New Haven’s top labor leader Wednesday night vowed to reach out more to his union’s newer members after surviving his first electoral challenge in over two decades.
Members of Yale’s blue-collar union, UNITE HERE Local 35, reelected Bob Proto their president 423-127 against Shirley Lawrence, his first challenger ever.
“It’s an honor,” Proto said Wednesday night at union headquarters on College Street after the results came in. “It means that a lot of people respect the work I put in. And I intend on continuing to put that hard work in, on behalf of our union.”
Challenger Lawrence, who ran on a “change” platform, said the campaign succeeded in highlighting a rank-and-file desire for more internal democracy.
A second-generation Yale employee hired as a custodian in September 1974, Proto has been president of UNITE HERE–Local 35 for the last 22 years. He won his first 11 terms unopposed.
Earlier this year, the union’s 1,340 members overwhelmingly approved a five-year contract Proto negotiated with Yale, marking the third consecutive time he’s struck an agreement without a walkout. The union represents the people who clean Yale dorms, cook and serve the food, make repairs, operate the power plant.
On Wednesday, Proto touted some of the major points in the new contract, including keeping the health plan free, preserving pensions and adding casual language to job descriptions to help workers move up through the ranks. “I’ve kept our union together and focused on a good standard,” he said.
Behind the scenes, Proto is considered one of the most influential people in local politics because of the majority of UNITE HERE-endorsed candidates on the Board of Alders. He has also been active in advocating for state approval for MGM’s plans to build a casino in Bridgeport; UNITE HERE already has contracts and neutrality agreements with MGM in Nevada, Maryland, and Massachusetts. Proto has served since 1999 as president of the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council, and in 2004, he was elected an international vice-president of UNITE HERE.
Proto offered no criticism for his opponent. “I look at this as an exercise in democracy,” he said of the election. “My only opponent is Yale.”
Shirley Lawrence, a pantry worker and community organizer, has been a visible UNITE HERE activist for decades in New Haven, since first being hired at Yale in 1989.
For half that time, she traveled across the country to restructure unions in distress. “My job was to identify people that had the potential to be leaders, train them on issues that press them the most, help the strategize, stand up for their rights and win,” she said. That experience taught her to be “inclusive,” she added.
Why did Lawrence decide to run? “It’s time for a change,” she said. She said her supporters “just want a union where they feel their voices are being heard. They just want fairness across the university, at all levels.”
Lawrence cited members’ complaints about reassignments, particularly after Commons closed in July and dining-hall workers competed for spots in Yale’s two new residential colleges.
On Wednesday afternoon, as rain-filled clouds gathered overhead, both candidates made their respective pitches — “results” vs. “change” — to members on the corner outside Commons. The candidates taped their signs over a calendar of musical events, passed out literature and glad-handed with voters.
Tyisha Walker, president of the Board of Alders and a Local 35 official, said she supported Proto because she felt the union was “headed in the right direction” under his leadership. Another city alder and Local 35 official, Brian Wingate, accompanied Proto to gatherings with members this week.
Ken Lomme, another canvasser for the incumbent, praised Proto’s track record. “If I was fired today, who would I want to represent me?” he asked. “He’s the most experienced person we could have.” He suggested that, in a big union, some of his colleagues might have felt disconnected. As a shop steward, he said, hell ramp up communication with his members to make sure nobody felt “shunned or disgruntled.”
Robert Bublitz, a power plant worker, said that while Proto’s done “very well” representing him, he planned to vote for Lawrence to make the union more democratic. “[A challenger] shakes it up,” Bublitz argued. “If you’re not in fear of losing your job, do you do as good of a job? Competition is healthy to make things real.”
At 4:45 p.m., when the polls closed, union members carried out locked, sealed ballot boxes from the four polling locations: Commons, Kline Biology Tower, the School of Medicine and West Campus.
Tallying by hand, with monitors from the two campaigns looking over their shoulders, the election committee counted up ballots for an hour and a half. When totals were read at the union hall at 6:30 p.m., a round of applause could be heard out on College Street.
After receiving the news, Proto said he intended to “prepare this bargaining unit to hold onto this [high] standard” during his next term. To him, that meant laying out the history of the union’s organizing, aimed at younger members who haven’t seen a walkout.
“The dynamic of ongoing peaceful contracts [means] that a lot of folks think the standard just is given to them: ‘This is the way Yale pays, these are the benefits.’ They need to understand the fact that from agreement to agreement, it’s fragile, and that we expect Yale to look at ways to possibly reduce the standards we’ve achieved, in the future,” he said. “We have to be prepared.”
Lawrence, meanwhile, said she felt “really good” about the vote. “I stepped up to the challenge; they voted for the incumbent,” she said. “At least they know now, you’ve got a voice; you can use it. And guess what? On this day, everybody listened.”
Asked if she’d run again, she said that the “opportunity is always there,” but she added that she doesn’t hold any grudges. “I’ll always be a union member,” she said.
Another round of counting lasted until 9:45 p.m., when the new executive board was also announced. Out of the 10 names on the ballot, the top eight vote-getters who’ll nab a spot were: Rich Esposito (407), Michael Dowd (403), Michael Boyd (386), Sal DeLucia (378), Ken Lomme (335), Joe Antinucci (324), Nadian Moore (303) and Len Malonis (291).
This was the second time in less than a week that a challenger took on a veteran city labor leader. Malinda Figueroa unseated four-term incumbent Cherlyn Poindexter last Friday to become president of AFSCME Local 3144, city government’s management and professional union.