Natalie Kainz, Contributing Photographer

Through door-to-door campaigning and phone banking sessions, more than 600 New Haven union members helped secure a Democratic victory in the presidential election last week. Now, they’re calling on the administration of President-elect Joe Biden to affirm the importance of union rights.

The group of Elm City residents participated in the “Take Back 2020” campaign, a nationwide effort by union umbrella UNITE HERE, which aimed to turn out the Democratic vote in Florida, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania. According to the campaign’s website, this year’s campaign was “the largest union door-to-door operation nationwide,” with members knocking on more than 3 million doors since August. On top of that, union members across the country organized phone-banking sessions, placing over 2.5 million calls to Arizona voters alone. In a press conference last Wednesday, representatives from UNITE HERE’s national office reiterated their calls for the new administration to stand with workers.

“Tonight and today will be a transformational moment for our country and a transformational moment for workers everywhere,” said Gwen Mills, the Secretary-Treasurer of UNITE HERE and a New Haven native. “We believe the saviors of American democracy are working people: that’s who knocked on doors, that’s who came out and voted in record numbers.”

Mills spoke alongside UNITE HERE leaders from across the country, who affirmed the statement that their movement was “critical” to the Biden victory in the 3 swing states. In one of those swing states, Pennsylvania, Biden won with a margin of fewer than 44,000 votes. In the Keystone State alone, UNITE HERE’s 500 canvassers encouraged 60,000 people to pledge to vote. Half of those 60,000 did not vote in 2016. 

Sixty members of community social justice organization New Haven Rising and Locals 34, 35 and 217 participated in door-to-door campaigns in Philadelphia throughout October and November. Rev. Scott Marks, founder of New Haven Rising, told the News that canvassing efforts took him and other New Haveners to neighborhoods like North Philadelphia, where back to back driveway shootings occurred one block away from canvassers.

“[It’s] the largest, blackest, poorest city in the country and people are suffering,” said Marks. “You go up to a door and [see that] well-meaning people are living in these kinds of conditions. Segregated development right here in Philadelphia is just the same way it is at home. They have Temple [University] and we have Yale.”

While there were extensive campaign efforts nationwide, local chapters of UNITE HERE also sent out 90 New Haven residents to knock on doors in Connecticut. Locally, they campaigned for state senate candidates such as District 17 Democratic challenger Jorge Cabrera, Danbury incumbent Julie Kushner and New Haven Democrat Gary Winfield. All three senators won their races and support pro-union policies.

Local 33 co-president Lena Eckert-Erdheim, whose union represents Yale graduate student employees, told the News that over 90 members of her organization participated in phone banking sessions. She said they talked to more than 50,000 unlikely voters in key swing states. Unlikely voters are people registered to vote who did not cast ballots in the previous couple elections. Marks estimated that over 500 total volunteers from New Haven participated in phone-banking sessions.

The sessions started in August and continued up to the final hours that polls were open on Election Day. Eckert-Erdheim said she is proud that they are “making history”.

While local union members have a chance to celebrate now, UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor said the union plans to hold the Biden administration accountable to workers. He praised the President-elect for speaking openly about unions at the national convention, which Taylor said few presidents have done in the past.

“I feel very confident based on the platform that Biden has set that this will be the most pro-union presidency at least in my lifetime,” said Taylor. “What we want Joe Biden [and] Kamala Harris to say that the union is the best way if you work the kind of jobs that we all work.”

Taylor listed project labor agreements, organizing rights, immigration protections and manufacturing and tax incentives as policies that he hopes the new administration will safeguard and implement on behalf of workers. Biden and Harris’ campaign website mentions their plan to encourage unionization and ensure health care, education and apprenticeships are provided for workers and their families.

Taylor compared UNITE HERE’s campaign to a car which the union’s members helped assemble through phone banking and canvassing efforts. Accordingly, Taylor said his members will not simply “turn over the key” and want to continue to “drive” the direction of labor policy in the United States. 

At the peak of the pandemic, 98 percent of UNITE HERE’s members lost their jobs.

Natalie Kainz | natalie.kainz@yale.edu