Angela Xiao

Local unions, historically the most powerful political force in the Elm City, marched through New Haven on Wednesday evening, bringing out hundreds of their members and forcing the New Haven Police to close off entire lanes and streets.

The union members called on Yale to provide jobs for city residents and rallied for Democratic candidates less than two weeks before the election.

Leaders from Yale’s umbrella union organization and local community groups such as New Haven Rising jointly organized the march, which was titled “Fighting for Our Future: Good Jobs for All New Haven Residents.” The event, which drew a variety of participants — ranging from young, school-aged children to retirees — highlighted the power of the city’s unions in demanding change and taking political action.

Speakers at the event included local union and community leaders as well as a star-studded line-up of New Haven’s representatives and hopefuls — including U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Ned Lamont SOM ’80. All spoke of the importance of holding Yale and other institutions accountable to create opportunities for local residents to work and thrive.

“Fight for more jobs,” New Haven Rising founder and chair Scott Marks told attendees. “For the people and the city of New Haven, and the state of Connecticut, that’s what is going to make our communities safe and stronger. We also have our elected officials who are fighting for those same values.”

Unions at the march included Locals 33, 34 and 35, which represent the University’s graduate employees, clerical and technical workers and blue-collar workers respectively. The three unions, which collectively form Yale’s umbrella union organization, are all affiliated with the national labor organization UNITE HERE. On Wednesday evening, they were joined by another UNITE HERE affiliate Local 217, the Yale Unions Retirees Association, Students Unite Now and the local community organization, New Haven Rising.

The event began with participants gathering on Cross Campus around 5:30 p.m before moving down College Street, turning onto Grove Street and then traversing the length of Hillhouse Avenue. Participants were constantly accompanied by the beat of drums and music.

The group’s final destination was outside of 205 Whitney Ave., just past the Yale School of Management. Leaders stopped participants at varying points along the march to give speeches to the boisterous crowd, which often chanted “we do work.”

The Elm City has a long history of Democratic control and has not elected a Republican mayor since the 1950s. Without realistic partywide challengers, unions emerged as the primary player in city politics, a pattern that still holds today. Several alders on the 30-member Board of Alders, the city’s legislative arm, are or were directly affiliated with one of the UNITE HERE organizations. Many others ran and won their seats with union support.

“The way you get things done in this town is you organize, stick together and move in the same direction,” Bob Proto, president of Local 35 said. “Yale may have millions of dollars, but we have votes.”

Directly behind a drill squad, the Elm City’s leaders — including Marks, Lamont and attorney-general hopeful William Tong — joined arms for a large part of the walk. Attendees behind them carried signs, some with the march’s name and purpose and others with posters for Lamont and lieutenant-governor candidate Susan Bysiewicz ’83.

The majority of the speeches centered on identifying Yale’s responsibility to New Haven and its residents. Several speakers cited the University’s agreements to hire from within the city, particularly from underserved neighborhoods, and acknowledged the impact full-time Yale employment could have on local residents. Yale is currently the city’s largest employer. But organizers noted that past successes in negotiating with the University were largely due to union efforts, calling on fellow union members to continue to hold the institution accountable for its promises to the community.

Tyisha Walker-Myers, the president of the Board of Alders and chief steward of Local 35, told participants that the union exists to ensure the availability of good jobs so that, “people can take care of their families with dignity.

“We’re putting Yale University on notice,” Walker-Myers said. “You need to open up these doors for our lower labor grades to be able to move up.”

But Walker-Myers and other community leaders also noted that while the work of local unions and their members can lead to meaningful change, that change depends on the cooperation and support of elected officials.

Rally speakers highlighted the high stakes of the upcoming election and the significance of choosing the Democratic candidates, who they said will serve as allies of unions. This year, Murphy, Lamont, Tong and a slew of other Democrats up and down New Haven’s ballot will look to ward off Republican challengers and keep the Democrats’ precarious control of the state. The hopefuls stressed the role of elected officials in demanding accountability, and asked for attendees to stand up and fight for them in the little time remaining before the election.

“We are fighting for a fair economy,” Murphy said to the crowd. “We grow from the middle and bottom out and not from the top down.”

Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu