract­ed from the very spaces the future Clin­tons inhab­it in this nar­ra­tive, it is made inci­den­tal to them, an obsta­cle which has to be side­stepped in order for the art to be viewed and the date to acquire its roman­tic ambiance.

Excerpt­ed and adapt­ed from Beneath the Uni­ver­si­ty: Ser­vice Work­ers and the Uni­ver­si­ty-Hos­pi­tal City, an unpub­lished Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion.

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Zach Schwartz-Wein­stein is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar who writes about uni­ver­si­ties and labor. He received his Ph.D. in Amer­i­can Stud­ies from New York Uni­ver­si­ty in September.
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