Thousands of union workers from around the Northeast poured into downtown New Haven Saturday, joining hundreds of striking Yale workers in a massive sympathy rally that resulted in the arrests of over 100 union supporters.
Workers from unions throughout New England, New York, and New Jersey gathered on the New Haven Green at noon before marching through the streets of New Haven, tying up downtown traffic for hours. At about 3:30 p.m., several labor leaders — including Local 35 President Bob Proto, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union President John Wilhelm ’67 — were arrested for civil disobedience after blocking traffic at the intersection of York and Elm streets.
New Haven police estimated that between 8,000 and 9,000 people participated in the rally, although union leaders claimed numbers in excess of 10,000 people. Proto said the rally drew all types of union members, including carpenters, firefighters and hotel workers.
The event capped off the third week of a strike by Yale’s two largest unions, locals 34 and 35, and unionized workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Although members have said they cannot predict when the walkout will end, Yale and union leaders said they made some progress in private meetings with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. this past week.
The Rev. Scott Marks welcomed the crowd on the New Haven Green by putting the rally in historical perspective.
“If you don’t know, one of the greatest marches in labor history is about to happen right here,” Marks said.
Yale President Richard Levin said the unions did not attract as many participants as they had expected. He said the unions should concentrate their efforts on bargaining instead of organizing demonstrations for public relations purposes.
“I don’t think planning media events is going to bring us any closer to a resolution,” Levin said.
At the event’s start, a number of prominent politicians and labor leaders spoke about the significance of this rally, not only for Yale’s unions, but for unions across America.
“This is a crusade and a cause that goes way beyond this institution of higher learning and low morals,” Sweeney said.
Around 1:45 p.m., union members began a march towards the School of Medicine, waving flags and chanting “We are the union, the mighty, mighty union.”
When the workers reached the corner York and Elm streets, a group of labor leaders stood in the intersection and were soon arrested. Afterwards, more than 100 workers followed suit.
John Boyd, who works at University Health Services, was among those arrested and said he was also arrested last September, when union members blocked College Street in an act of mass civil disobedience. He said he was not scared about being arrested because he knew he was doing the right thing.
“[This] sends a message out to Yale that they need to settle this,” he said.
Non-Yale union members who came to New Haven to participate in Saturday’s activities said they were inspired by the solidarity among workers from different unions and states.
“Union solidarity is what this whole thing is about,” said Harold Aken, a member of firefighters’ union Local 2029 of Rye, N.Y. “Unions are being decimated in this country, and we’re not going to be destroyed by outfits like Yale University trying to stomp on us.”
Many students watched the day’s events from their rooms or other vantage points around central campus.
Jack Qian ’05 said he watched the march from the balcony of his Saybrook College dorm room, which overlooks the intersection of York and Elm streets.
“I’ve never actually been that close to a large demonstration,” Qian said. “It was pretty crazy looking down York and not being able to see the end of the people.”
University and union negotiators will hold a meeting at DeStefano’s office Monday afternoon. Striking workers will continue to picket at various campus locations today.