(Second of three parts.)
The mayor wasn’t at the table. His loyal neighborhood minister wasn’t at the table. Public school officials weren’t at the table. Two new groups of powerbrokers were there instead hammering out a deal—and a new way of doing business in New Haven.
The deal at hand: Whether New Haven would sell the abandoned Martin Luther King school in Newhallville so a new charter high school could go up in its place.
Traditional New Haven tax dollars wouldn’t build that school. Traditional public-school decision-makers wouldn’t take charge of the deal.
Instead, local allies of two powerful national political movements with a stake in New Haven’s changed political landscape, organized labor and charter schools, called the shots at the tense negotiations in Newhallvile.
Those December MLK-Amistad negotiations came as a revelation to people in New Haven: Not only who was or wasn’t in the room. But also how major public decisions are being made one year into a revolution in the makeup of the city’s legislative body, the Board of Aldermen.
Union-backed candidates beat City Hall and became a supermarjority on the 30-member board as of Jan. 1. Their first year in office brought changes to how votes are discussed and taken in City Hall. (Read about that here.)
The school episode in Newhallville showed citywide how power dynamics outside of City Hall changed, too, in year one of the labor takeover.
The episode led some critics to charge that the takeover has led to the creation of a new machine promoting narrow self-interested transactional politics, with only the names of the players changing.
It led others to conclude that the new team has succeeded in doing away with a system that based decisions on rewarding developers, city contractors and government employees who pony up to mayoral reelection campaigns. In its place, supporters argued, alderman created a democratic, grassroots-fueled process that insists on liveable-wage jobs and “community benefits.” Both in making laws. And in negotiating outside City Hall.
As the year wound down, both sides claimed the climactic negotiations in Newhallville proved their point.
Achievement First (AF) was at the table that December night in Newhallville as a deadline neared to approve the deal, and as negotiations had hit a wall.
Started and still based in New Haven, AF is a star of the national charter school movement, which seeks to take public schools out of the hands of the bureaucrats and especially the unions whom the movement’s crusaders and billionaire corporate backers blame for the sorry state of American education. In these Newhallville negotiations, AF was looking to spend $35 million to build a new home on the property for its Amistad High School.
Two first-year Newhallville alderwomen, Delphine Clyburn and Brenda Foskey-Cyrus, were at the table, too. They are part of the labor-backed movement that took control of New Haven’s Board of Aldermen with a promise to change the way New Haven conducts its government and politics independent of City Hall’s DeStefano administration. They in turn were backed by a labor movement looking at New Haven for hope while it takes a political beating in states like Wisconsin and Michigan. UNITE HERE—parent of Yale’s two biggest unions—poured electoral organizing power and an unprecedented $200,000-plus into the aldermanic elections to wrest control of the board from politicians allied with the mayoral administration, which previously had the only bounty of campaign cash to share.
So a union-affiliated “think tank” called Connecticut Center for A New Economy (CCNE) was at the table in Newhallville, too, pushing for unionized custodial and cafeteria jobs as well as money for neighborhood youth programs as a price for approval of the school deal. CCNE Director Renae Reese claimed the neighborhood had “invited” her group to the table.
The Rev. Boise Kimber, for decades a loyal City Hall vote-puller and deal-negotiator in Newhallville, was not allowed in the room; he stood outside protesting along with a group of ministers. Mayor John DeStefano was keeping his distance from the whole process.
Standing front and center, meanwhile, were two faces of the new supermajority: neighborhood Alderwoman Clyburn and Fosky-Cyrus.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock ...
How Clyburn got there—and how she continued to do her job in 2012—revealed the labor-backed supermajority’s broader strategy. One that extended in 2012 beyond the confines of either City Hall meetings or individual constituent requests.
Clyburn has worked in state homes for the disabled for a living since 1988. She has been an active organizer for the union representing her, District 1199 of the health care workers. She knows how to encourage people to speak up, join groups, come to the polls.
Organizers connected to Yale’s unions and CCNE had spent years cultivating grassroots leaders like Clyburn. Yale has the city’s largest workforce; even though many members live out of town, many live here, especially among the blue-collar custodial force. The fate of Yale’s unionized workers often has a big impact on the local economy. So as they sought a way to break the pattern of regular strikes at Yale, union organizers decided they needed more community support.
But the union heard that the community didn’t like the idea of being asked to help out at contract-negotiation time and then forgotten. So organizers brought to New Haven a “community-labor alliance” concept from the West Coast. The idea was to build a political coalition with, say, ministers in the Latino community and active community volunteers in the black community. They attended each other’s rallies; that led, for instance, to Yale expanding a homeownership program to Latino-dominated Fair Haven. And through CCNE, the organizers started grooming people who knew how to knock on doors and make phone calls and put together neighborhood meetings. Out of those years of work came a pool of candidates like Delphine Clyburn.
Separately, the Yale unions built in New Haven one of the state’s most respected vote-pulling operations. It was credited with helping elect Gov. Dan Malloy, for instance. It turns out pluralities in statewide elections that are the envy of other Connecticut cities.
It wasn’t a surprise that they were awesome door-knockers, persuaders, when CCNE-groomed candidates launched a slate of candidates to take control of the Board of Aldermen last fall. (Technically CCNE had to stay out of the elections because it is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. Like mayoral appointees and other government workers who take time “off” to work tirelessly on campaigns for pro-City Hall candidates, CCNE members said they were careful to be off the clock during the hours they campaigned for the aldermanic candidates. Or else they took formal leaves of absence from their jobs.)
The election results last fall did surprise people: 17 out of 18 union-backed candidates won office. They crushed the City Hall slate. Other longtime union-backed aldermen won reelection unopposed. They included the Hill’s Jorge Perez, who would return to his post as board president; and the Hill’s Jackie James, who became Democratic Party town chairwoman. A unified supermajority now would control the legislative branch of New Haven government.
Something else changed: how an elected official like Clyburn did the alderwoman’s job after she won office. She kept knocking on the doors. Two mornings every week, her days off from work.
“I take a street at a time,” she said. “It’s all about the people”.
An alderwoman’s job has “two parts,” Clyburn said. “The legislation part. Then you’ve got your community part. You know the community part is the greatest for me.”
To Clyburn and her colleagues, the campaign had just begun after they won their elections.
The prize here wasn’t an elected seat. It wasn’t control of the Democratic Party, though the union-backed coalition won that, too. The prize would be developing a hard-working grassroots base of neighbors in each part of town coming to community management meetings with cops, coming to rallies to support citywide legislative priorities like a new “jobs pipeline” and a network of neighborhood youth centers. A base that would turn out to vote in every primary and general election and support a long-term governing agenda.
Contacts & Contracts
In addition to rallies, CCNE and the union-backed aldermen organized agenda-setting issues conventions. Three hundred people showed up at Career High School on July 19, for instance, to discuss what a progressive local issues agenda should include in New Haven. They did it under the auspices of a new organization called New Haven Rising, which spawned a youth wing in Clyburn’s neighborhood, Newhallville Rising.
Clyburn and Foskey-Cyrus drew as many as 50 people to each of four community meetings inviting neighbors to help negotiate the deal with Achievement First about the proposed MLK-Amistad school deal. They also collected over 200 signatures on a petition with demands.
Clyburn also showed results again at the polls in 2012: Her ward, historically one of New Haven’s lowest-voting districts, had lines out the door all day of people waiting to vote for Barack Obama for president and Chris Murphy for U.S. senator. It ended up posting the third-highest voting total of the city’s 30 wards. Later Chris Murphy recalled stopping by the voting spot, Lincoln-Bassett School, mid-morning, usually a down time when even on busy election days. The line went out in the street. It was then, he said, “I knew I’d won” the election.
Underlying all this permanent-campaign work was a new strategy. It held that power came not from winning the mayor’s office, which labor could have done in 2011. (It ended up not backing a mayoral candidate.) It came first from building a base of vote-pullers in each ward and a unified coalition in the legislative branch.
The leader of New Haven’s blue-collar union and of the Central Labor Council, Bob Proto, celebrated that power on June 27 when Yale’s union ratified a stunning new contract. It was stunning not because of the terms—both sides made concessions—but because it came six months early, with no public acrimony. (Read about that deal here.) The contract prevented any layoffs amid a tough economy. It also included a starting-point prototype for the “jobs pipeline” that the union-backed aldermen and Yale Vice-President Bruce Alexander would help usher in citywide through a new organization called New Haven Works.)
Yale used to have among the worst campus labor relations in the country. It endured seven strikes in 34 years.
That changed largely because union leaders and Yale President Rick Levin learned how to work together, especially through trust-building and problem-solving labor-management “best practices” committees.
In a triumphant speech to the rank on file at the June 27 ratification vote, Bob Proto cited that as one reason for the contract. He added a second reason.
“Right now,” he crowed, “we control 20 out of 30 seats on the Board of Aldermen.”
With that remark, reader “Robn” argued in a comment posted to a news account of that meeting, Proto “publicly admitted to a conspiracy of using union resources to hijack the governing body of New Haven for the sole purpose of leveraging it against Yale to the benefit of their collective bargaining unit. It’s, abusive, undemocratic and simply wrong.”
Proto and union officials denied that Proto made the clearly heard remark, or argued that it was taken out of context.
In a year-end interview Aldermanic President Jorge Perez argued that the aldermanic majority’s votes this year clearly disproved that argument.
Proto merely “got carried away in the moment,” Perez remarked.
“People believe we meet with Bobby [Proto] and [union political organizer] Gwen [Mills] on a regular basis and they say when you can go to the bathroom or when you can eat,” Perez said. No such meetings take place, he continued. Rather, “you have a group of people with some principles in common. We believe in a living wage and jobs with good job standards. You shouldn’t have to pick between feeding your family and being sick. You should be able to walk your neighborhood at night without getting shot. You should be able to feed your family in the city you live in.
“Does that make us cronies of the union? Look at [the] voting record.”
“To us the benefit [of union support] is the ability to build community and organize. Our table is big enough for everyone,” said Alderwoman and Town Chairwoman James. “It’s not a union machine. I live in the community I represent. I’ve been here for over 30 years. We have relationships.”
The more significant point about the union roots of so many of the aldermen (and especially the alderwomen) is the view they take of politics: It involves recruiting people, setting goals and demands after (sometimes endless) discussion, finding new opportunities to turn out supporters in public, negotiating for results.
“Labor is not a dirty word,” remarked first-term East Rock alderwoman Jessica Holmes, who like others on the labor-backed team used to work for a union. “To compare organized labor to a giant corporation is an abuse of the term.
“Unions at their most fundamental are about empowering workers on the job. It’s about people having more of a say in their workplace. And for that to be extended, for there to be conversations about how to grow more living wage jobs in New Haven, for there to be advocates for living-wage jobs in New Haven, that’s different from [politicians negotiating for] construction [contracts] for people who donated to political campaigns.”
“Stick-Up”? Or Community Victory?
Striking the MLK-Amistad deal wouldn’t be easy. That’s why it went down to the final weeks of an end-of-the-year deadline.
Clyburn and fellow Alderwoman Foskey-Cyrus had heard complaints from constituents about their kids being shut out of AF schools. So they demanded guarantees of slots in the high school for local kids as part of the “community benefits” agreement that would accompany aldermanic approval of the school sale. AF prefers to reserve high-school slots for students from its lower schools.
The alderwomen also wanted the community to be able to use the school’s playing field. Meanwhile, CCNE was insisting on “card-check neutrality” for the custodians and cafeteria workers, meaning they’d be able to form a union without holding a secret-ballot election. While it does have some scattered union employees, AF’s approach has included a general opposition to unions, whom many charter-movement leaders portray as villains blocking school reform.
At one point a reputed detail leaked out of the negotiations: a demand that the community benefits deal include a $150,000 contribution by AF to Newhallville Rising to boost youth programming. CCNE helped organizeNewhallville as part of its efforts to involve more young people in campaigns. Critics pounced on that detail as evidence that the new labor-backed majority and CCNE were demanding payoffs to its political campaigns no different from those extracted by past political machines.
“The mystery behind all of the clandestine closed-to-the-public meetings is that the union funded Connecticut Center for a New Economy [CCNE] has been running the show since the summer,” declared Rev. James Newman, an ally of Rev. Kimber who runs the Greater New Haven Clergy Association. He accused the alderwomen, in conjunction with CCNE, of engaging in “a good old-fashioned stick up,” trying to shake down Amistad for $250,000 for “youth enrichment.”
Some Independent readers posting comments on news accounts compared CCNE and UNITE/HERE and Newhallville Rising to corporate PACs freed to collect and spending unlimited campaign money thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
“This is clearly a means to work around any electioneering restrictions that might be left over after Citizens United gave corporations and unions free reign to purchase elections,” wrote Independent commenter “Robn.”
Former Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield, who lost his seat to the union team, posted a comment comparing the groups to SuperPACs.
“[These] organizations have become the hot ticket for political influence because their donors do not have to be identified and there is no limit on what they can spend on a political campaign, provided of course there is no coordination (cue Claude Raines ‘I’m shocked, shocked to find….’), and with the caveat that their activities need to primarily promote ‘social welfare,’” Goldfield wrote. “I dare you to try to draw that line. It is the preferred vehicle for the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, Dick Armey and their ilk. So I guess this kind of monkey business has filtered down to little old New Haven on the left.”
Neither side to the negotiations confirmed that money for Newhallville Rising was ever on the table.
Then came a deal; AF, the alderwomen and CCNE were able to bridge their differences. They jointly announced the deal on the steps of City Hall on the evening of Dec. 18 moments before the final two aldermanic votes needed to approve the deal. The deal easily passed both votes. A new charter high school will replace a vacant building in Newhallville.
As part of the deal, the cafeteria workers, security workers and custodians there will probably end up unionized and earn higher wages than they otherwise would have. The new high school will reserve 10 slots for New Haven kids who didn’t attend AF middle schools. AF promised to work hard to recruit more black and Latino teachers than it has traditionally had in its other schools. Newhallville will get free access to the school’s gym and playing field when they’re not in use; the neighborhood community management team will get free use of a school conference room for meetings. AF will put new public art on the building to replace a beloved civil-rights mural on the old building.
And AF will contribute to $150,000 to local “youth enrichment” programs. No, the money won’t go through the CCNE-spawned Newhallville Rising. It will be administered to local groups by a neutral third party, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
The results proved the critics wrong, the new union supermajority and its backers declared.
“It seems like what voters hoped would happen last September - the restoration of the BoA as an independent branch of government from the Mayor, accountable to the community - has happened,” reader “East Rock Independent” wrote in a comment posted on a news story about the deal. “The community, led by two tough leaders in Alds. Brenda Foskey-Cyrus and Delphine Clyburn, got organized and fought for the things it wanted in this project—they cried out in particular for money for youth, good jobs, and student access. They beat back challenges from the old power structure—Revs. Kimber & Newman wanted to take a cut for themselves.”
In an interview last week, Clyburn held up the process as vindication of all the organizing work she and her colleagues and neighbors have done.
“I’m proud of Newhallville, how they’ve started participating,” she said. “I was so proud when they took on the committee to take on Achievement First and doing all the negotiations. I’m just so proud of them.”
Next: Mayor’s Office?
In the process, the new labor-backed supermajority defined “community benefits” as an integral part of how major decisions will be made in New Haven deals.
Downtown Alderman Doug Hausladen, who is allied with neither the union-backed team nor City Hall, said he understands why it makes sense in big deals to negotiate side community-benefits agreements. In smaller deals, he argued, it makes sense to rely on existing hiring and liveable wage laws rather than delay development projects with side deal. The question now, he said, is where to draw the line.
“I’m not sure about the value and merit to the public on a public school [project] being scrutinized” the way the MLK-Amistad deal was, Hausladen said.
A noticeably quiet voice during the MLK-Amistad drama belonged to the man who remains the city’s most powerful politician, Mayor John DeStefano (pictured in the above video joining the labor-backed supermajority in endorsing the Murphy Senate campaign).
In the past the mayor was the central figure hammering out deals like that one. Especially when labor was involved. He personally brokered a card-check neutrality agreement that paved the way for the redevelopment and sale of the Omni Hotel. He personally brokered a contract deal with Yale and its unions to end a strike. He personally brokered a “community benefits deal” between a union-backed group and Yale-new Haven Hospital to pave the way for the construction of the Smilow Cancer Hospital.
Yet he may have had a practical reason to stay away from the table in Newhallville this past month. For one thing, he sits on Achievement First’s board. For another, he has developed a productive businesslike relationship with the new union team, and over his career he has charted a pro-labor record.
In the past that may have set him up as the ideal broker.
Now, as the realities of New Haven politics changes, his relationships with both sides qualify for what Facebook would term “complicated” status.
“I think they’ve changed the way things work in New Haven” this year, DeStefano said of the pro-labor team in an interview Friday. “It’s been a more coherent point of view; it’s not factions, as it has been. My experience has been to sit down, talk about what we want to get done ... On average, it worked pretty well from my point of view. They bring energy and attention” to issues like job-creation and youth support.
In 2013 DeStefano is up for an 11th two-year term. He has started running for reelection; two well-known potential opponents have already surfaced.
In 2011 the mayor and his allies tried hard to get the union forces to support him in the general election after they whupped his team in the primaries. The unions held back from endorsing any candidate. (Individual members supported mayoral challenger Jeffrey Kerekes.) If DeStefano continues to the end with his reelection quest, he will almost certainly seek the union coalition’s endorsement again.
Yale’s unions commissioned a poll that, while remaining private, apparently displayed a continued general desire in New Haven for a new mayor after two decades, though those polled produced no single consensus choice for a replacement. Meanwhile, at least at this point in the electoral cycle, the personal anti-DeStefano anger that permeated public discussion last time around seems to have dissipated. Violent crime, a leading cause of dissatisfaction with the mayor in 2011, dropped in 2012; community policing help open hope for longer-term gains.
If the labor coalition decides to back a mayoral candidate in 2013, the betting money is that it can determine the winner. But it’s by no means certain that it will decide to get involved in the mayor’s race.
It has bigger prizes to worry about.
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