Last week’s announcement of an early contract settlement with Locals 34 and 35 came as a welcome surprise to many in the city who have become accustomed to labor strife at Yale.
The new contracts are truly unprecedented, and are incredible for maintaining job standards and preventing layoffs despite the wretched state of the economy. They also help ensure that, as the University grows, union membership will grow too — thus creating hundreds of good jobs that will help build a strong economic foundation for families in New Haven.
These new contracts offer a powerful example to all those who are cynical about the possibility of change. They also demonstrate the power that organized groups of people can have in improving the conditions of their lives.
If Yale, through the efforts of its thousands of employees, can not only change but actually improve the local economy in this time of crisis, then why shouldn’t we, as thousands of students and citizens of this city, help realize similar change through other local institutions?
Among the institutions that can bring about that change is New Haven’s city government, and particularly the Board of Aldermen. The times we live in are too desperate for cynical, do-nothing politics. We must challenge politicians — like Mike Jones ’11, the winner of last week’s Ward 1 Democratic endorsement vote — who set low expectations for their time in government to do more. Even when they are elected on platforms that promise little, we must not settle for that.
The campaign of Katie Harrison ’11 for Ward 1 alderwoman — on which I served as an adviser — elevated the debate around what the Ward 1 alderwoman and the Board of Aldermen can do. Harrison challenged us to think through our relationship to the fundamental economic issues of our day, recognizing that these are the central issues the board must address if we are to make meaningful social change in any other area of city life. For example, she recognized that improving our public school system requires expanding the city’s tax base with which to fund the schools.
She also gave voice to the promise of a powerful and constructive solution — responsible economic development through community benefits agreements between developers and organized community groups — that can and should be pursued in the years to come.
The city of Chicago just took a first step toward making its planned development of the Olympic village and stadium (should it win its bid to host the 2016 games) a responsible economic development of the kind Harrison talked about in her campaign. More work lies ahead in Chicago, but its city council has now — unanimously — recognized that responsible development with community benefits is essential.
Thus, while Harrison came up short in last week’s vote, the values of her campaign remain as true as ever. We should remember them as we move forward and demand that the next Ward 1 alderman take on the big economic issues facing the city. And Wards 2 and 22, in which students have a major presence, will both hold contested aldermanic primaries in September. Yalies should demand no less of candidates for those seats.
Yet while elections are important arenas in which we must engage if we want meaningful change to be realized, they are by no means the only ones. The moment of economic recession in which we live requires us to meaningfully engage in the city. We must stand face-to-face with this unique moment in history and concretely work to create a stronger economic future for New Haven.
There are many avenues we can pursue here in addition to responsible economic development. We can fight to help workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital unionize freely and fairly and raise their quality of life. We can ask the city and other institutions to establish green jobs training programs and help prepare our workforce for the green economy of tomorrow.
The choice of whether we act, however, is solely ours.
Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.