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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.

 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.

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