Triumph in New Haven The Labor-Community Alliance that Defeated the Yale-Democratic Party Establishment

Four nights before the first tent went up in Zuccotti Park, an election official in New Haven, Connecticut began to address a crowd packed into the entrance hall of the red-brick Wexler-Grant School on Dixwell Avenue. “In the Democratic primary for Ward 22 alderman,” he intoned, “the results are: Lisa Hopkins, 125 votes; Greg Morehead, 165 votes; Jeanette Morrison, 355 vo—”

A triumphant roar erupted from Morrison’s supporters (full disclosure: I was among them), shaking tables and silencing the election official’s conclusion. The first-time candidate had defeated the party-endorsed incumbent, Morehead, by better than two to one. Across New Haven that night, thirteen other multi-racial, cross-class, volunteer campaign staffs—embodiments of the soon- to- be-famous “99%”—drowned out election officials with victory celebrations. They had guaranteed a pro-labor Board of Aldermen for two years, soundly defeating not only the city’s Democratic machine, but also—and perhaps more importantly—Yale, the company in a company town.

The path to this victory offers a new model to American labor for engagement with electoral politics, a model we might call “taproot politics.” It combines grassroots, rank-and-file leadership development with union-funded “independent expenditures”—electioneering vehicles operated without a campaign’s coordination— and Political Action committees (PACs). This marriage of mobilization and money has given labor in New Haven what labor in America has long sought (but rarely enjoyed) from the Democratic Party: a real seat at the table in government.

Yale and New Haven in the Age of the 1 Percent

Taproot politics emerged during the Elm City’s 2011 campaigns in response to both the dire political economic context of New Haven, and Yale’s peculiarly elitist approach to labor relations. These circumstances, however, may be more reflective of urban America than they once were, offering reasonable hope that taproot politics could be replicated elsewhere.

Yale cuts a figure of burgeoning wealth and power against a backdrop of chronic poverty. As political science professor Douglas Rae once observed, Yale “looks like the fat rich kid with twice the lunch money of anyone else in New Haven.” The university’s economic position has given it a remarkable degree of control over city politics, a fact plainly visible to city residents. It has enjoyed expedited approval of permits for most of its many construction projects. Its extensive purchase and redevelopment of commercial properties has gentrified the city’s downtown. If New Haveners aren’t watching Yale’s economic power in action on the street, many feel it at work (or, more likely, when looking for work): Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital (Y-NHH) increasingly dominate local employment, accounting for nearly one in three full-time jobs in the city.5 Its City Hall partners—including Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, Jr.—have acted as loyal boosters (often receiving support for re-election in return), crediting Yale with New Haven’s much ballyhooed renaissance.

To anyone with eyes, however, that renaissance has been distinctly one-sided. In addition to Yale’s vastly expanded (and mostly tax-exempt) property holdings, its role as the city’s dominant employer, and the over half a billion dollars it receives annually in federal money, its endowment has grown from $2.6 to $19.4 billion over the past twenty years. The profit on the endowment last year, after expenses, matched 1991’s entire endowment.

Meanwhile, nearly a third of New Haven children live in poverty. The graduation rate in city high schools remains a dismal 63 percent. More than four thousand households (nearly a tenth of the city) are waiting for public housing and vouchers. At $38,000, the average salary stands $15,000 below what Connecticut researchers deem necessary to support a family of four. Unemployment has hovered around 14 percent for three years, despite the perennial promise of new, development-related jobs. This is an awful, but all too common reality in post-industrial, post-Great Recession America. Ironically, New Haven represents an advanced stage of one supposed solution: the ambitious growth of educational-medical complexes. Pittsburgh, Muncie, Buffalo, Birmingham, and any number of other formerly middle-class manufacturing cities in America have transformed themselves along these lines. As New Haven demonstrates, however, the solution poses real risks. If university hospital complexes expand without making significant commitments to training and hiring city residents, their property-tax exemptions erode municipal budgets, saddling homeowners and retailers with heavier tax burdens (the New Haven mill rate has risen 20 percent since 2001) and forcing cuts in essential public services. The city laid off eighty-two city workers last February—including dozens of teachers and cops—to help close a $5.5 million deficit. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, meanwhile, estimates the cost of Yale’s 2011 city tax exemptions at $39 million.

Yale management’s attitude toward its employees has not helped its image; few employers confirm the old union adage, “The boss is the best organizer,” so convincingly. In the 1930s, meager, irregular wages forced many Yale workers to rely on charity assistance, spurring the early organization of what is now the custodial, dining hall, and facilities union, UNITE HERE Local 35. In 1984, Yale provoked a strike of its predominantly female clerical and technical employees, who were then organizing as Local 34. On the eve of that strike, university administrators sent telegrams to every Local 35 member’s home, threatening to fire them if they dared honor their union sisters’ picket line. When teaching assistants organized a 1996 grade strike in an attempt to win recognition for the graduate employee union, GESO, Yale retaliated with threats—many issued through willing faculty “mentors”—of professional reprisals, up to and including expulsion.

In other words, given its progressive reputation and non-profit obligation to serve the public good, Yale’s behavior as a private employer represents a long record of hypocrisy. This has contributed to an unusually vibrant culture of resistance among its workers. It is not, however, unique. In the age of “the 1%” management of universities—with skyrocketing tuitions, budget cuts, growing armies of adjuncts, and proposals to privatize great public systems—campus conflict is back. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s graduate employee union’s central role in organizing the takeover of Wisconsin’s statehouse in 2011 (not to mention two years of practically uninterrupted protests at the University of California) offers compelling proof.

By last summer, people in New Haven were fed up. “They ought to call it ‘Yale Haven!’” became a common, cynical refrain throughout the city. Over the past ten years, however, community activists and union volunteers have honed their ability to mobilize residents, digging through cynicism to harvest anger. Through patient organization, they have established a tentative mutual trust that has begun to bridge the huge gaps of educational, racial, and gender privilege separating various segments of the city.

First, however, the unions at Yale had to figure out how to establish trust across those same gaps in their own organizations. Since 1996, all three unions have pursued explicitly integrated organizing programs, recognizing that if they do not, their employer will exploit their differences to divide and weaken them. Integration has succeeded in three arenas that proved crucial to the electoral success in 2011: solidarity actions, day-to-day organizing, and community alliance building.

Solidarity actions have contributed to bread-and-butter victories, while building respect and friendship across worker categories. GESO’s participation in the 2003 strike of Locals 34 and 35—conducting classes off campus, organizing undergraduates and faculty to honor picket lines, and walking those lines by the hundreds in frigid weather—was crucial to maintaining union morale, and ultimately to securing enormous contract victories. Some Local 34 members still recall that strike as the turning point in their attitude toward GESO and graduate students, from skepticism and resentment, to the recognition of common grievances. Two years later, during GESO’s one-week strike, hundreds of Local 34 and 35 members attended demonstrations in solidarity.

Day-to-Day Organizing

The deepening reciprocity has led to joint ventures in day-to-day organizing. Dozens of GESO organizers spent the summer of 2007 recruiting more than one hundred previously non-bargaining unit workers to Local 34. In 2008, those two unions executed a program of joint meetings to discuss how Yale’s expansion and growth of non-union work categories were diluting union strength on campus. The meetings led to a statement, signed by more than 85 percent of Local 34’s bargaining unit, affirming commitment to a union standard in the 2009 contract renewal. Yale settled that contract in record time.

For the 2010 midterm elections, amidst a national assault on collective bargaining, all three unions ran a months-long program, dubbed “Labor 2010,” to register new voters and get members to the polls. This produced high voter turnouts in New Haven and Bridgeport (the latter temporarily ran out of ballots), clinching a Democratic sweep of Connecticut’s major elected offices—in an election Republicans dominated nationally. Just as importantly, it put rank-and-file workers from all three unions side-by-side on the same campaigns. They grew to know each other in training conversations, paired up for canvassing, and forged relationships through a collective—and an effective—political experience.

Those relationships fueled the organizing for a rally on March 30, 2011. Under the rubric, “We Are One,” three thousand Yale union members, Teamsters, AFSCME members, and New Haven residents rallied in front of City Hall to demand good jobs, decry budget cuts, and demand accountability from both the city and major regional employers—like Yale—that were using the recession to justify layoffs and assaults on unions.

Community Alliance Building

Parallel to all this, the unions at Yale have tightened ties to activist groups in New Haven—such as Community Organized for Responsible Development (CORD) and Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE)—sharing organizing staff and conducting coordinated campaigns. They have organized their own members, many of whom do not live in the city, to recognize the need for committed union participation in such off-the-job activism.

In the fall of 2004, members and organizers of all three unions participated in a CORD program, interviewing low-income, African-American and Latino residents of the Hill neighborhood. They identified sources of community anger toward Yale—most notably, resentment of Y-NHH’s vicious debt collection practices—and mobilized hundreds into a public fight over the hospital’s proposal for the half-billion-dollar Smilow Cancer Center, slated to be built in their district. A one-vote edge on the thirty-seat Board of Aldermen allowed union-community allies to make an extended public case against Y-NHH’s zoning permit application. Hospital management, facing costly delays, finally agreed to bargain with residents in good faith.

Bargaining produced a comprehensive community benefits agreement (CBA) in March 2006, in which the hospital promised investments in job training and youth programs, voluntary municipal tax payments, one hundred local-resident hires annually for five years, and the formation of a citizens’ advisory committee to monitor Y-NHH’s free care programs. The unions won a neutrality agreement for SEIU 1199 to organize Y-NHH workers.

An Instructive Setback

The alliance lost its one vote edge on the Board, however, in January 2006. It was too late for hospital managers to scuttle bargaining, but they began to violate the agreement systematically only months after signing it, and the city failed to enforce it. The SEIU withdrew its National Labor Relations Board election bid, and key CBA terms have gone unmet—most notably, the local hiring provisions.

The hospital campaign ended with unfulfilled hopes. But the unions’ and community groups’ integrated programs had produced a powerful grassroots network. It included cross-class, interracial relationships, encompassing rank-and-file maintenance, clerical, food-service, and graduate employees together with university faculty, Yale and Southern Connecticut State University undergraduates, public high school students, and thousands of New Haven residents. Those relationships have continued to multiply, and grow stronger

The experience of the hospital fight crucially informed the 2011 campaigns. The lesson was clear: engaging seriously with local politics could help produce limited victories, but for lasting change, labor and the community would need reinforcements on the Board.

Taproot Politics, Step One: Recruiting Candidates

The 2011 aldermanic campaign victory began with three basic realizations:  first, that a bare majority on the Board could never match Yale’s economic power; second, that the grassroots network presented the chance to find and support a block of independent, labor-friendly, aldermanic candidates; and third, that anger toward both Yale and city politicians made such campaigns viable.

Some candidates were already on deck. Frank Douglass, a Local 35 steward and Yale dining hall worker, narrowly lost a 2007 run for Ward 2 alderman against a candidate whose campaign manager was assistant to DeStefano’s chief of staff. In 2010, Jessica Holmes, a former Local 34 member and health-care expert, lost a similarly tight election in East Rock’s Ward 9 against a City Hall-backed candidate. Both had broad community support and were eager to run again.

The unions also encouraged their members to run. Brian Wingate, a Yale custodian and charismatic leader of Local 35, ran in Ward 29’s Beaver Hills against a decades-long incumbent. Fellow Local 35 steward and cook’s helper, Tyisha Walker, announced her candidacy for West River’s Ward 23 in late May. Adam Marchand, a longtime Local 34 organizer and former Yale graduate student, stepped up in Westville’s Ward 25.

A group of independent candidates less connected to Yale unions than to community activism emerged as well. Angela Russell, a home day care operator who had spent three years working for the Connecticut Commission on Children, announced her candidacy for Ward 27 in early June. Delphine Clyburn, a popular churchgoer and an SEIU member in Newhallville, declared a challenge to the Ward 20 incumbent two weeks later.

Taproot Politics, Step Two: Recruiting Volunteers and Raising Expectations

It takes years to build the types of networks and alliances capable of raising such a volunteer army, but one key to the victory is available to the whole labor movement, immediately: aggressive use of independent expenditures and PACs. These vehicles have been much in the news since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, but even before that ruling, they have offered unions an underused tool in local politics,  where making an impact requires less money than in state or federal elections.

Regional AFSCME and UNITE HERE locals in and around New Haven used PAC contributions to run an independent expenditure supplementing the labor-backed candidates’ campaigns. This group funded both paid staff canvassers and glossy electioneering literature to the tune of about $50,000. In addition, member donations poured in from locals across the country to fund a number of PACs supporting the campaigns more directly, with contributions totaling over $100,000. This provided crucial help, particularly since the Mayor’s Campaign Committee had gathered $425,000, which often helped to oppose challengers.

Nearly all the candidates with union support were parents working modestly paying jobs. None had direct access to large pools of money. Such candidates are always hard-pressed to match the resources of party-endorsed candidates, much less incumbents. Independent expenditures and PACs level the playing field.

You Just Need to Talk to People

The insurgent campaigns found fertile soil when they began knocking on doors in full force three months before Election Day. In a city whose residents had already been protesting for months about mounting murders, austerity policies, and grinding unemployment, independent advocates of change had broad appeal.

Residents were frequently skeptical, of course—they have heard empty promises of change before. Moreover, some endorsed incumbents began invoking the old, antiunion chestnut of third-party interference. As then-Board President Carl Goldfield claimed of the labor-backed candidates, “They have a single interest, which is the union’s interest. I think aldermen who really come from the community who aren’t backed by a single interest are more capable of satisfying a larger and broader interest.” This narrative initially muddied the water.

The campaigns’ deep volunteer corps, however, allowed for long, recurring, in-depth conversations, not only dispelling the union bogeyman or covering a particular candidate’s strengths, but also clarifying basic power dynamics of municipal politics. Many voters— and, indeed, many incumbent aldermen—had previously understood aldermanic power to be limited to the facilitation of basic city services like snow plowing and tree clearing. Presented with a vision of a unified Board that could provide a real check on the Mayor’s office—and a real voice in Yale’s transformation of their city—residents began to hope. “You just need to talk to people,” one union political director observed on Election Day. “None of this stuff is very sexy.”

The results, however, were sexy as hell. Turnout averaged 29 percent of registered Democrats overall, but 40-50 percent in the fifteen wards where labor played a role.40 Not only did labor’s candidates win fourteen of these races, but they also won by better than 20 percent in ten of them. This was more than victory. It was an emphatic mandate.

New Haven 2011: “Model City” Once More

New Haven’s nickname, “Model City,” is rarely invoked without irony. As residents can attest, the 1960s urban renewal projects that inspired that moniker failed to create a city on a hill, often exacerbating the very problems of poverty, segregation, and violence they were meant to address. New Haven’s current “eds and meds” recovery model replicates the fundamental mistake of the earlier model: it aims to superimpose a new city upon the old by fiat, rather than by democratic consensus. Its results thus far offer a stern cautionary tale to cities pursuing a similar strategy.

At the same time, however, New Haven presents a provocative new model of how grassroots democracy and union strength can thrive in a twenty-first-century American city. Organizing Directors for UNITE HERE are trying to spread this New Haven vision by developing similar programs of taproot politics in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Honolulu, and Miami. If the residents and workers in those cities meet with success, New Haven may finally have a model it can be proud of.

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