New Haven Rising

New Haven Rising

As “eds and meds” reshape working-class New Haven, labor and community groups are joining forces to transform the service economy and build a more democratic city.

At an anti-deportation rally organized by Unidad Latina en Acción, October 9, 2014 (Eino Sierpe)

All over New Haven during the summer of 2014, people gathered to talk about the need for more jobs—good jobs—for local residents. Jill Marks, an African-American woman, met with neighbors in her home in Beaver Hills, a middle- and working-class, mixed-race neighborhood. John Buell, a public school teacher, hosted a meeting in the upscale neighborhood of Westville. Nubia Wilkins, herself unemployed, led a meeting at a men’s homeless shelter. Within three months, over 2,000 people participated in over a hundred places.

The meetings were central to a city-wide organizing effort by New Haven Rising (NHR)—a group formed in 2012 to address the problems caused by the disappearance of industrial jobs, the fecklessness of local Democrats, and austere state budgets. They represented an attempt to build an economic justice movement across the various communities of New Haven—one involving people who are unemployed, underemployed, and often politically voiceless.

New Haven shares similarities with other cities that have university-medical-complex-driven growth: Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions is the largest employer; Palo Alto and Stanford; Harvard and its reach across the Charles River to Allston; Tufts, the Tufts-New England Medical Center, and Boston’s South Cove neighborhood; and the University of Alabama and Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. The universities and their “research parks” or hospitals have steadily expanded territorially and economically, while local communities have little say in how their neighborhoods are reshaped or how resources are allocated. Mayors are attracted to hospital growth: whether private, non-profit, or public institutions, hospitals bring in federal and state dollars. Yet, despite the boasts, the resources of healthcare–driven “growth” don’t automatically translate into economic or social health for the surrounding communities. Policy historian Guian McKee found that in 2007, “hospitals were the top employer in five of the top ten highest poverty cities.” Once we add in an array of health care services, the health care sector was “the top employer in twenty-one of the top twenty-six cities” in 2007 with the highest individual poverty rates. It still requires labor to convert bad jobs (or no jobs) into good ones and raise the standard of living more generally.

New Haven is a city of 130,000 people, which, like so many other northern cities since the 1970s, shifted from an economy based on manufacturing to one dominated by the service sector. Yale–New Haven Hospital is the city’s second largest employer; its workers mostly earn low wages and are not members of unions. Surrounding Yale University (the largest employer) and the hospital-medical complex are poor and working-class neighborhoods where the unemployment rates among African Americans and Latinos are double that of the city’s white residents. According to the three-year American Community Survey, unemployment among New Haven’s African Americans is 18.5 percent and among Latinos, 19.9 percent.

Although the city has long been under solidly Democratic leadership, the government has done little to boost the economic well-being of the majority of its population. Older civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and War on Poverty–era community action agencies, have seemed unequipped or unmotivated to deal with systemic poverty or to mobilize politically.

New Haven Rising emerged in this vacuum, taking root in a significant electoral victory. In 2011, eighteen labor or Democratic dissident candidates were elected to the Board of Alders, New Haven’s city council. Together with several progressive incumbents, they captured a two-thirds majority of the Board.

Three elements converged to open up this reconfiguration of political power. First, New Haven Rising had a good foundation on which to build. Over the last fifteen years, a deepening labor-community alliance has been growing in the city. In 2000, Yale’s local unions helped found the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE), an alliance initially led by African-American pastor, Scott Marks, and former Yale clerical worker, Andrea Vanden Heever. It created a bridge between unions at Yale and community activists. CCNE began to identify the key economic and social problems of New Haven—the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods, the gap between rising rents and the stagnation of residents’ incomes, and the Scrooge-like debt policies of the big local hospital, Yale–New Haven Hospital.

Second, a union-community alliance, under the umbrella Community Organized for Responsible Development (CORD), generated a campaign to force Yale administrators to aid residents of the mostly poor, African-American Hill neighborhood, where its hospital intended to construct a major new cancer center. Residents were outraged that the university consulted no one from the Hill about its plans—and even more arrogantly, proposed to rezone the area, with its mix of working-class homes and small businesses, as a special medical-hospital zone, giving it almost carte blanche to proceed with future projects. For many universities, cancer centers have become high-profile engines that attract money, top-notch researchers, and paying patients from well beyond their local boundaries. Patients will travel from across the region or nation to receive the latest cancer treatments. Shrouded in the once-charitable mission of hospitals and their promises of miraculous curative potential, officials present these projects as a superior public benefit—one that is above other claims to the same space. Residents should step aside and let it through.

In this case, Hill residents peeled back the veil, revealing many of the ways they had been marginalized by hospital expansion and even preyed upon by aggressive debt collection, including liens on homes. Using door-to-door canvassing, mass turnout at Board of Alders meetings, and public demonstrations, CORD pressured the city into holding up the permits until a deal was struck. CORD finally wrested from Yale an agreement to lower residents’ medical debts, establish an advisory committee to monitor the hospital’s use of endowed free care funds and debt, create youth programs, hire local people, and stay neutral during a union campaign to organize the hospital. It seemed like a breathtaking victory at the time. The Youth Initiative did happen and the advisory committee on charitable bed funds remains in place. The hospital adheres to some level of local hiring, although into low-wage positions. But the hospital successfully blocked the union drive.

The Community Voter Project, launched in 2008, was the third element. Its organizers trained New Haven youth to knock on thousands of doors to register voters, conduct issue-based surveys, and educate residents about the economy. This intensive canvassing set the stage for the 2011 elections in multiple ways: it registered new voters, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods; it identified grassroots leaders who could run for office or mobilize other people; and it culled concerns and issues that cohered as the community economic platform for labor’s candidates in 2011.

These activist groups were able to win discrete battles. Yet while bursts of community–labor power could temporarily break through the inertia of everyday politics, they could not transform local politics nor wrest economic power. Yale administrators proved adept at placating critics, and the Board of Alders relapsed into a passive role, allowing the university’s plans for development to continue while poor neighborhoods festered.

So, the community-labor coalition turned to local elections. With a majority on the Board of Alders, progressives could exert leverage over zoning decisions, building permits, even charter revision to bring a measure of democracy to economic decision-making and governance generally.

Once it took office in 2012, the new majority on the Board of Alders acted on the community economic plan, developed through grassroots organizing, beginning with a “jobs pipeline”—that is, training, mentoring, and placement with employers who sign on to hire New Haven residents. It created New Haven Works, which would connect unemployed individuals and local employers: collecting and vetting applications, providing training and mentoring, and securing commitments from employers to hire local residents. It’s the latter that was supposed to make job pipelines different from previous “training” programs that usually gave residents nothing but an attractive certificate. By 2013, with the backing of a new mayor, Toni Harp, and Governor Dannel Malloy, New Haven Works had placed 323 people in jobs. Large employers such as Yale University, Yale–New Haven Hospital and United Illuminating signed on to the plan. The city is now attempting to use the jobs pipeline idea as new development projects arise or employers plan to set up shop in New Haven.

But a few hundred jobs do little to lift the economic prospects of most New Haven residents. Those hired by Yale often get only part-time or part-year positions, although within the last six months they’ve secured more full-time positions. Thus continued grassroots pressure by New Haven Rising is essential to compelling employers to expand local hiring and, in the long run, to shift the balance of economic power in the city.

To accomplish these ends, the group seeks to build a permanent base outside the political structure, one that will stay organized between elections. It seeks to build power and democratize the city in different and more fundamental ways. It’s aimed at building the capacities and confidence of New Haveners to be political actors, now and into the future. “The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t go away between elections,” says one NHR activist leader I interviewed. “The people need to be a continuing political presence also.”

The first step is to organize people in familiar ways—small group by small group, local leaders urging their neighbors and fellow church-goers to discuss what they want and need, and then to act on them. Member-organizers also cross into other neighborhoods across the city to offer NHR’s popular economics presentation. Participants do not sit passively and simply receive information. They compare their assumptions about the lack of jobs in the city with the potentially more promising truth: there are 83,000 jobs in New Haven, more than half of which pay $20 an hour or more. But too few of the decent-paying jobs go to people who live there. Residents who live in poorer neighborhoods hold just 2,000 of these better-paying positions.

Latoya Agnew, a young African American, joined New Haven Rising to change this picture. She grew up in a tough neighborhood under tough circumstances—violence, economic insecurity, and aggressive policing. Delphine Clyburn, one of the new alders elected in 2011, and Shirley Lawrence, a labor organizer and former Yale dining hall worker, recruited Agnew into the movement. “The facts are in their face,” she says about her hard-pressed neighbors. But, she said in a recent interview: “NHR gets them into thinking what you can do about it collectively. The world would be so different for them if they even had jobs. They could support families, take vacations, be volunteers in their communities.”

On the one hand, the demand for jobs is a limited one. Compared to the historical aspirations of the left in previous eras, it seems small. But it explicitly contests the power of large employers over local hiring and their prerogative to determine who gets in and who stays out. In a sense, the demand aims to politicize work.

So far, however, NHR has resisted laying out a vision of a more egalitarian society. Many activists imagine a different kind of society but see talking about it now as a luxury that they cannot afford. They haven’t allied with such “community wealth-building” initiatives as the creation of producer cooperatives that, in theory, would keep wealth in communities as well as provide jobs that wouldn’t pick up and leave. Most people don’t have the time or resources to build an alternative local economy. So New Haven Rising focuses on a strategy that can and has won tactical victories.

And there are immediate opportunities for a jobs campaign. A major urban redevelopment project is currently underway to undo the misdeeds of mid-twentieth-century urban renewal, which built a highway connector that ended abruptly in the once vibrant, working-class, multiethnic Oak Street neighborhood, displacing hundreds of people and the small businesses and churches of community life. The Oak Street Connector stood for over fifty years as a symbol of the hubris of urban renewal: it didn’t ultimately connect anything. The other useless monstrosity of the era was a sports coliseum. It towered over the neighborhood, was rarely used, and drained more from the city coffers than it contributed.

The sports coliseum and connector have now been torn down to make way for a new project, Downtown Crossing. In the parlance of New Urbanism, Downtown Crossing will “reclaim” the neighborhood through “mixed-use” development—including a “retail village,” a pedestrian plaza, apartments, and a “bioscience and pharmaceutical cluster.” It will reestablish the geographical links between the poor African-American and Latino neighborhood of the Hill and downtown. But it will also connect Yale’s main campus with the medical school and hospital. Yale intends to use the site to build up the biosciences economy.

The other “economic anchor” of Downtown Crossing will be a luxury hotel that promises to hire several hundred workers. The danger is that this would be another source of low-paying, non-unionized jobs. Progressives at the local level cannot simply pass laws to make unionization easier; federal law preempts it. But if organizers from New Haven Rising and their allies pressure hotels to recognize a strong union, those low-end service jobs could become better paying ones that would lift both the local economy—connecting with workers’ base of power within the university—and the prospects of the local left.

What’s happening now in New Haven follows in the footsteps of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the pattern of development around medical and science facilities in Baltimore, the Tufts Medical Institutions in Boston, and to some degree, Harvard’s extension into nearby Allston. These universities have enormous ambitions, multi-year master plans, and construction projects amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. Hopkins’s biotech park opened in 2008 in East Baltimore, a poor neighborhood in a city where one in four people live in poverty and only 57 percent of residents are employed. It added more patient care expansion in 2012 (and in a sublime neoliberal gesture, named one building after former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mother and another after the first president of the United Arab Emirates). Despite all the promised benefits of the eighty-eight-acre project, community members have protested it—claiming displacement and dispossession, indeed fearing elimination of their entire neighborhood. According to Marisela Gomez, a Hopkins-trained physician, public health expert, and vocal critic, residents were never invited to weigh in on any of these plans. So they organized the Save Middle East Action Committee to demand participation, restitution, and public health protections from the construction. While they didn’t save homes, they did win more money for relocation and public health measures.

The homes are gone; biotech remains. And yet, joblessness is widespread. One quarter of Baltimore’s population lives at or below the poverty line. Thousands of tenant evictions occur each year. Most of the people in poor neighborhoods, or who are displaced and sent into the perpetual spiral of insecure housing, turn to the day-labor or temp-staffing economy, finds sociologist Gretchen Purser.

The other shared challenge posed by universities is the paradox of “economic development” and an eroding tax base. Because universities are formally “nonprofit” institutions, much of the land they own remains off the tax rolls, shifting the tax burden onto middle- and working-class homeowners. The city council of Baltimore estimates it loses $120 million a year from tax-exempt property. Philadelphia has Drexel, Temple, and University of Pennsylvania sitting on valuable property and consuming public services. Strapped by high property taxes, the middle class in New Haven resists additional public services, which working-class residents need. In other cities, officials turn to raising excise and service taxes, which instead hit the working class.

Tufts medical institutions spread through so much of Boston, Tufts not only became one of the largest employers in the city but also posed a tax dilemma, as it converted land to nontaxable status. As in New Haven, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, Tufts finally agreed to a “payment in lieu of taxes” to the city of over $1 million. Of course, without the exemption, the property would be worth about $16 million in annual taxes. Yale also makes voluntary payments of several million dollars to the city (and provides its own services, such as policing). A study by the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy found that such payment programs, which exist in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore, are often haphazard, negotiated in secret, and amount to a very small fraction of the city budget.

A more grassroots response to both university expansion and the preferential treatment these institutions elicit from boosterish mayors has been community benefits agreements. McKee’s research shows that folks in South Cove or Boston’s Chinatown pressured Tufts into such agreements, including job training for local residents, a mixed-income apartment building with a significant number of dedicated affordable housing units, space for community agencies that offered child care, youth programs, and ESL classes. More recently, residents of Allston compelled Harvard to sign several agreements. Allston residents won community benefits agreements for neighborhood improvements, from arts and culture programming to pedestrian crossings. In Palo Alto, Stanford agreed to one where its bioscience infrastructure intended to expand. This is low-hanging fruit. It certainly doesn’t change the overall power dynamic at all. It facilitates the repurposing of land controlled by elite institutions.

In New Haven, immigrants, particularly Latinos, form another vital nexus of progressive activism. On any given Monday night, fifty to sixty members attend a meeting of Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA), a group formed in 2002 by Guatemalan newcomers to deal with the problems of undocumented immigrants. In recent years, it has grown to include Mexicans, Ecuadorans, and Colombians. Many who attend are mothers with school-age children, who have escaped violence and employer repression in their homelands. The Latino population of New Haven made up about 27.4 percent of the city in 2010.

At one recent Monday evening meeting, members discussed, in Spanish, issues ranging from police asking for documents during routine traffic stops to tutoring for Latino high school students to whether to participate in an indigenous peoples’ counter-celebration on Columbus Day. ULA uses a model familiar from community organizing: staff organizer and founding member John Jairo Lugo goes around the room asking who will commit to showing up at an agreed-upon time and location. When they’ve decided on an action, they clap in unison. After the meeting breaks up, the staff handles individual cases dealing with issues such as non-payment of wages, police abuse, racial profiling, wrongful arrests, and recalcitrant landlords.

Deportation is a top priority issue for ULA, as it is for immigrant activists elsewhere in the country. The organization helps people locate relatives within the detention system, gain hearings, and fight the government’s attempt to send people back to their nation of origin. But it also aims at getting people to act collectively to address these threats.

ULA’s other major focus is on the injustices workers face on the job. Its members tend to work in restaurants, construction, landscaping, cleaning companies, and farms in and around New Haven. The cleaning companies are subcontractors for supermarkets and big box stores. Wage theft and various forms of unequal treatment and abuse on the job are rampant—facilitated by the threat of deportation.

To address these issues, ULA employs an imaginative, multi-step strategy which combines confrontation with education. First, a group of members approaches an employer. If the boss doesn’t respond in a positive manner, ULA pickets the workplace, holds rallies, and invites public figures and officials to come to their actions. This enables Latino workers to see unfair treatment in social and systemic terms.

In 2014, armed with this strategy, ULA won a victory for the employees at Gourmet Heaven, a large 24-hour deli and convenience store located on property owned by Yale. Workers there labored on shifts as long as twelve hours and earned less than the minimum wage. Members of MEChA, the Latino student group at Yale, joined ULA members on the picket line. The protests got the attention of the Connecticut Department of Labor, which opened an investigation. A few months later, the owner of Gourmet Heaven was charged with numerous counts of wage theft and he now faces trial.

Activists from both groups met with Yale’s Vice President for Community Affairs and shamed him into issuing a public statement stating that the university “strongly condemn[s] unfair labor practices and will not renew the lease of any tenant not in complete compliance with the labor laws regarding fair treatment of employees.” “The Gourmet Heaven campaign has been huge,” said ULA staff organizer Megan Fountain. “The news attention, the state attention, these really send a message to other employers that you can’t be above the law.”

Despite its focus on the workplace, ULA is neither connected to any union nor do its leaders seek to join one. For them, the restrictions of labor law and the labor movement’s ever shrinking share of the workforce argues for building power outside a union framework. However the organization does work with other labor organizations to increase the minimum wage, and, in part due to such pressure, Connecticut recently enacted the $10.10 minimum wage President Obama called for.

In a larger sense, Unidad Latina en Accion is attempting to build a more democratic city. Its members believe that government should be accountable to working-class immigrants as much as to other residents of the country. What is common to both New Haven Rising and ULA is their insistence that far too many Americans are on the outside of power looking in. And they share their view that the old model of trade unionism and collective bargaining is insufficient to meet their needs.

Still, there is a union base at Yale that will be essential to achieving the ends of progressives in the city. The UNITE HERE locals at the university—representing about 4,600 physical plant, dining hall, and clerical and technical workers—are the largest in New Haven. One of those locals has now formally recognized the graduate student union, GESO, although GESO doesn’t have NLRB certification or university recognition. To some extent, Yale University sets the wage base for the rest of the city, but that also remains low as long as the hospital is unorganized. Moreover, Yale–New Haven hospital has now taken over the only other hospital in town, thus both raising the stakes for organizing those workers, as well as increasing its potential local and regional impact.

The community groups and the unions need one another. Yale is growing both geographically and financially; it already has an endowment that tops $23 billion. As it expands, university officials seek to contain unionism and, if possible, shrink its base. When Yale full-time employees retire or leave, they are often not replaced. New corporate vice presidents (from companies such as Pepsico) work to de-skill jobs as well as to downsize staff. Progressives cannot gain their ends without challenging this strategy.

Four decades ago, notes historian Jean-Christian Vinel, Justice Lewis Powell identified the university as a key element in “liberals’ ability to labor American culture”—and he set out to subvert it. That is even more the case today as universities have become not just cultural and educational centers, as in Powell’s day, but major economic enterprises. New Haven’s labor alliance is uniquely poised to try to leverage that into new power, since it has already been working toward building a united front inside the university among physical plant, food-service, clerical, technical, and graduate student teaching employees; and outside the university, where its development decisions affect neighborhoods. They can link better jobs and more security for people inside the university and more broadly through the city.

Where does graduate student unionism fit into the picture? On the one hand, grad students appear to New Haven’s working class, including some employees of Yale, to be the recipients of privilege. On the other hand, one of the great obstacles to unionism in the United States has been middle-class liberals who don’t sympathize with the collective ethos of the labor movement. GESO seeks to change this attitude by bringing more university-educated professionals into the fold. Its student members also take to the streets—registering and canvassing voters, supporting community organizers, testifying at public hearings on community issues from housing to union jobs to Yale expansion, and engaging in civil disobedience on labor violations and immigration. In 2012, GESO put together a conference, “The Changing University,” which critiqued the corporate restructuring of the university. Its members should bring their understanding of labor’s role in building a more democratic society into the other academic institutions where they hope to work.

There cannot be a thriving progressive movement at the local level without labor. But neither can unionists thrive unless they work closely with other types of activists—to change the way power operates in New Haven and other university towns and who holds it and for what ends. As Latoya Agnew reflects: “The bigger picture for me is a system where people are not being crushed, where people feel like they have some power and control over their own lives. They’re being crushed by corporations, by powerful institutions. This is your reality. But New Haven Rising says, if we take action, this can be your reality.”

Jennifer Klein is professor of twentieth-century U.S. history at Yale University. Her articles have appeared in Dissent, the Washington Post, the Nation, Labor Notes, the American Prospect, and the New York Times.