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How community organizing transformed New Haven

In 2009, twelve murders occurred in New Haven, Connecticut. By the next year, that number had doubled.
The Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue in front of Dwight Hall on the Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in this November 28, 2012 file photo. (REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin)
The Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue in front of Dwight Hall on the Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in this November 28, 2012 file photo.

In 2009, twelve murders occurred in New Haven, Connecticut. By the next year, that number had doubled. Then, in 2011, that number shot up again—this time to 34 homicides. In a city whose population barely scrapes 130,000, the continually rising murder rate had many community members deeply shaken.

"It was overwhelming for people," said New Haven resident Brian Wingate. To make things worse, he said, Mayor John DeStefano, a Democrat, laid off 16 police officers in early 2011. "Later on, he hired some back. But at the time it was just not good."

Wingate decided something had to be done. He started talking to his neighbors, and found that their concerns echoed his. "It was jobs, it was crime, it was a lot of, 'There's nothing for the youth here in the city and things have to change,'" he said. That's when Wingate decided that he was going to run for the Board of Aldermen, New Haven's equivalent to a city council.

He approached his union, UNITE HERE Local 35, which represents custodial and service staff at Yale University. As a custodian at the university, Wingate had spent nearly two decades in the union, most of them as a shop steward.

"I said I'm running for alderman and I'd like some help," recalled Wingate. "And they said: We'd like to help you. We know who you are."

Other custodians from the union helped Wingate knock on doors in New Haven's 29th Ward. They talked with Wingate's neighbors about the crime rate, the unemployment rate, and the lack of youth support in the city. That fall, those same neighbors swept Wingate into office—along with 17 other pro-union aldermen. All told, three of the new aldermen were from UNITE HERE Local 35, and four were members of its sister organization, Local 34 (one was also a former Local 34 organizer). The new slate of aldermen also included community organizers, and members of the unions SEIU and AFSCME. On a council with only 30 members, unions and community organizations now held a supermajority.

In the year since, New Haven has cut its murder rate in half, in part through a new community policing program. The Board of Aldermen is working with New Haven residents, local businesses and various other organizations on a "jobs pipeline" which will funnel the city's unemployed citizens into local jobs through a specialized training and assessment program. But to Alderwoman Tyisha Walker—the other member of Local 35 who took office after 2011—the new board's greatest achievement has been transforming the way politics work in New Haven.

"I think we really changed the way things are being done," she said. "We have more civic engagement. I get calls from constituents just because they want to know what's going on downtown, or they have a problem they need assistance with." Turnout at public meetings and forums has increased.

"I don't think any of us expected to win quite that big," said Laurie Kennington, president of Local 34. A resident of New Haven for 16 years, she said the coalition that is now driving local politics is "unique in that it's a Board of Aldermen that comes from a lot of doorknocking, a lot of voter turnout, a lot of participation—rather than the old system of people getting tapped here and there." While there were always opportunities for regular citizens to get involved, she said, it still used to be, "you kissed the ring, you got the office."

Though unions such as Local 34 provided volunteers to knock on doors for the 2011 slate, both aldermen and union officials insisted that the new board was in no way a "labor government." The candidates decided to run on their own, and represent a diverse range of community interests.

"We're what the city looks like," said Walker. "I represent my constituents, and I represent their views." She described the 2011 sweep as a "people takeover" instead of a labor takeover.

"A lot of union members are on the Board of Aldermen and a lot of community members are on the Board of Aldermen," said Kennington. "A lot of people active in their churches. It is unique in that it's a coalition that comes out of community organizing."

Granted, UNITE HERE is no stranger to that kind of organizing. Across the country, various UNITE HERE locals have committed themselves to working with community organizers and other groups on causes that do not necessarily affect the union's collective bargaining agreements. Brendan Walsh, a key player in the immigrant justice movement in Arizona, was once a volunteer organizer in UNITE HERE's New Haven wing.

"The labor movement at its best has been a movement for social justice that raises standards for all working people, not just in the narrow interests of its membership," said Kennington. "In this country right now, unions are trying to figure out how to get back to that style of organizing, particularly in this economic moment when working people need all of the fighters they can get."

Nonetheless, when two members of Local 34 first told the union that they were running for alderman, the 40-member executive board had what Kennington described as a "lively discussion" over whether to get involved. "I think everyone recognized that we should play some role in the city," she said, but it had been common practice for labor unions to seek community support when they went on strike "and then disappear when our contract got ratified again."

This time around, the union decided "we can't be an island of prosperity when everyone around us is struggling," said Kennington. "Our contracts have gotten increasingly better over the past ten years, but that's happened at the same time that the city has been in decline. Even as our standard of living has gotten higher, our neighborhoods have gotten worse and worse."

Adding to the argument for greater community involvement was the increasingly blurry line between union membership and the community at large. More than 4,000 New Haven residents work at Yale University, making it the city's largest employer. As a result, the university is also where the bulk of the city's union density happens to be concentrated. Yale's policies affect the community at large, and a majority of union members who work at Yale consider themselves part of that community. The university is now involved in planning and implementation for New Haven's jobs pipeline.

"It's taking shape," said Wingate  of the pipeline. "It's baby steps, but it's taking shape. It's about the city residents honestly getting jobs around here from these big entities."

Implementation of the pipeline remains a major priority for the Board of Aldermen class of 2011, as its second year in office begins. Wingate and others said their primary goal was fulfilling the legislative agenda they unanimously put forth when they first entered office. (Multiple sources claimed that this was the first Board of Aldermen in the city's history to put forth a unified legislative agenda.)

"It's more of the same, trying to finish basically what we started a year ago," said Wingate. "I think we're ahead of the curve, [but] I think we can do so much better."