The arc of the moral universe is long. And if local politicians, union leaders, and labor-sympathetic pastors have anything to say about it, that arc will bend directly towards New Haven’s largest employer: Yale.
That message was at the heart of Monday night’s annual Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day memorial service at Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church at 242 Dixwell Ave.
One of the busiest nights of the year at one of the city’s largest, most historic, and most politically influential African American congregations, the nearly three-hour-long annual MLK Day service continually invoked the slain civil rights icon’s economic justice platform in an effort to pressure Yale University to hire more black and brown New Haveners.
“Y’all want to talk about closing down corner stores,” New Haven Rising Director Scott Marks implored, sweat pouring down his face at the end of an impassioned 20-minute speech. “But I’m talking about how do we get our people to stand up and feel like King’s dream is not a nightmare.”
A university spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by the publication time of this article.
The parade of union advocates and working-class New Haveners who addressed the roughly 400 people packed in Varick’s nave on Monday night focused their attention almost exclusively on a late 2015 agreement between Yale University, the UNITE HERE Yale locals, and New Haven Works.
In that agreement, the university promised to hire 1,000 New Haveners to permanent, full-time jobs by Apr. 1, 2019. The university also committed at that time to hiring 500 of those 1,000 local workers from the city’s primarily African American and Latino working-class neighborhoods, including the Hill, Newhallville, Dwight, West River, West Rock, Fair Haven, and Dixwell.
West River Alder and Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, who is also a steward with Yale’s blue-collar Local 35 union, earned enthusiastic applause when she told the church attendees that the Board of Alders will host a public hearing on the Yale hiring agreement in the Aldermanic Chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21.
She said the aldermanic leadership has invited representatives from Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs to provide a status update at the Feb. 21 hearing on exactly how many New Haveners, and from which neighborhoods, the university has hired since the signing og the 2015 agreement.
“A good job means you have to work just one,” she said. “You have healthcare. You can take care of your kids. You can feed them and send them to college if you want to. That is what Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about.” That, she said, is what the local unions are fighting for.
Taking turns with percussive, joy-filled gospel performances that brought attendees out of their pews and into the aisles, nearly everyone who followed Walker-Myers at the pulpit spoke to the same theme of New Haven’s need for more good-paying jobs, Yale’s commitment to providing those jobs, and the public pressure required to make sure the university sticks to its word.
Laurie Kennington, the president of Yale’s pink-collar Local 34 union, recalled the gross wage disparities and culture of sexual discrimination that the university’s primarily female clerical and technical workers endured before winning union recognition and a first contract in the mid-1980s. The creation of the union came at the end of a 10-week strike, she recalled, during which Local 35 members and city residents stood in solidarity with the Yale employees.
“It is not enough that only a few of us in this city have these good jobs,” she said. “It’s just not right.” She called on working New Haveners to hold Yale accountable for the 1,000 local jobs its already promised, and to keep pushing for even more local hiring even after the university fulfills its initial commitment.
“King died fighting for working people,” Marks said, citing the sanitation workers’ strike that brought King in April 1968 to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated. The good jobs and good wages that King fought for and that allow for lives of dignity, he said, are what the Yale jobs hiring agreement is all about.
Rebecca Corbett, a longtime employee of Yale’s dermapathology department, said she was a single mom on welfare and was homeless before she landed a union job at Yale after completing a city resident job-training program two decades ago.
“That program literally saved my life,” she said. She said her union job allowed her to buy her first house, shed fears of eviction and slumlords, save money, raise her kids, and even go on the occasional vacation.
“As long as my legs will hold out,” she said, “and my voice will speak, I’m gonna be out there in the streets” supporting Yale’s unions.
Varick Pastor Kelcy Steele rounded out the service with a keynote address-cum-sermon that extolled the endurance of New Haven’s unions and called on Yale to “turn away from their wicked ways” and hire locally and from communities of color.
“Where will we be on April 4,” he asked the congregation, “three days after the deadline for the Yale hiring agreement [and the 51st anniversary of King’s assassination]? Will we be honoring King’s life and his vision for human freedom? Will we be on the path that’s finally moving our city forward?”
Click on the Facebook Live videos below to watch excerpts from Monday night’s service.