In a concentrated campaign of spending and activism over the past several years, two powerful New Haven unions took control of the city’s Board of Alders. Now the Board’s activities, investigated by the New Haven Independent, are raising questions about whether some Alders are pursuing the unions’ interests over those of the city and its taxpayers.
The unions, Local 34 and Local 35 of UNITE HERE, represent clerical and blue-collar workers at Yale University, the city’s largest employer. After decades of tumultuous relations between the unions and the university administration (including some half a dozen strikes since 1968, the latest in 2003), the unions hit on a strategy to gain more leverage over Yale through a new channel: New Haven’s city government.
Starting in 2011, the unions launched a concentrated effort to replace the New Haven political establishment with labor-friendly candidates. The results were dramatic: the labor slate won 14 of the 15 seats they contested in the Democratic Party primaries that year. (There are 30 seats on the Board of Alders; all are held by Democrats.) Even several long-serving Alders were defeated, including Carl Goldfield, the President of the Board and a twenty-year incumbent.
In November 2013, the labor bloc faced some backlash. Goldfield, then a private citizen, decried the unions’ “with us or against us” stance towards Alders, and even compared some of their tactics to a “Communist Party Vietnamese education camp.” Other former city officials criticized the tactics as well. But in the 2013 elections, the union slate added to its majority.
This year, they threw that weight around. Amid pressure on Yale by Locals 34 and 35 to recognize the graduate students’ union and grant favorable terms in an upcoming contract review, the Board repeatedly stonewalled a new biology lab Yale was planning to build in plase of an existing old one.
New laws mean that all new construction needs to have a parking and transit plan approved by the Board before it can begin. In this case, the Board used that clause to repeatedly kick Yale’s construction along for further review, despite the fact that, since the lab was replacing an existing facility, the changes in parking needs would be minimal. The City Plan Director had recommended approving the project.
Adam Marchand, the Alder who led the effort to block the project, also holds a paid position with UNITE HERE.
Despite the fact that 280 construction jobs and $4.4 million in fees for the city were at stake, the Board kicked the project down the road for months, and threatened to block it for a whole year.
It’s easy to see why the unions thought they could earn concessions from the university through political power. After Locals 34 and 35 won an advantageous contract from Yale in 2012, Local 35 President Bob Proto, attributed the victory to the fact that “we control 20 out of 30 seats on the Board of Aldermen.”
This time, however, Yale chose to engage in hardball politics of its own.
The university makes an annual “voluntary contribution” of $8.3 million to the city’s budget in compensation for various tax advantages, and has for years paid millions of that money the fiscal year before it is due as a courtesy to help New Haven balance its budget. In August, Yale threatened not to follow this custom, and instead pay the entire sum in the next fiscal year. When the Board, frightened, inquired as to Yale’s decision, the university’s representative simply said “Adam should call.”
It’s not clear whether he did, but within a couple of weeks, the project that had been held up since May was approved in early September.
Nevertheless, the incident raises issues regarding the union influence on the Board. In addition to Marchand, at least six other Alders are UNITE HERE members, paid employees, or former organizers, and a majority owe their electoral victories to the unions’ backing. It raises the question: whom, exactly, does the Board serve?