“We will cross the finish line together.” These words of Rev. Emilio Hernandez, delivered to a standing ovation at a packed union-neighborhood meeting, are reverberating throughout the city. “We will not lose our vision of better schools, jobs with good pay, decent housing. That’s why we’re not ashamed and we’re not scared, because we have hope.”

For Rev. Hernandez and those present at the Cathedral of Higher Praise on March 18, the struggle of workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital for union recognition, the struggle of Latino residents in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood to get hired by the University, and the struggle of families for better public education are one and the same.

“Today it’s for us, tomorrow it will be for you,” shouted Hernandez. “Our great grandchildren will know that in 2002 something happened in our communities. All the churches got together. All the races got together. One people, one voice.” The Fair Haven meeting was one of seven held in each city neighborhood, organized by the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE) and the unions at Yale. Nearly 2,000 residents signed public petitions calling on Yale to enter into a Social Contract with the community for “good jobs, good schools, good communities.” A huge citywide rally will be held outside the hospital on April 24.

In the last two decades many manufacturing jobs abandoned the city for non- union, low-wage areas. A quarter of all jobs in New Haven are now at Yale University. Yale is an international institution with an endowment of $11 billion. New Haven remains the seventh poorest city of its size in the nation.

Yale is known and respected for its cultural and scientific contributions to the city. But it’s anti-union stance has brought the University into constant conflict with the workers and the city.

Yale has contributed to the poverty of New Haven’s families in many ways. Workers in part-time and casual jobs at Yale are rarely offered permanent jobs with benefits. African-American workers are often stuck in low labor grades. The University is outsourcing and sub-contracting more and more jobs. They have refused to recognize a union for graduate student teachers or Yale-New Haven Hospital workers.

The Yale-New Haven Hospital system is the largest and most prestigious health care institution in the state. “As long as it remains unorganized, it sets the bar lower for all health care workers and patients,” said union spokeswoman Deborah Chernoff.

The university has come into conflict with the city on issues of land use and gentrification. They have torn down homes to erect new facilities. They have chased out local businesses in favor of upscale chains. They try to control the political structures of the city. And they make only minimal contributions in lieu of taxes.

It is no wonder that when the unions at Yale began reaching out to the community, fast growing alliances were quickly built. This outreach began “as the labor movement at the national level began paying attention to what happens to the community’s quality of life as well as quality of work life issues,” said Chernoff.

After a year and a half of organizing, a major union-community rally was planned for Oct. 5, 2001 to coincide with the final event of Yale’s year- long 300th birthday celebration. In the wake of Sept. 11, the theme became “Hope, Not Fear.” Over 4,000 turned out. Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) international president John Wilhelm addressed the crowd saying, “Hope is in peace, hope is in union.”

Wilhelm, who pioneered the AFL-CIO’s new outreach to immigrant workers, got his start in the labor movement at Yale. After completing his undergraduate degree, he worked for Local 35, service and maintenance workers, HERE. While in Local 35, Wilhelm convinced the members that their ability to win better wages and benefits depended on enlarging the number of union workers on campus. This strategy succeeded in organizing the clerical and technical workers into Local 34 in 1983, after 15 years of failed attempts.

In 1999, the Federation of Hospital and University Employees was formed as part of the effort to organize the hospital workers. It brought together all four unions at the University and the Hospital, encompassing two internationals, HERE and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Currently, Wilhelm is often in New Haven, sitting in on every session of negotiations between the University and Locals 34 and 35.

During Yale’s 300th anniversary, president Richard Levin said he wanted to end past practices of tough bargaining and constant strikes. The university did not want Locals 34 and 35 to bring union rights for the hospital and graduate workers into their negotiations. With only the service and clerical workers organized, the unions would remain weaker.

The union and university agreed to a study of labor relations at Yale. The report confirmed the obvious: a major source of conflict was the university’s intransigence in recognizing the unions. The consultant found that the union must be able to grow, and advised “interest-based bargaining” as a method of negotiations.

“We say that as the university expands, we want to expand,” says Chernoff. “We can’t do that as long as the university’s goal is to limit and get rid of the unions.”

Last month, 1199 workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital put their jobs on the line, and signed a public petition “Standing with the Union.” They constitute a majority seeking card-check recognition.

This week, Local 34 president Laura Smith accompanied by a delegation of 50, presented President Levin with a public petition signed by 2,370 clerical and technical workers, over 80 percent of the bargaining unit.

“This is the largest number of clerical and technical workers who have ever taken a public position on anything,” she told Levin. “ The concept of partnership in every aspect is so perfectly articulating what people want.”

The language of the Local 34 petition uses the consultant’s report to mobilize the members and is a call to arms if necessary, stating “We work hard and deserve higher salaries, greater security in retirement, more opportunities for advancement and improvements in our benefits. …We invite Yale to join us in creating a new era in which …Yale allows all workers to organize without interference from management”.

Chernoff emphasizes that the union is “committed to partnership so much that we are willing to fight for it. We are fighting for it with the community organizing, with the Hope not Fear rally, with the petitions, with the buzz on campus, with the candidacy of Rev. David Lee for Yale Corporation. On April 24 we will rally and put our feet where our signatures are. The threads are coming together broadly.”

Building a movement for workers and community The tiny office in the “union church” adjacent to Yale University’s campus is a beehive of activity. Presentations to church groups and community meetings are being prepared. Logistics are being planned. At the heart of this community organizing effort is the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE).

“I spent years responding to parents who lost their children, organizing prayers around blood stains on New Haven streets,” says New Haven CCNE director Rev. Scott Marks. “Now, every day of my life I’m working for a brighter future for all the people in this city, Black, white and Brown.”

Marks served two terms on the Board of Aldermen, and was a chief steward in his union, among many outstanding achievements, before joining CCNE. Formed two years ago, CCNE aims to improve wages, public education, transportation and affordable housing for working families in the state’s urban centers. It is looked to nationally as a model for union-community organizing.

“There is a serious economic situation in the urban centers in Connecticut, the richest state per capita with five poorest cities,” says Marks. “We are looking to reduce poverty, and to advocate for those seeking self- determination, better wages and working conditions.”

The Center published several reports including “Good Jobs, Strong Communities” and “Schools, Taxes and Jobs.” As they talked with workers at Yale with religious leaders, the quality of New Haven public schools emerged as a major issue.

“We are calling for the best public education possible for the City of New Haven, home of the best institution of higher learning,” says Marks. “The interest on Yale’s $11 billion endowment is $5.4 million a day. Two days of interest could go a long way to address funding to reduce class sizes.”

The idea of “two days’ interest” from Yale in lieu of taxes to supplement state and federal funding of the public schools is becoming a popular demand. At seven neighborhood meetings held last month, many speakers addressed Yale’s responsibility to contribute toward the well-being of the community where it is located.

“Imagine the possibility of New Haven being a unionized town. We’re currently negotiating for better wages, promotion and to help more Fair Haven residents be hired by the University,” Yale Local 34 member Mary Thigpen told the crowded church in Fair Haven on March 18. “Being a mother of three attending public schools I do see a need for improvement. With a unionized city that would mean a higher quality of life.”

Monica Osborne, a worker inYale New Haven Hospital’s operating room and a Fair Haven resident, emphasized the significance of union gains for the community. “The wages and benefits we negotiate will be brought back to our neighborhoods, helping build stronger communities,” she said. “Every Yale worker has the right to dignity and respect. We are committed to stand together in the process of forming a union.”

According to Marks, the idea for a social contract was inspired by Yale President Richard Levin’s call for a partnership to strengthen the town-gown relationship. “There can’t be a partnership if one is weak,” said Marks. “ Therefore we are calling for a new social contract to break the cycle of poverty, poor jobs, underfunded schools and create good jobs, strong communities and top notch public education.”

Marks and the enthusiastic staff of CCNE have brought this idea to church basements, community centers and house meetings. In the process many New Haveners who have been shut out of unionized jobs, are embracing the union as an ally addressing social needs, and taking a stand to open the doors of employment at Yale.

“Now, New Haven residents who work at Yale are mostly in the lower labor grades,” says Marks. “We call for the opening of opportunities for Latinos to work at Yale and for the opportunity for African Americans at Yale to move to higher labor grades.

Marks sees the need for a national mobilization to respond to the cuts since Sept. 11. “Working people are lining up at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, whole families can’t afford decent housing. Jobs, union jobs, are a must.,” he said. “Good jobs provide the ability for a good home environment and a balanced meal. They go hand in hand.”

The union-community alliance ties community organizing integrally to the labor movement. Hundreds of Yale workers live in the neighborhoods, but thousands are being involved. New community leaders are potentially new union organizers. Already, one union drive at another workplace in the city has emerged from this experience.

Racial and religious groups who have not worked with each other in the past, have been brought together in the process. “In the Fair Haven neighborhood African American and Latino, Catholic and Protestant are building a movement along with other racial groups. This breath of fresh air is giving new found hope to make change in New Haven,” says Marks.

“At the grass roots people are now taking a leadership role in their destiny,” he adds. “There is a power in the people and when people come together they do have the ability to make change.”

Marks is excited about the possibilities opened up by the strength of this movement. “This is an opportunity for working families and the working poor to begin to dream and dream big about a future for our children, our environment and a better quality of life,” he says. “ This will only happen if we are willing to do the work that it takes to build a movement to socially, economically and politically chart that course.”

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com


Joelle Fishman
Joelle Fishman

Joelle Fishman chairs the Connecticut Communist Party USA. She is an active member of many local economic rights and social justice organizations. As chair of the national CPUSA Political Action Commission, she plays an active role in the broad labor and people's alliance and continues to mobilize for health care, worker rights, and peace. Joelle Fishman preside el Partido Comunista de Connecticut USA. Es miembro activo de muchas organizaciones locales de derechos económicos y justicia social. Como presidenta de la Comisión Nacional de Acción Política del CPUSA, desempeña un papel activo en la amplia alianza laboral y popular y continúa movilizándose por la atención médica, los derechos de los trabajadores y la paz.