During the past two years, Yale University’s unions have worked tirelessly for workers’ rights in the communities of New Haven. In their public statements and activities, they have emerged as inspiring community leaders in the movement for economic and social justice.
Sadly, last Tuesday, Nov. 4, the unions at Yale took a public stance that contradicted the values of equality and respect that have been at the bedrock of their recent activities and triumphs. With their actions this Election Day, the unions deeply disappointed and alienated many long-time union supporters.
Union leaders, including Local 35 President Bob Proto, Reverend Scott Marks, and labor organizer Shirley Lawrence, spent their entire Election Day in front of the polls in Ward 2. There, they warned voters away from Democrat Andre Baker, a pro-union candidate for alderman who publicly supported the Domestic Partnership Amendment that her Green Party opponent, Joyce Chen, voted against last March.
The Amendment, which failed to pass by a single vote, aimed to recognize in law the relationships of same-sex couples in New Haven and to serve as a proof of relationship status for such rights as hospital visitation, employment benefits and custody issues.
Proto, Marks, Lawrence, and the rest of the HERE cohort (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union), in HERE t-shirts, spent Election Day palm-carding, pulling voters, giving rides to Chen’s supporters, and encouraging union members to vote for Chen.
Chen not only cast the decisive vote against the ordinance that aimed to grant basic civil rights to all New Haven citizens, but she also campaigned against Baker with public statements emphasizing her own opposition to domestic partnership. Chen unfairly called Baker’s supporters “one-issue voters” in the New Haven Advocate, even though Baker had talked about many more issues than just the Domestic Partnership Amendment during her campaign.
To my surprise and great disappointment, union leaders accompanied Chen on her door-to-door campaign, and used Baker’s stance on the Domestic Partnership Amendment as a scare tactic. There are reports from Ward 2 residents that Chen and Marks had arrived at their doors on Election Day to urge them to vote against Baker because she supported “gay marriage.” The message of Chen’s campaign and the actions of her union supporters on Election Day publicly demonstrated their fear and discrimination. Even more puzzling and troubling, the unions at Yale did more on Election Day for Chen than they did for any other pro-union candidate in the city.
I do not want to believe that the same unions who marched with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and often invoked the language and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the strike are actually against universal civil rights. I hope that soon they will make a public statement about gay rights that disproves my interpretation of their actions in Ward 2 this Election Day.
Bob Proto says that he supports Chen because Chen does not turn her back on friends of the union. But would the unions support an open racist or a misogynist who was pro-union? Why do Yale’s unions champion the civil rights of some groups but campaign against the civil rights of others?
The unions should never forget that Baker, like Chen, was a union supporter. She visited the picket lines twice during the strike and marched with workers and the Rev. Jesse Jackson when the civil rights (including gay rights) advocate visited Yale to lend his support to the unions. Instead of staying neutral in a contest between two union supporters, the unions chose to take an active stance suggesting that the rights and dignity of some members of their community — and of their union — are expendable.
Unfortunately, the Ward 2 campaign, unworthy of the best traditions of organized labor, had an unpleasant deja vu quality about it. Some of the same ministers who appeared and spoke proudly at pro-union rallies this fall also railed against the Domestic Partnership Amendment and New Haven’s gay and lesbian citizens last March.
If the unions want us to believe that they are the moral leaders of our city, as they claim to be, then they cannot afford to sacrifice their commitment to the cause of basic civil rights for all of New Haven’s citizens. If the unions want to gain sympathy during their struggles by waving the flag of universal civil rights, then they must live by that flag.
Andre Baker supported the Domestic Partnership Amendment because she believed that it was the right thing to do, even if it was the hard thing to do. The unions must be held to the same standards by union supporters in the community. They cannot do what is easy; they must do what is right. And they cannot leave the toughest struggles for human rights to the rest of us. They must stop condoning homophobia and start confronting it.
After this sorry political campaign, the question Yale’s unions now need to answer is nothing less than the one raised so poignantly by the old union organizing song: “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”
Alejandra O’Leary is a senior in Davenport College.