Local 35 President Bob Proto, who represents service and maintenance employees at Yale, said Monday that he will assume a position on his union’s international executive board.
The board of UNITE HERE appointed Proto as its newest officer in a unanimous decision last week, expanding his leadership role among the organization’s approximately 440,000 active members. A labor expert said the promotion could test UNITE HERE’s commitment to graduate student unionization and other issues in higher education, but local officials were skeptical that the change will significantly impact Yale.
Board member Paul Clifford ’78 said his colleagues chose Proto for his reputation at Local 35.
“It’s a recognition of his leadership,” Clifford said. “The unions in New Haven are known to be very dynamic, strong, organizing unions — unions that represent not just workers at Yale but the broader interests of the community at large.”
As a vice president on the board, Proto will attend biannual meetings to coordinate UNITE HERE’s efforts across the United States and Canada.
More than 50 members serve on UNITE HERE’s board, but Proto is one of a handful of officers who have been chosen since the organization formed in a union merger two years ago, Clifford said.
John Raudabaugh, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, said Proto’s greater voice in UNITE HERE could give the local chapter more influence in negotiations with Yale. But Proto’s attention could also be drawn away from New Haven if he focuses on broader issues, Raudabaugh said.
“He could muster more support for the university situation, or it could start dissipating his activities because it draws his attention to other campaigns,” he said.
Proto recently helped organize labor rallies in New York and Boston and is also coordinating with state labor leaders to support Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s gubernatorial campaign.
Bruce Alexander ’65, who is serving as Yale’s interim vice president for finance and administration, said he thinks Proto will continue his local efforts despite his new responsibilities.
“The best practices initiatives on which we are working together are very important for all of us at the University and have tremendous potential,” Alexander said in an e-mail. “Because Bob plays an important role in that effort, I was very pleased that he has assured me that he will continue his leadership position with Local 35 here in New Haven.”
Despite Proto’s greater national role, there is little UNITE HERE can do to increase its considerable attention to New Haven affairs, said Local 34 President Laura Smith, who represents Yale’s clerical and technical workers.
“Our international union has always been exceptionally responsive to the needs of our locals,” Smith said. “I don’t know if there’s any more they could do.”
But Raudabaugh said UNITE HERE’s umbrella federation, Change to Win, has lagged in its commitment to labor issues in higher education since its highly publicized split from the AFL-CIO in September 2005. Proto’s appointment could foreshadow a change in strategy, Raudabaugh said.
“This is quite an interesting test as to whether the breakaway group is going to be committed to the interests of grad students, faculty committees etc. at the University, or whether it will cede jurisdiction to the AFL-CIO,” he said.
Proto is the most recent addition to the ranks of New Haven labor leaders who have risen to the top at UNITE HERE, Smith said. Co-president John Wilhelm ’67, who spoke on Proto’s behalf when he was appointed, started his labor career with Local 35. Vincent Sirabella also led Local 35 before he became director of organization of HERE, one of the current union’s former components.
“This is really an exciting new chapter of that tradition of leadership growing from New Haven,” Smith said. “It’s quite an honor, and certainly one that is well-deserved for Bob.”
Proto will hold his new position until 2009, when he will face an election before an international conference of UNITE HERE delegates.