After less than a month in New Haven, consultant John Stepp could already feel the powerful links between Yale’s unions and the city.

“The extent to which these unions have organized in this community, I don’t think I’ve seen the likes of,” Stepp said.

Then he hesitated. He grew up in the minefields of West Virginia, he said, in a town where the influence of the United Mine Workers pervaded every aspect of life. Once, Stepp said, the union went on strike over material in local school textbooks.

“Other than that, I’ve never seen the likes of what exists here,” Stepp said. “Locals 34 and 35 have some very long tentacles in the community here.”

Stepp became familiar with the New Haven labor situation in the weeks after Yale and the unions hired him in the hopes that he could help mend the relationship between them. His efforts come as the Jan. 20 expiration date for Yale’s union contracts approaches and potentially divisive negotiations loom.

The negotiations will take place against the backdrop of a city long known for its deep ties to organized labor.

“The New Haven County area is a union area,” Local 35 President Bob Proto explained.

And negotiations this year could carry even deeper significance for the community than in the past. Yale is now the city’s largest employer, and its recognized unions — locals 34 and 35, which represent Yale’s clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers — have become two of the largest and most powerful in the city.

“[The negotiations] have the opportunity to polarize the community more generally,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said.

An improved relationship between Yale and New Haven will also serve as a background for the talks, but Yale President Richard Levin said better relations with the city and peace with the unions are not the same thing.

“I don’t equate union relations with town-gown relations,” Levin said. “They’re different. One of the problems is that town-gown relations have gotten better while the union relationship needs to get better.”

But many people familiar with the city said ties between unions and the community run too deep to separate the two that easily.

“Relations with the unions will be a real testing ground for how serious the University administration is about bettering relations with New Haven,” said Debbie Elkin GRD ’95, president of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association.

University and union leaders alike have spoken at great length about their hopes to bring peace to their historically acrimonious relationship in the upcoming talks.

But a breakdown in negotiations has the potential to create not only an ugly situation on campus but also problems in the city.

“Community against unions isn’t a fight against each other, it’s fighting the one who controls the purse,” said the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93, the pastor of Varick Memorial AME Zion Church in New Haven. “We don’t have a $10 billion endowment. Yale does.”

Lee said many members of his congregation expressed concerns about the current recession and feared having to get second jobs should negotiations break down and unions go on strike.

“In this day and age no one wants to strike, but why accept peanuts when you deserve more?” Lee added.

Carriages, petticoats and unions

New Haven’s history as a union town extends far beyond the days of locals 34 and 35.

It stretches to an age when the carriage-making industry was a major employer, and unions represented manufacturers of firearms, cigars and ladies’ garments.

The strength of union ties was apparent when the president of the Greater New Haven Labor Council, John Murphy, was elected mayor in 1933, DeStefano said. It was during Murphy’s term that Yale’s first union began to form.

In 1941, Yale’s service and maintenance workers held a one-day strike before organizing into what would later become Local 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

As manufacturing jobs were eliminated nationwide, though, the bulk of union jobs shifted from employers such as Winchester Repeating Arms to service-oriented employers like Yale.

In 1984, the University’s clerical and technical workers, who would form Local 34, won recognition from Yale after a long battle and years of failed attempts to unionize. The effort involved assistance from Local 35 members and used a strategy advocated by organizer John Wilhelm ’67 that linked workplace issues with the community.

“There’s a real understanding of the fact that people who work at the University also live in this city,” said union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff, one of the original organizers of Local 34. “There are very strong, powerful and important connections between what you would think of as workplace issues and issues of quality of life and housing and education.”

Organizing the community

“From my perspective I see the community as well as the union as one and the same,” Lee said.

Lee’s statement reflects the unions’ increased efforts to build community support.

David Montgomery, a professor emeritus specializing in labor history, said the increased organizing comes as unions attempt to branch out and gain community support. At the same time, Montgomery said, city leaders have begun focusing on workplace issues.

“What becomes of the city depends very much on how people fare working at places like Yale,” Montgomery said.

Organizing efforts are aimed at emphasizing the role workers play in the city, said Andrea Cole, who runs the Connecticut Center for the New Economy and works closely with locals 34 and 35.

“Somehow people think of the union as being separate from the people who live in the community, and what we’re doing is making those links much clearer,” Cole said. “I think [Yale] ultimately has to come to terms with the fact that they are in fact the city’s largest employer and that they are the standard setter.”

Synergy or disaster

Given the depth of union power in New Haven, Stepp said a peaceful negotiation process could greatly benefit the city.

“If the parties are able to turn this relationship around and expand their energies in positive ways to help the community grow and develop, there could be tremendous synergy there,” Stepp said.

But Stepp added that the unions seem to have the city behind them should negotiations break down.

“It seems there’s a fair amount of activity directed toward building allies in the community, so if at any time in the future they find themselves at war, they would have friends and allies to call on,” Stepp said.

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