National civil rights figure Rev. Al Sharpton led hundreds of union supporters in a march on City Hall last week, further intensifying the tensions between the city and its labor unions.

Last Monday, Sharpton, a former presidential candidate, headlined a rally hosted by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents five city unions. As they marched across the New Haven Green toward City Hall, hundreds of union supporters accused Mayor John DeStefano Jr. of trying to balance the city’s budget on the backs of middle class workers. Sharpton and the protestors criticized DeStefano for being unwilling to negotiate with the unions, a charge DeStefano said was “categorically untrue.”

DeStefano, who has laid off 82 city employees, including 16 police officers, is trying to balance the city’s ballooning budget gap by seeking concessions in union contracts. Over the past several weeks, the mayor has signaled that more layoffs will be necessary if unions do not accept “modest changes” to their healthcare benefits and pension plans.

“We can’t spend taxpayer money we don’t have nor can we expect taxpayers, who pay the second highest property tax rate [in the state], to pay more,” DeStefano said in a statement responding to Sharpton’s remarks at last week’s rally. . “Our strategy to support the middle class is to hold the line on taxes and to invest in our young people — not support unaffordable pension and healthcare plans.”

The rally last Monday was the latest battle in an evolving war of words between city unions and the DeStefano administration.

After DeStefano walked out of negotiations with AFSCME at a Feb. 5 meeting, union leaders have accused the mayor of not wanting to cooperate. AFSCME spokesman Larry Dorman said negotiators’ proposals included $5 million in concessions to the city, a number city spokesman Adam Joseph disputed. The unions did not show enough seriousness about concessions, Joseph said.

“We will stay in the streets until they come to the table,” Sharpton told protestors at the rally, according to the New Haven Independent.

But the city has been at the table for dozens of meetings and negotiations, DeStefano said in his statement.. The city has also reached out to statewide AFSCME leadership, both in writing and informally, to restart negotiations, Joseph said, but AFSCME has not responded.

AFSCME spokesman Larry Dorman said DeStefano is not credible when saying he is willing to negotiate with city unions. The city is seeking to “destroy jobs” by privatizing custodians in the city’s public schools, Dorman said. It engaged in “intimidation and coercion” when the mayor sent a letter to all city employees warning them that further layoffs loomed if unions did not make concessions.

“It’s fine for [DeStefano] to say he wants to talk in good faith but every action we’ve seen suggests otherwise,” Dorman said. “He just doesn’t like to be reminded that city employees are struggling to make ends meet just like everyone else.”

In response to what he said is a nationwide assault on workers’ rights, Sharpton has been speaking at union rallies across the country with AFSCME treasurer Lee Saunders. Dorman said the two have appeared at rallies in Ohio, Wisconsin and New Mexico, with many more planned in the next several months.

At the rally last Monday, Sharpton linked the situation of New Haven’s public sector workers with the labor turmoil in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is trying to strip state unions of their bargaining rights despite several weeks of protests outside the capitol. If workers in New Haven are not being treated fairly, they will not be anywhere else, Sharpton said, according to the Independent.

“People understand that New Haven is not Wisconsin,” Joseph responded. “We’re not looking to take away the right of unions to organize and collectively bargain, we’re just looking to sit down and negotiate to make sure these plans are sustainable.”

But Dorman said the analogy with Wisconsin is apt. In both New Haven and Wisconsin, officials are “manufacturing a crisis and using it to erode the standard of living for middle class workers,” Dorman said. Citing the impressive growth in the city’s tax base, Dorman said the city’s improving economic prospects make the mayor’s demands unjustified.

While Dorman admitted New Haven is not acting as aggressively as the Wisconsin governor, he said the two conflicts are connected because workers’ rights are in danger across the country.

Expenditures on city employee benefits, which DeStefano recently called the “Pac-Man of the city budget,” have risen $11 million in the past year alone, totaling $105 million this year. In the past ten years, benefits have risen from 12 to 22 percent of total city expenditures.

Another march and rally is scheduled for next Wednesday, Mar. 30. Protestors will meet at the corner of College and Elm streets.