It’s lunchtime at New Haven’s Celentano Museum Academy, and the fire truck sitting out front has its sirens blaring.
But firefighters aren’t on their way to put out a blaze — the fire truck is stationary. Nor are any of the school’s students in any danger. Instead, they are sounding the alarm to warn of another threat to the safety of New Haveners: Ward 19 aldermanic candidate Mike Stratton.
It was the day of the primary election, and teams of canvassers were going door to door in the ward, pulling voters to the polls at Celentano. Large signs at the school’s entrance warned: “Having a Heart Attack? Your Home is on Fire! A Loved One Involved in a Car Accident … Michael Stratton’s Plan is to CUT Your FIRE ENGINE.”
Stratton, who announced this spring that he would run to replace retiring alderwoman Alfreda Edwards, had proposed reducing the size of the city’s fire department to tackle growing budget issues. A month later, he joined Take Back New Haven. Founded by Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04, the group was a response to the looming influence of Locals 34 and 35, the New Haven chapters of the international UNITE HERE! union that represent thousands of Yale workers. The two unions have emerged as a powerful political force in the Elm City, having helped to elect approximately two-thirds of 30 legislators on the Board of Aldermen.
These two actions convinced Yale Alumni Fund employee and Local 34 member Maureen Gardner to declare her candidacy in the race. With the backing of the fire department and Yale’s unions, Gardner announced her run days before the filing deadline, and almost three months following Stratton’s entry into the race.
In addition to arguing that Stratton’s fire department suggestions would endanger city residents, the campaign against Stratton portrayed the lawyer, who founded New Haven-based personal injury law firm Stratton Faxon, as elitist and out of touch. According to Stratton, residents of Ward 19 — which sees both some of the city’s poorest residents in Newhallville and some of its wealthiest, including Stratton, in Prospect Hill — received literature featuring pictures of his million-dollar house on Huntington Street. Gardner denied the literature had any connection to her campaign, and told the News that she never saw any material displaying images of Stratton’s house.
New Haven’s fire department has far more firefighters per capita than the 10 largest cities in America. Setting Elm City firefighter staffing levels to the national average — decreasing the firefighter per resident ratio from 350 to 800 — would save the city nearly $20 million.
But this rationale didn’t please the firefighter’s union, who backed Gardner, a candidate Stratton said had “appeared out of nowhere” and did not seem to have any sort of position about what she would do once elected. She had seemingly only been recruited to run to prevent Stratton from obtaining a spot on the Board, he noted.
“‘He’s a rich white lawyer who doesn’t understand your problems’ — that was their position,” Stratton said. “That was their position, it’s not like they had any positive agenda for the city … there was no explanation for what they would do when they won.”
Hausladen, one of the biggest critics of organized labor’s influence in the city legislature, faced a similar challenge when he ran for reelection in his ward. Two days before the filing deadline, Ella Wood ’15 broke her lease on Dwight Street and moved into Ward 7 with the intent of unseating Hausladen.
On the day of the September primary, vans decorated with signs for both Wood and mayoral candidate Toni Harp ARC ’78 — also backed by the University’s unions — shuttled voters to the polls. Union-backed aldermen like Ward 6’s Dolores Colón stood outside the ballot box, encouraging poll goers to vote against their current colleague on the Board in favor of Wood.
While these tactics were not enough to secure victory for the union-backed Gardner or Wood, they came closer than many expected. Eight of 10 labor-backed aldermanic candidates emerged victorious that night — reminiscent of 2011, when they won 17 of 18 races. As independent voices on a board predominantly comprised of union-affiliated politicians, Stratton and Hausladen are the exception, not the rule.
Since unions first emerged as a politically powerful force in the city two years ago, their influence over city policy has been brought up in nearly every municipal race.
Given that labor-backed candidates hold over two-thirds of the seats on the Board of Aldermen, several spots more than the 16-seat requirement for passing legislation, one might wonder what the union plans to do with such power.
“What are they doing?” Stratton asked. “What are they doing to make the city a better place?”
THE STATE OF THE UNIONS
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, only 52 percent of those surveyed said they favored labor unions — a figure down from 75 percent in the 1950s. The electoral victories of Locals 34 and 35 — which have been covered in national publications such as The Nation — stand in stark contrast to the situation in places like Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker stripped workers of collective bargaining rights in 2011. Former Democratic Party activist Charlie Pillsbury, who has been involved in city politics since the late 1970s, said New Haven is regarded as a “vanguard.”
In the last round of municipal elections, Yale’s unions ran in 15 contested races in the Democratic primary election in an attempt to gain control of a Board of Aldermen that many interviewed for this piece said had traditionally been regarded as a rubber stamp for Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Busy fending off a set of three challengers, DeStefano was unable to pour the usual amount of funds and manpower into ward-level races for aldermanic candidates supportive of his agenda, allowing city unions instead of City Hall to claim a majority on the Board of Aldermen.
“2011 is the culmination of what they’d call organization and working in neighborhoods to elect a Board of Alderman,” said Drew Morrison ’14, who organizes the campus operations of mayoral candidate Justin Elicker SOM ’10 FES ’10. “Part of [their success] was building infrastructure, part of it was spending time on doors, part of it was [the money spent].”
After achieving a supermajority on the city’s legislative wing, candidates backed by Locals 34 and 35 convinced all 30 representatives to sign onto a vision statement that put forth a policy agenda that had been developed based on what canvassers had heard on doorsteps: that jobs, youth and public safety were what most concerned city residents. This move, explained New Haven Independent Editor in Chief Paul Bass ’82, was “powerful” in a city that’s not ideological and typically suffers from the absence of an agenda.
Even before taking office, the new supermajority had started to see results. In a move largely regarded as a response to the union’s success at the polls, DeStefano brought in current New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman to bring back the community policing demanded by voters. Upon the start of their term, the new Board began work on a “jobs pipeline” to connect city residents to local jobs — which manifested itself in the form of New Haven Works months later — and, under the direction of Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12, began a survey of youth spaces and programs in the city.
But even after the election was won, union-backed candidates kept knocking on doors.
“One positive thing [that’s resulted from the union supermajority on the Board], that’s maybe not as evident, is the level of engagement with the community in different neighborhoods across the city,” Gardner said.
Gardner cited Ward 20 Alderman Delphine Clyburn as an example of one legislator who’s “out there every day” talking to her constituents about their concerns. This constant voter contact paid off: in September’s primary, Clyburn defeated challenger Charles Blango, whom she first bested in 2011, by a vote of 416 to 297.
A HISTORY OF ORGANIZING
The unions didn’t become the political force that they are overnight.
“You can’t just parachute in and try to organize and think that things are going to happen,” said Louise Simmons, the director of the University of Connecticut’s Urban Semester Program. “This is the culmination of years and years of work, and a lot of base-building activities as we call it. It’s base building, it’s relationship development, it’s fostering trust.”
True to its reputation as a hotbed of progressive activity — receiving national attention for stances on immigration, for example — New Haven was a center of organized labor long before 2011. In May of 1970, a News headline declared “Faculty Votes To Allow Class Suspension,” accompanied by an article that described a campus where neither professors nor students were expected in class as a result of a University-wide strike. Among the demands issued were calls for Yale to establish adequate wage and worker’s compensation plans, and to change how it expanded into New Haven.
By the end of the 1970s, Pillsbury said, labor relations were at a “depressing” point, with strikes among Yale workers occurring almost every three years. But during the worst of it, the idea arose that “the community could help labor” and vice versa, he said.
This realization, Simmons explained, led to the creation of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE), a “think-and-do tank” affiliated with Locals 34 and 35. Simmons, who chairs the board of CCNE, said labor groups gradually began to change their tactics.
“Some of the more forward-thinking people in UNITE HERE! and the unions realized it couldn’t be a one-way street, they had to listen to the community and deal with the community in terms of helping to make that part of labor’s agenda, or developing coalitions that could … develop power on the community level that was community and labor working together,” she said.
In 2006, these tactics hit a testing point in negotiations with Yale-New Haven Hospital, where organized labor in the city pushed for the hospital to allow clerical and lower-level workers to unionize in return for support in building Smilow Cancer Center. But the final deal struck with the hospital, called a Community Benefits Agreement, contained provisions that benefitted the neighborhood as a whole, including Yale-New Haven’s commitment to funding housing and economic development around its campus, city youth programs and more.
Labor continued to refine its community organizing ability in 2008 with the election of President Barack Obama. And they proved their value as a political mobilizing force in 2010, when Gov. Dannel Malloy defeated Republican candidate Dan Foley by fewer than 7,000 votes, seeing a vote margin of over 18,000 in his favor in New Haven, in part because of the efforts of organized labor.
“You better believe that statewide officials know about the power of the unions,” said Tyler Blackmon ’15, a volunteer for the Eidelson campaign.
By 2011, with their grassroots organizing ability fully tested, the unions finally decided it was time to take control of City Hall.
“I think they had decided they wanted to set the agenda for the legislative body, and they wanted to do it by building a community force,” Bass said.
After achieving a majority on the Board, city unions worked to elect a set of labor-friendly ward co-chairs, taking control of what former Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield, who was defeated by a labor-backed candidate in 2011, called a “weak” Democratic Party. Now, Pillsbury said, Locals 34 and 35 are setting their sights on a final prize: the mayor’s office.
‘COMMUNIST PARTY VIETNAMESE RE-EDUCATION CAMP’
Earlier this week, union-backed and employed Eidelson, wearing a sleek black blazer, faced off against a bespectacled Paul Chandler ’14 in a News-sponsored debate over the race to represent Yale on the Board. The two stood at separate podiums adorned with campaign signs before a crowd of nearly 200 — roughly split between Eidelson and Chandler camps — on the stage in Sterling-Sheffield-Strathcoma Hall.
For nearly 90 minutes, they sparred over topics ranging from Eidelson’s tenure as alderwoman to Chandler’s decision to run as a Republican. But more than anything else, the candidates and audience questions returned to one subject: the role of unions in city politics.
Eidelson stressed repeatedly that she has voted with an independent mind over the past two years despite her affiliation with organized labor, including her job as a graphic designer for Local 34.
“I represent the people in this room. I represent Yale students,” she told the audience. “I don’t represent Yale as an institution, and I don’t represent Local 34 as an institution when I’m voting on the board.”
But Chandler argued that the incumbent’s connections to the unions should give students reason to worry, and told the audience that having so many candidates elected by unions on the Board limits transparency. A supermajority like the sort Locals 34 and 35 enjoy, regardless of political affiliation, is inherently a conflict of interest, he added. He cited comments by Local 35 President Bob Proto following last year’s labor contract agreement, when Proto credited the unions’ successful negotiations to their controlling “20 out of 30” seats in the legislature.
Gardner disagreed with Chandler’s sentiment, calling the criticism unfair. She pointed out that other aldermen hold jobs that could also pose conflicts of interest, and that the negative implications of this supposed conflict have not been illustrated since labor took power.
While Bass said Chandler was not incorrect to raise the issue — “it’s still a fair criticism to ask: where are your loyalties are going to be? Will there ever be a conflict?” — he echoed Gardner’s sentiment that there has been little evidence to support this fear. While critics often point to the city’s selling of portions of High and Wall Streets to the University as an one such conflict of interest, the decision in fact split the coalition of union-backed aldermen, he said.
And although he thinks union domination on the Board probably did affect contract negotiations, Bass argued that it’s not necessarily a negative, pointing out that the biggest impact on poverty over the past 30 years was the formation of Local 34 — a trend that the wage and benefit agreements in the 2012 contract continues.
“Yale saw that reality [of union control of the Board], and I think that definitely helped [the unions] at the bargaining table,” Bass said. “If they were up front, they would say that helps New Haven.”
Organized labor also emerged as a point of contention between four candidates for mayor at an August debate.
Elicker told the debate audience that he admired the work labor had done in involving more voters in the political process and setting a legislative agenda for the city. But he argued that more openness was needed in the decision making process, a point Goldfield took further by telling the News that his meeting with the unions during their 2006 Community Benefit Agreement campaign was reminiscent of a “Communist Party Vietnamese re-education camp.”
“The union mentality is you’re either with us or you’re against us, they broach no dissent whatsoever,” Goldfield said. “It’s like ‘this is the agenda, you line up behind the agenda or we’re gonna knock you out.’”
Former city economic development administrator Henry Fernandez, meanwhile, reminded the debate audience that in their zest to elect labor-friendly candidates to the Board, the unions had selected candidates ill-prepared for the role of local legislator. He referred to Gabriel Santiago, who was elected to represent Ward 14 in 2011 but only attended a few Board meetings before resigning earlier this year.
“That wasn’t organizing,” Fernandez said. “My ward was unrepresented for over a year because they forced a candidate on us that had no background, no experience and no right to be elected.”
Pillsbury, though, said candidates like Santiago and Wood simply come with the territory of accomplishing an agenda.
We’re talking about how you build power, and sometimes that’s messy. You make mistakes, you overreach, but that’s a distraction,” Pillsbury said. “As a whole, that shouldn’t take away from the broad, progressive agenda that … the unions will be bringing into City Hall.”
In contrast to others at the debate, Harp argued that the work of the unions had improved democracy in the Elm City, citing the existence of Take Back New Haven as evidence. Before UNITE HERE! rose to power, she said, the city didn’t see a population that was engaged in politics. Now, organized labor has increased civic discourse, she said, and has brought democracy closer to New Haven residents.
But Stratton argued, however, that while labor had brought more voters to the polls, they did so primarily for their own electoral means.
“I think it’s really cool that they’ve brought all these people into the process who haven’t been there before, but you haven’t empowered them with their own unique voice,” he said. “What you did is you brought them in and sat on them and made them vote in a certain way. That’s not progressive.”
Three Yalies involved in union organizing declined to comment for this story, two of whom cited time concerns in the run-up to next week’s general election. Two more labor-affiliated students — members of Students Unite Now, an undergraduate organizing group tied to Locals 34 and 35 — did not return multiple requests for comment.
One of organized labor’s biggest obstacles, Bass said, has been the difficulty they’ve had in communicating their plans for the city, particularly because they often appear to do their organizing in the shadows. In 2011, union-backed candidates, suffering from what Bass described as a “schizophrenia,” were not open about running as a slate, leading some to see a sort of labor conspiracy.
“They have to be a little less secretive,” Bass said. “If they’re a little more transparent and a little more up front about what they’re up to, they might find that a lot of people really like what they’re doing.”
FROM ‘DESTEFANATI’ TO ‘UNIONISTAS’
Perhaps the best way to think about the unions in one-party New Haven — the Elm City hasn’t seen a functional GOP establishment in years — is as a sort of “substitute political party,” Goldfield said. Whereas before 2011, political affiliations took the form of aldermen either aligned with or against DeStefano, the factions within city government now seem to fall along lines of whether or not a legislator is connected to labor.
“Instead of the ‘DeStefanati,’ longtime downtown resident Edward Anderson told the News during a September debate between Wood and Hausladen, “it’s the ‘unionistas.’”
A lot of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate, Bass said, is “overwrought” and “overheated.” Instead, he echoed Harp, explaining that UNITE HERE! has managed to democratize the city by bringing more voters to polls and encouraging the development of slates in opposition like Hausladen’s Take Back New Haven.
“I think there’s no downside to having a slate that decides how to run a city well and delivers voters and is trying to figure out how to govern,” he said. “But what’s not healthy is not having any new set of candidates to challenge them … if you don’t have other groups that run candidates and have good ideas too.”
Perhaps the biggest critique of the current union control of the Board of Aldermen, Bass said, is its lack of an agenda. Labor-backed aldermen, he added, have “three ideas” — referring to their triple-pronged vision statement — but not the sort of comprehensive governing plan that one might expect. For example, he said candidates supported by the unions have not articulated a vision for the city’s schools, which are currently undergoing a nationally recognized school change initiative.
Morrison argued that the creation of New Haven Works and return to community policing have been good, but hardly indicative of a sweeping plan to reshape the city.
“I think the question that hasn’t been asked well enough is: to what end?” Morrison said. “They have not pursued an aggressive policy plan … it’s a very murky world.”
Blackmon, meanwhile, cautioned against passing judgement on what union-backed aldermen stand for, given that their agenda has had less than two years’ time to come to fruition. Both those in support of organized labor and those who view it through skeptical eyes, he said, should hold off judgment on the successes and failures of the movement spearheaded by Locals 34 and 35.
With a mayoral election that seems to offer a reasonable chance at handing unions the mayor’s seat, City Hall could be united under the hand of organized labor. With national attention heaped on New Haven, Simmons said, the Elm City is proving to be an incubator for labor-controlled progressive governance.
But first, Bass said, union-backed candidates need to figure out how to run the city — labor-affiliated aldermen have yet to take the step from setting the city’s agenda to actually governing the Elm City.
“If they really want to be a national model, they have to show they can govern,” Bass said, “and they haven’t governed yet.”
Clarification: Nov. 3
An earlier version of this article implied that the literature featuring pictures of Stratton’s house was distributed by Gardner’s campaign. In fact, Gardner denied any connection to such literature.
The fire truck, both Gardner and Stratton confirmed, was sounding its sirens as a result of a voter who hurt his or her ankle at the polling location. Stratton alleged the decision to wail sirens for a hurt ankle was a political decision on the part of the firefighters in support of Gardner.