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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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 The following article first appeared on the Web site of the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its email newsletters.

On January 1, as their colleagues around the country geared up for another year of battling governors and mayors to hold on to eroding union rights, progressive labor activists in New Haven, Connecticut, took on a different challenge: running a city government. Or at least one branch of city government.

On that day, thirty newly elected aldermen (the equivalent of city councilors) took the oath of office for a new term. Eighteen of the thirty won their seats as members of a union-organized slate taking on City Hall–backed candidates; fifteen were first-time candidates. Combined with other solidly pro-labor members of the Board of Aldermen, the slate begins its term with a commanding two-thirds majority of the city’s perennially reactive, pliant legislature. The success of the campaign startled the city—including the union activists who organized it. And it offered a counternarrative and possible strategic antidote to the old story of labor’s political decline.

Now comes the hard part.

Once those aldermen took their oaths, they began a test with national implications: to see whether labor can build an enduring organization independent of traditional Democratic machines and develop a progressive governing agenda. All in a city mired in recession, with limited taxation powers and limited access to capital. They didn’t figure that part out during the fall’s campaigns. They did figure out a whole lot else.

New Haven, population 130,000, will soon be roughly equal white, black and Latino. It has haltingly made the transition from postindustrial stagnation to an “eds and meds” university-city economy. By 2011 Yale University and Yale–New Haven Hospital had as many workers as the next ten private local employers combined, and the two have continued expanding amid the latest recession, spinning off the city’s one growth industry, biomedical/high-tech.

In the past two decades the city has made advances in immigration policy, revived its downtown core, encouraged a vibrant arts community and, until the mid-aughts, developed a nationally recognized community policing program. Yale, the dominant institutional player in town, belatedly discovered that its interest lies in building community ties. Neighborhood groups, emerging small businesses and development projects have found support from the university, which has also helped hundreds of workers to buy homes and has stabilized troubled neighborhoods.

Despite that progress, interest and participation in local democracy has withered in New Haven, as it has in so many cities where federally funded patronage has dried up. A one-party system (the last Republican mayor was elected in 1951) has become even more monolithic, with little dissent or challenge to the city’s Democratic machine or allies of Mayor John DeStefano, who was elected in 1993.

Nor have the recent advances made much of a dent in the city’s high poverty and unemployment rates, largely dependent on decisions by state and national lawmakers and corporations. The most enduring poverty-prevention effort of the past three decades has probably been the unionization of Yale’s pink-collar workers and their subsequent success in a series of strikes. That union, Local 34 of UNITE HERE (whose international represents workers in textile, manufacturing, hotel, food service and other fields), now has some 3,500 members. Combined with the roughly 1,000-member blue-collar Local 35, the Yale unions have preserved living wages and good benefits for a big chunk of the city. And they’ve developed into the largest organized political force independent of City Hall.

On some issues—such as pushing immigration and banking reform, recognizing a union at the downtown Omni Hotel and pressing Yale–New Haven Hospital to sign a community-benefits agreement—that force has worked in conjunction with City Hall. Other times, most notably in some local and state Democratic contests, it has stood on opposite sides.

Meanwhile, often below the radar, Yale’s unions and their nonelectoral policy spinoff, the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, have built an independent base and started to craft an independent agenda. Since 2004 CCNE has launched grassroots initiatives on social, economic and voting issues as well as a Civic Leadership Institute. Union members and allies have knocked on tens of thousands of doors and have pulled together survey data on the issues people care about. All that work, along with some unconventional strategy, paid off in last fall’s municipal elections.

The Yale unions had developed such a formidable vote-pulling operation—they played a crucial role, for example, in getting Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy elected in 2010—that they could have knocked Mayor DeStefano out of office. After eighteen years as mayor, he was vulnerable; it was widely acknowledged that he probably would have lost to any candidate who had citywide name recognition, some experience in office and union support. And union activists, angry at DeStefano’s decision to outsource the work of school custodians, wanted to send the mayor a message about local democracy.

Staying officially neutral in the mayoral campaign, the unions decided to take on the harder challenge of winning control of the Board of Aldermen. The idea was to build a broader grassroots base that could rally around a new agenda, continue electing candidates in the future and hold any mayor accountable. Thanks to years of neighborhood organizing, the unions were able to cultivate a powerful slate of new candidates, many of them blue-collar Yale and state government workers who had experience on union executive boards, organizing committees and get-out-the-vote operations. Many of the candidates had extensive community ties, including friends, co-workers and fellow church congregants ready to help them.

UNITE HERE put its institutional weight behind the campaigns, with skilled veteran organizer Gwen Mills taking the helm of a coordinated operation. The unions sent dozens of paid workers and volunteers into ward-level races to supplement the alderman candidates. The unions also spent close to $200,000, averaging more than $10,000 per race, in many cases a record sum for New Haven alderman campaigns. In response, the city’s normally pro-union Democratic machine tapped into the anti-union mood of the country by attacking “union money” in the elections; often left unsaid was that the mayor’s campaign had more than $700,000 to spend, much of it indirectly (through polling info, shared canvassers, vote-pullers and fliers), on the pro–City Hall alderman slate.

UNITE HERE made another innovative move: it ran its candidates as Democrats and as independent Democrats: since most of them weren’t expected to win the Democratic primaries, they also ran on independent slots in the November general election. To everyone’s surprise, only one of the union-backed candidates lost contested primaries. Three more who didn’t have opponents in the primary won in the November general election.

And they won all over town. In a middle-class neighborhood, Yale custodian-turned-union official Brian Wingate knocked off a twenty-year incumbent who had served as Board of Aldermen president. Jeanette Morrison, a state member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Delphine Clyburn, a state group-home worker and organizer for the Service Employees International Union, defeated incumbents in, respectively, the overwhelmingly black Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods. Onetime Local 34 staffer and healthcare reform activist Jessica Holmes captured an East Rock neighborhood precinct filled with Yale graduate students and professors.

The insurgent slate capitalized on discontent over high taxes, regional job cuts, a spike in violent crime (thirty people, mostly young black men, were killed in New Haven last year through Thanksgiving) and an electorate fed up with incumbents in a year that saw revolutionary demands for change live-streaming from Tahrir Square to the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

* * *

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.

Grassroots organizing will remain a central part of the unions’ strategy even as they draft legislation and attend committee hearings. In doing so, they hope to avoid repeating the mistakes of those who supported Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. “If you look at Barack Obama, there was a huge amount of grassroots organizing to get him into office that ended when he got into office,” Gwen Mills observed. “It made it much more difficult to change many of the things he talked about in the campaign. The key to achieving the changes people talked about on the campaign is maintaining the organizing at the grassroots that made the campaign successful in the first place.”

So in the Newhallville neighborhood, for instance, Delphine Clyburn has continued knocking on doors even though the election is over. Four mornings a week, Clyburn, who has been active in her union since 1987, spends three hours revisiting constituents she met during the campaign. In some cases she’s checking in on the issues they want her to champion. She’s also following up with voters who during the campaign promised to serve on a neighborhood committee separate from the Democratic Party’s ward committee. And she has started work on creating a new political youth organization.

“The people will come with me,” Clyburn vowed. “I promise you that.”

Paul Bass, who has covered New Haven for more than thirty years, edits the online New Haven Independent. He is the author, with Douglas Rae, of Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale and the Redemption of a Killer.
 
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