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The New New Haven




How a union of Yale employees aligned itself with community activists and won control of a beleaguered city.

This article and illustration originally appeared in The American Prospect

Major Ruth became a civic leader because he made a promise to his neighbor, Brian Wingate. Both had moved to the Beaver Hills section of New Haven, Connecticut, in 2003. A neighborhood of aging single–family homes that had seen better days, Beaver Hills had been targeted by the city for a housing–rehabilitation program, and, with the zeal of new arrivals, Ruth, a manager at the local utility company, and Wingate, a custodian and union steward at nearby Yale University, sought to involve themselves in neighborhood–improvement ventures. That proved harder than they had anticipated.  Although New Haven aldermanic districts are tiny, encompassing no more than 4,300 residents, Ruth and Wingate couldn’t find anyone who could identify, much less locate, their alderman. “We joked that one of us would run for alderman and the other would have to run his campaign,” Ruth says. In 2010, Wingate told Ruth he was running and a deal was a deal.

“It started out as a simple promise,” Ruth says, “but it became part of a citywide initiative.” As Wingate was deciding to run, his union at Yale, UNITE HERE, was deciding to support not just him but an entire slate of labor and community activists. New Haven was in crisis—its murder rate spiking, its jobless rates chronically high—and UNITE HERE concluded that saving its city required nothing short of taking it over.

To a degree that has astounded both New Haven and the union itself, UNITE HERE has done just that. In 2011, union-backed candidates won a veto-proof majority on the city’s Board of Aldermen. Within months, the board adopted policies that reintegrated the police department into the city’s communities and persuaded large employers to begin hiring New Haven residents when jobs fall open. At the very moment when organized labor has come under relentless attack in cities and states across the nation, New Haven has chosen a coalition of union and neighborhood activists to try to rebuild its government and economy. There’s a lot of rebuilding to be done.

Long before the industrial Midwest became the post–industrial Midwest, before Detroit and Cleveland were hollowed out, industrial New England began to implode. The place where America had industrialized first became the first place in America to deindustrialize, and nowhere more completely than New Haven.

At the turn of the 20th century, the city was home to the main factories of Winchester firearms, Stanley Hardware, and hundreds of other manufacturing firms, big and small, that employed tens of thousands of workers, many of whom were Italian immigrants and their children. By midcentury, just as African Americans were arriving to take those jobs, the factories began to close and middle–class employment declined precipitously. Although Connecticut has long ranked at or near the top of the nation’s most prosperous states, New Haven is one of the country’s poorest cities, with 30 percent of its population living beneath the poverty line, according to 2011 census data.

As the manufacturing firms closed their doors, only one major New Haven employer kept growing: Yale. The university and the Yale–New Haven Hospital are now the city’s largest private-sector employers. During the 1970s, John Wilhelm, a recent Yale graduate who had gone to work for the hotel and restaurant employees union, concluded that the only way to re-create a sizable New Haven middle class would be to unionize Yale—to turn the university’s clerical, technical, and blue-collar jobs into the well-paying positions that the city’s unionized manufacturing firms had once provided. A decade later, the hotel and restaurant workers union, today called UNITE HERE, won its first contract after a bitter strike.

Over the next quarter-century, through a series of equally bitter strikes, Yale employees won successively improved contracts, restoring the middle class that Wilhelm had envisioned. (Wilhelm went on to become the national president of UNITE HERE, a post from which he recently retired.) But building a middle class in Greater New Haven didn’t mean building a middle class in New Haven proper. The two UNITE HERE locals—34, which represents Yale clerical and technical workers, and 35, which represents blue-collar employees—are by far the largest unions in the New Haven area, but many of their members live in the towns and suburbs beyond the city line. This isn’t simply flight from urban decay. Because Yale and the Yale–New Haven Hospital are both exempt from standard property taxes, the burden of paying for city services falls disproportionately on homeowners, who face some of the highest property tax rates in the country.

Over the years, the two Yale unions had enlisted the city’s clergy as well as community and civil-rights groups to support their job actions when their contracts were up for renegotiation. In the mid-1990s, a number of ministers and community leaders asked the unions to reciprocate by helping them grapple with their own cascading problems of inner-city poverty.

The unions responded by establishing the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, modeled loosely after the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which had pioneered the concept of a community benefits agreement: A deal in which an employer, in return for assistance from a local government, is required to undertake some project—hiring local residents, building neighborhood parks, offering job training—that benefits city residents. Since it was established in 2000, the center has conducted multiple voter-mobilization drives and persuaded the Yale–New Haven Hospital to forgive the debts of 18,000 low-income New Havenites whom it was dunning and pursuing in court. Separately, under the guidance of political organizer Gwen Mills, UNITE HERE produced high voter turnouts in working-class and minority neighborhoods in the 2010 election, helping liberal Democrat Dannel Malloy win the governorship.

With the union’s electoral clout on the rise, and with the gap between Yale employees and much of the rest of New Haven growing, UNITE HERE decided to take a political leap. “We’d come to a consensus,” says Laurie Kennington, the president of Local 34, “that if we were an island of prosperity in a sea of struggle, that wouldn’t be sustainable. We had to bring the other folks along with us.” Abandoning its long-standing custom of endorsing a handful of candidates in city elections, the union waged an all-out effort to place both its own members and community activists on New Haven’s aldermanic board in the 2011 election, backing 17 newcomers for seats on the 30-member body. Surpassing anyone’s expectation, 16 candidates—including a janitor, a cook, and a Yale undergraduate—won. The union ousted the board’s president and a host of incumbents supported by longtime Mayor John DeStefano.


A political scientist looking at New Haven’s government might conclude that any group seeking to transform the city should run a candidate for mayor, not for the aldermanic slots. Historically, New Haven has had a strong mayor and a weak board of aldermen, and by 2011, DeStefano, who’d been in office for 18 years, had overstayed his welcome. He had upset the union and other progressives by his failure to press the union’s case more strongly in its unsuccessful attempt to organize Yale–New Haven Hospital in 2005. Moreover, New Haven was beset by a crime wave, in part because the mayor had reduced the number of officers and discontinued the city’s community-policing program. New Haven experienced 34 murders in 2011, a sharp increase over previous years and a startlingly high number for a city of 130,000.

Although DeStefano was vulnerable as he stood for re-election, the unions opted to let him run without serious opposition. Focusing instead on the board followed logically from the union’s approach to power. For years, UNITE HERE had “wanted to build organizations that could hold elected officials accountable,” in the words of one staffer. Initially, the union planned to back candidates in just a handful of races, but Jorge Perez, the leading progressive on the aldermanic board, argued to the union leaders that most incumbents could be unseated.

The union set up a training academy for the novice candidates, who campaigned on a platform of restoring community policing, delivering city services on the basis of need (rather than a calculus favoring neighborhoods controlled by the mayor’s allies), and bringing jobs to beleaguered neighborhoods through community benefits agreements. The decisive elections in New Haven politics are the Democratic primaries in September. “The last time there was a real Republican presence on the board was the late ’40s,” says Yale political scientist and former New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Douglas Rae. UNITE HERE spent several hundred thousand dollars on its mail and get-out-the-vote campaigns, and on primary day, 600 volunteers walked precincts for the union-backed slate.

What followed the sweeping victory was even more surprising. In the months since it won a majority of the board of aldermen—a veto-proof supermajority, as the new members joined four veteran members who had long championed labor and community causes—the coalition has managed to set the agenda for New Haven. “They have transformed the whole politics of the city,” says New Haven journalist Paul Bass, “without even running a candidate for mayor.”

The new majority’s first victory came even before it took office. Two weeks after the primary, the city’s police chief resigned and DeStefano replaced him with Dean Esserman, a highly regarded former deputy chief, who had helped institute the city’s community-policing program in the 1990s. Community policing, DeStefano declared, was back. Its restoration has been a work in progress, but in 2012, the number of New Haven murders—17—was half that of the total in 2011.

One month after taking office in January 2012, the new majority preempted the mayor’s agenda by presenting its own. In addition to restoring community policing, the board promised to create a “jobs pipeline” to “expand access to good jobs in the public and private sector to all New Haven residents.” It set up a task force to see how to persuade Yale, the city’s hospitals, its power company, and other major employers to hire from New Haven. The board had a stick—the possibility of passing a local hiring ordinance—but dangled a carrot—the creation of an organization that trained prospective workers to meet major employers’ needs.

“You can mandate local hiring,” says Perez, the board president and the leader of the aldermanic coalition. “But it won’t work if employers say the workers aren’t qualified.” Perez, a community banker who, with UNITE HERE’s Mills, is the closest thing the coalition has to a master strategist, succeeded in persuading Yale, the local Chamber of Commerce, and other major businesses to sit on the task force along with union and community representatives, elected officials, an unemployed worker, and an inner-city 20-year-old. In a series of hearings, the task force found hundreds of New Haven residents who’d applied for work at the city’s largest private-sector employers and never heard back from them.

Last year, the task force created a program called New Haven Works, funded by private contributions (the bulk of which initially came from Yale). New Haven Works will train local job applicants for positions that member employers say are coming open, and those employers are obliged to give those applicants first consideration. The program will be formally rolled out on June 1, but Yale has already hired a few people who have gone through the pilot program.

New Haven Works is a small-scale version of the successful employer-funded job-training and certification program that UNITE HERE runs for prospective hotel employees in Las Vegas. The Board of Aldermen is also promoting the kind of community benefit agreements that LAANE pioneered in Los Angeles. Late last year, the board approved the application of a charter school to take over a shuttered public school but conditioned its approval on the charter’s agreeing to let its clerical and blue-collar employees unionize and to admit students from inner-city public schools as well as from its established feeder schools.

Surprising its conservative critics, the board has also taken a tough line on taxes and spending. With the city’s revenue base largely made up of its overtaxed homeowners, the board has made clear it won’t raise levies. In the face of pension obligations that any city with such high rates of poverty would have difficulty meeting, the board has approved contracts with city workers that have included modest cuts to future hires’ retirement and health benefits. The board, which includes members from public-sector unions AFSCME and SEIU, ratified the contracts unanimously.

One reason the New Haven situation is so unusual is that a private-sector union dominates city government. With unions now reduced to representing just 6.6 percent of the nation’s private-sector workforce, the unions with the clout to influence city and state government tend to be the larger public-employee unions. The role of UNITE HERE in New Haven is more like the role the United Auto Workers once attempted to play in Detroit. With just a fraction of the members and resources that the autoworkers once commanded, however, UNITE HERE is a good deal more successful. While the auto workers had no trouble delivering majorities for the Democrats in state and national elections, they seldom succeeded in electing their own candidates in Detroit city contests, in which their members voted more along racial lines than class lines. In New Haven, a city that’s close to being one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Latino, UNITE HERE’s painstaking work with a wide range of communities has created a coalition that has cohered across racial divides.

By declining to run a candidate for mayor in 2011, the coalition sidestepped whatever tensions, racial or otherwise, that selecting a single candidate might have caused. In this year’s mayoral election—DeStefano has announced he will step down after 20 years in office—the coalition may decline to endorse, with different elements backing different candidates. “The importance of keeping the group together is key,” Perez says.

UNITE HERE’s success in New Haven, however provisional, may offer a model for a union movement that has been all but eliminated from the private sector. Many labor leaders have concluded that unions, if they are to survive and perhaps even flourish again, must find ways to represent workers whether they’re members or not—if not through collective bargaining, then through political coalitions. The challenge for labor is figuring out how to foster the dedication and unity that UNITE HERE worked for nearly two decades to cultivate in New Haven, where a coalition of custodians, cooks, administrative assistants, and students dispatched the ancien régime and has set about building a better one.

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