Members of two of New Haven’s largest unions turned what is typically a neighborhood meet-and-greet into an angry confrontation with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. Wednesday night.
The “Mayor’s Night Out” at the Beecher School provided local citizens with an opportunity to speak one-on-one with New Haven aldermen and representatives from the city’s various departments. Yet with the city’s police and teachers’ unions both preparing for new contracts with the city, the monthly meeting was dominated by a contentious dialogue between New Haven employees and the mayor.
Despite the angry criticism of over 100 police officers who picketed outside the school, DeStefano said he was concerned about being forced to sign contracts with the unions that could not be sustained, given cuts in state aid and city revenue as a whole.
“It’s got to be something that will work for the citizens who live here and the staff as well,” DeStefano said. “I can’t support a set of agreements or promises we can’t keep.”
DeStefano said the city’s budgetary outlook is unlikely to improve in the near future, although he did not specify which departments might experience cuts.
“I think next year’s going to be harder than this year’s been,” DeStefano said. “I’ve never done any layoffs in eight-and-a-half years as mayor, and I may have to.”
As DeStefano entered the elementary school, members of the New Haven police union and other unions from across the state loudly expressed their outrage at the city’s failure to complete a new contract with the police officers. Many of the police officers followed DeStefano into the small school cafeteria, holding signs and shouting slogans invoking the deaths of police officers during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
James Howell, secretary of the New Haven police union, said the city has failed to provide the policemen with a reasonable offer.
“The last proposal [by the city] on the table was a zero-pay increase,” Howell said. “We’ve been negotiating since January and after 10 months, the city has refused all of our offers.”
Howell said police officers were planning further protests in early December at a National League of Cities conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. DeStefano is slated to serve as president of the National League of Cities next year.
While New Haven’s teachers did not participate in an organized protest, members of the New Haven Federation of Teachers presented DeStefano with petitions calling for a “fair teachers’ contract.” Speaking with the mayor in a small group, the teachers challenged him to reduce class sizes and offer competitive salaries and benefits.
DeStefano defended the city’s position in negotiations, arguing that the union’s demands would require the city to lay off aides working in elementary schools or make cuts in other areas of the city’s budget. DeStefano also said reduced city revenues could not be offset without raising taxes, which might drive many of New Haven’s wealthier residents out of the city.
“I’ve gotten virtually zip, zero from the federal or state governement,” DeStefano said. “It’s hard right now to find resources.”
Yet Clark Howell, a member of the teacher’s union and a teacher at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, said the mayor has failed to properly engage the teachers in contract discussions.
“He doesn’t know what the teachers’ concerns are and he doesn’t listen to them,” Howell said. “His actions have gone a long way in earning the disrespect of the teachers in New Haven.”