Union affiliations polarize candidates

Maureen Gardner, a member of Yale’s Local 34 Union and a former candidate in the Ward 19 aldermanic race, dropped her bid for the seat on Thursday, leaving a non-union backed Mike Stratton unopposed in the upcoming general election.

Although union affiliation is no longer a factor in the uncontested Ward 19 election, it remains a point of contention among city leaders who disagree about whether the current majority of union-backed alderman on the Board represents the city’s interests. In both the mayoral race — in which union-backed Toni Harp Arc ’78 faces non-union affiliated Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 — and the aldermanic races that pit union and non-union affiliates against each other, union affiliations are becoming a salient factor in candidates’ appeal.

The Board’s union powerhouse dates from 2011, when a union-organized coalition sought to improve the representation of New Haven residents by bringing new voices to an administration they perceived as undemocratic. In the September 2011 primaries, candidates supported by Yale’s UNITE HERE Local 34 and 35 unions swept 14 of the 15 aldermanic races in which they ran, giving them control over 20 out of the 30 seats on the Board starting in January 2012.

Non-union affiliates argue that this majority has been problematic. Ward 10 Alderman and mayoral candidate Justin Elicker said that, although individual aldermen have worked to engage the public on political issues, the fact that unions back so many members has precluded public hearings from taking place.

“They hold two thirds of the Board, so they have no reason to have public hearings, they can just decide on their own,” he said.

Ward 29 Alderman Brian Wingate disagreed, saying that that the union-backed alderman are not a singular voting block and that they are sometimes even divided on what they think is best for the city. He added that the current Board has made measurable progress in reducing crime in the city and has worked to increase government participation among New Haven residents.

“In the past couple of years, more people have been getting involved and more people are voicing their opinions about policies in the city of New Haven,” he said.

Still, some say that the current Board is not accurately representing the interests of New Haven residents. Stratton, who used to be a part of the Take Back New Haven movement — established by Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04 to oppose “machine” dominated city politics — said that, since most union members live in suburbs outside the city, the union-backed Aldermen are not adequately representing residents inside the city.

“The only reason for the government to exist is to act upon what is in the best interest of the residents,” he said. “We have strayed so far from that in New Haven while under the union-backed board.”

Regardless of the results of this November’s four contested aldermanic elections, union-backed alderman will continue to represent a majority. Still, union affiliation is affecting the discourse around the Ward 1 and Ward 8 aldermanic races.

In Ward 1, Republican Paul Chandler ’14 is challenging the incumbent, Sarah Eidelson ’12, who has garnered wide support from local unions. In Ward 8, Andy Ross, who is running as an Independent, is opposing union-backed Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18. Greenberg serves as the president of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, an affiliate of Local 34 and 35.

Ross said that, although he considers himself “pro-union,” voters need to understand that the unions are special interest groups, and that with a majority on the Board, they can single-handedly cost the city a lot of money. Greenberg did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The mayoral candidates also differ on their union affiliation. In an interview with the News, Elicker expressed concern about the possible combination of a union-backed mayor and a union-backed majority on the Board.

“We have a system of checks and balances in government for a reason — to make sure that no one group runs the show,” he said. “I think having a mayor and a Board of Alderman who are backed by unions is not a positive thing for the city.”

But Harp, who took 49.77 percent of the votes in the four-way mayoral democratic primaries, said that because the unions encourage Yale and other major city employers to hire New Haven residents, New Havenites should not be worried about a union majority on the Board.

“[The unions] have a broad societal goal to get more New Haven residents employed,” she told the News. “I don’t think this is a bad goal.”

The general elections will take place on Nov. 5.

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