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Can Labor Help Break the Power of the Democratic Establishment? A Connecticut City's Model for Change

The success of a union-organized campaign to take over New Haven's city government offers a counternarrative to the old story of labor’s political decline.

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However, when it came to detailing how they would bring about that change, the union candidates were for the most part vague. In interviews and during the campaign, few could offer more than one specific issue, one legislative vote or one proposed law on which they disagreed with the City Hall slate.

Nary a word was heard about “revaluation,” even though aldermen will be hearing little else but that word in 2012, as a once-in-a-decade full reassessment of property taxes will take effect. If history is any guide, constituents will be up in arms at higher bills—demanding a tax cut but also demanding no cuts in city services. It’s not a sexy issue. It affects everyday people in an immediate way, and it tests the ability of lawmakers to come up with solutions that defy easy rhetoric.

One special legislative issue that some of the labor candidates did address on the campaign trail demonstrated the difficulty they will have in translating their electoral victory into a governing agenda: they came out against a proposed stormwater fee, which cities across the country have begun imposing as a way to avoid laying off workers or raising property taxes. By charging a separate fee for handling runoff, cities can make not just working families but large nonprofit—and thus normally tax-exempt—institutions share the bill. In New Haven that primarily means Yale, which is fabulously wealthy but gets huge tax exemptions. Yet many of the union-slate candidates said they opposed the idea because their constituents couldn’t afford another “tax”—when in fact the levy would  cut most of their constituents’ taxes by shifting more of the burden to Yale. The irony is that for decades the Yale unions have led the public charge to “tax Yale.” The stormwater fee proposal was the first time anyone had come up with a legal way to do that.

By the primary and general election days, few voters knew what the union candidates stood for beyond a general call for change, for stopping the violence in poor neighborhoods, for more opportunities for youth, for finding more jobs for people, somehow. That proved enough to win.

In such a democracy-starved environment, that also proved enough to produce immediate policy results. Mayor DeStefano, who won re-election by only ten percentage points against a first-time candidate with practically no money or institutional backing, responded quickly to the unions’ dramatic victory. He brought in a new police chief with a national reputation for progressive community policing. This from a mayor who had previously presided over community policing’s decline and the disappearance of neighborhood walking beats for cops. DeStefano also announced his intention to launch a new youth center and a vocational-tech program.

Although the incoming pro-union aldermen remain short on policy proposals, they’ve been holding neighborhood meetings to solicit ideas and build support for future elections independent of the Democratic Party machine. CCNE organized a convention in December to craft a citywide policy agenda and develop new ward-level leaders. Since then, it has helped organize several mass marches and conferences to push for more jobs and less crime.

Some specific ideas have begun trickling out: Jessica Holmes wants to save city healthcare dollars without cutting benefits by linking the municipal prescription drug plan with the state government’s. Several of the union-backed candidates had picketed a new development in a high-tech park at the crossroads of Dixwell and Newhallville to demand that a city-aided developer provide more local jobs; now CCNE has issued a paper calling for a “jobs pipeline” on government-backed developments. And the pro-union majority elected as the board president a veteran labor-allied alderman, Jorge Perez.

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