Earlier this fall, with potentially divisive negotiations between Yale and its unions looming, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. welcomed an endorsement from the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council.

The Labor Council, which represents all of New Haven’s organized labor and includes Yale’s two recognized unions, locals 34 and 35, voted unanimously to endorse the mayor in his reelection bid against Republican candidate Joel Schiavone ’58.

What would usually be just another step in a standard reelection campaign could, for the second time in his mayoral career, land DeStefano in the middle of longstanding tensions between the University and its unions.

It was a role he was credited with handling well in 1996, when contract renewal became a 13-month process that included strikes by both unions. This time around, tensions may not run as high. But whatever his role, DeStefano may have to come to terms with what has become in recent years an increasingly close relationship with the Yale administration.

Julio Gonzalez ’99, DeStefano’s campaign manager, said the council’s support reflected the mayor’s “strong stands” on local labor issues.

“We were pleased to receive the Yale unions’ endorsement, and I think it speaks to the mayor’s commitment to New Haven’s working families,” Gonzalez said Thursday.

But Schiavone’s campaign manager, Ted Levasseur, said DeStefano’s acceptance of the endorsement reflects the mayor’s desire to “play both sides of the field,” catering to labor interests even as he continues to support Yale’s administration.

For his part, Gonzalez said the endorsement was in no way contradictory and reaffirms DeStefano’s support of local organized labor causes.

“The mayor’s priority has always been to create strong neighborhoods,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think that the supportiveness that the mayor has given the labor movement and his mutual relationships with the University are exclusive.”

Union representatives said DeStefano’s continuing support for the unions made him the natural choice.

“He’s always been at our rallies, always a very helpful voice,” said Antony Dugdale, a spokesman for the Federation of Hospital and University Employees, which represents Yale’s unions.

The Labor Council did not endorse either DeStefano or his challenger, state Sen. Martin Looney, in the Democratic primary in September.

When DeStefano defeated Looney, he secured the party nomination that traditionally paves the way to City Hall in New Haven, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 12 to 1.

If the upcoming negotiations are anything like the last time, the mayor’s support could become a sought-after commodity.

In 1996, both sides tried to woo DeStefano, who officially remained neutral in what became a 13-month dispute featuring two strikes.

While he avoided taking sides, DeStefano did say that a strike would not be in the city’s best interests because Yale is New Haven’s largest employer. DeStefano facilitated negotiations between Yale and the unions over the summer.

He was credited with helping to convince the two sides to resume negotiations after they collapsed again, shortly before they arrived at a final settlement in December.

One factor expected to play a role in the upcoming negotiations is the status of the proto-unions GESO and the Hospital Workers 1199, both of which have been trying to gain recognition as unions. Locals 34 and 35 have been operating in an alliance with GESO and 1199, calling themselves collectively the Federation of Hospital and University Employees.

The alliance wants the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and 1199 to be recognized through card-count neutrality, a process that would require the University to recognize a union if more than half its members sign union cards. Under its guidelines, Yale would not be allowed to support or oppose unionization publicly.

University and hospital administrators would prefer NLRB-regulated elections, but DeStefano has said he would back card-count neutrality.

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