Mayor looks to ease tensions

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. met with union and Yale negotiators Wednesday, hoping to reclaim his role as mediator that helped end the last major contract dispute seven years ago.

The mayor and union and Yale spokesmen would not comment on the substance of the discussions yesterday. Talks are scheduled to continue today as the strike by workers stretches into its second week.

“The two sides are talking, and that’s a good thing,” DeStefano said. “I think both sides are interested in settling this.”

DeStefano began his involvement this round of talks with a last-minute bargaining session before the strike began Aug. 27. Since then, he has met with representatives from Yale and locals 34 and 35, which represent about 4,000 Yale workers.

The mayor, who has long-standing relationships with both the University and the unions, said both sides were receptive to his decision to get involved in contract talks.

While DeStefano spoke at a pro-union rally during a five-day walkout the unions held in March, he has also worked closely with Yale President Richard Levin to bring businesses to New Haven.

Levin said the mayor’s involvement in the discussions was “similar” to his work toward a settlement in 1996, and he said his involvement in convening discussions between small groups on both sides has been helpful.

“I think he played a very constructive role in the past two weeks. He recognizes it is in the city’s best interest to try and resolve this dispute,” Levin said. “I think he’s doing his very best to remain fair and impartial so far.”

Local 35 negotiating committee member Philip Voigt, who also serves as Ward 27 alderman, said the unions — who have supported DeStefano in past elections — also trust the mayor as a participant in discussions.

“I know from the union side, the mayor has always been upfront with us, and we have been upfront with him,” Voigt said. “It seems to be that he’s been successful so far in bringing the parties together to try to iron out the major issues, especially pensions and wages.”

Voigt also said he felt most of his colleagues on the Board of Aldermen supported the unions during the current labor dispute.

But DeStefano said a wide range of opinion exists around the city concerning New Haven’s largest private employer. Some citizens, he said, are supportive of the unions, while others think striking workers should be thankful to have jobs in a weak economic climate. While he expressed optimism about a possible contract resolution, DeStefano said that even appearances last week by Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ’71 would not significantly accelerate a settlement.

“I think both appearances do contribute to coloring the issues that the workers have, and I think they contribute incrementally to defining their experience,” DeStefano said. “[But] I think that no particular event is — a dramatic moment. This is an incremental process.”

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