Protest rocks City Hall

Thousands participated in the “We Are One” rally in downtown New Haven on Wednesday night to address labor issues.
Thousands participated in the “We Are One” rally in downtown New Haven on Wednesday night to address labor issues. Photo by Alon Harish.

For two hours Wednesday evening, over 1,000 people flooded downtown streets in a rally designed to show solidarity for the city’s unemployed and working class.

Protesters marched on City Hall Wednesday as part of the “We Are One” rally, jointly organized by labor unions, clergy, and other activists. While police officers blocked off streets, marchers carried signs and shouted slogans demanding better jobs, railing against Wall Street banks and criticizing Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s demands of the city’s employees. Tensions between the city and its unions are running high amid a wave of layoffs and DeStefano’s demands that city employees make significant concessions on their benefits plans to help balance the city budget.

“An injury to one of us is an injury to us all,” John Olsen, president of the Connecticut American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, said to a huge crowd outside City Hall.

At one point, the throng of marchers stretched from Silliman College to the middle of the New Haven Green, clogging city streets and backing up traffic down the length of Elm Street and Whalley Avenue from Popeye’s to Church Street.

As the evening grew chilly and protesters reached City Hall, the crowd temporarily stopped its chanting to listen to a series of speeches. The speakers, who addressed issues ranging from labor tensions and unemployment to budget cuts and corporate greed, uniformly ended their speeches with the chant “We are one! We are one!”

Although several speakers addressed specific political objectives, Rev. Henry Morris, a Lutheran minister involved with the “We Are One” coalition, said the rally does not have a political agenda.

Morris emphasized the distinction between this rally and an officially union-organized event March 14 that brought Rev. Al Sharpton, the national civil rights figure, to New Haven to lobby City Hall on behalf of the city’s public sector unions. Still, the character of the rally was colored by the prominence of groups such as Yale unions UNITE-HERE Locals 34 and 35, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) , the Teamsters Union, and other labor organizations. Some protesters made their views of DeStefano clear, carrying signs reading “Privatize DeStefano.”

Abraham Hernandez, a Fair Haven preacher who was the first to speak on the steps of City Hall, said the purpose of the rally was to combat a sense of hopelessness in the city. Without decently-paid jobs available, Hernandez said, communities in New Haven are crumbling.

“We’re here to say there is hope,” Hernandez told the crowd, which soon broke into shouts of “Hope, not fear!”

But the crowd cheered loudest for a speaker who is not even old enough to vote. Isaiah Lee, a Wilbur Cross High School junior, said he brought a written speech to read, but decided to speak spontaneously. Lee, who singlehandedly organized a student rally Tuesday protesting recent teacher layoffs, struck a defiant tone in his remarks, which stressed that students in the city’s public schools are aware of the issues affecting them.

Repeating a rallying cry from Tuesday, Lee criticized school administrators for not taking cuts to their salaries — among the highest on the city payroll — while 42 layoffs hit city schools.

“We see our teachers, our custodians, our nurses getting laid off, and we hear our government saying they expect us to be productive members of New Haven — well I don’t think so,” Lee shouted to thunderous applause. “You mess with our teachers, you mess with us!”

In a closed meeting with Lee and three other students Tuesday evening, DeStefano told the students to discuss their concerns about administrator salaries with the Board of Education’s Chief Operating Officer Will Clark.

Following Lee was UNITE-HERE national president John Wilhelm, who said the grassroots movement growing in New Haven is part of a “new spirit in this world” seen in the recent democracy protests in Egypt and the labor protests in Wisconsin.

Public sector workers are under attack around the country, said Marcy Kaufman, graduate registrar of Yale’s history department and a Local 34 board member. Referring to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recent attempt to strip the state’s public employees of their right to collectively bargain, Kaufman argued that “bargaining rights are civil rights.”

Working-class people are being blamed for an economic crisis they did not create, Kaufman said.

As dusk approached and the rally drew to a close, Hernandez led the crowd in a chant of “We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”

Several low-paid city workers present at the rally said they cannot afford to give City Hall the concessions it is asking of them.

Truman School cook Betty Alford said she and other public school employees are making just enough to get by. She enjoys putting a smile on the children she serves, many of whom are not always able to eat at home, she said.

“We’re not being greedy, we’re just trying to hold on to what we have,” Alford said. “We can’t afford to give up our sick days and our holidays, and we’re going to fight back.”

Citing the upcoming anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Claudine Wilkins-Chambers, a public school paraprofessional for 41 years, said the “We Are One” rally was an effort to honor King’s dream of economic justice. “We can’t honor the dreamer but allow politicians and corporations to trample on the dream,” said Wilkins-Chambers, president of AFSCME Local 3429.

Talib Muhammad, a New Haven custodian who has lived in the city for 30 years, said he and many of his coworkers are worried about their job security, adding that he feels city officials are not concerned with the well-being of workers. The city is trying to privatize its public school custodial services over the objections of the custodial union.

While the custodial workers’ union contract is the first of the city’s 11 unions to wind up in state arbitration, many more will follow, said Kevin Murphy, lead negotiator for AFSCME’s five city unions. He said the rally is evidence that city unions’ grievances against City Hall resonate with New Haven residents.

Ed McMillan, who has lived in New Haven since 1972 and attended the rally, said he lost his job at a supermarket chain in 2006 and has been unemployed since.

“I’m hoping this rally will make the people in City Hall more aware of what’s happening in their own city,” he said.

After the rally, Hernandez said he was pleased with the turnout from the community.

“The movement is growing,” he said.

While the “We Are One” coalition has set no firm dates for future rallies, Hernandez said more are sure to come.

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