Charli Taylor was back at Helen’s front porch, trying to figure out why the Fulton County, Georgia, voter hadn’t yet hit the polls.
The reason, Helen said, was that her front door had no lock—and she worried that someone might break in while she was gone.
Taylor told that story Monday night during a two-hour Martin Luther King, Jr. Day virtual celebration co-hosted by the local labor advocacy group New Haven Rising and the historic Black Dixwell church, Varick AME Zion.
It was one of a half-dozen recent campaign recollections shared during the Zoomed event that sought to draw a direct line between the political organizing that helped turn MLK’s home state of Georgia blue in the special election for two U.S. Senate seats and the need to keep up a multiracial, worker-led political movement closer to home.
Monday’s virtual celebration brought together nearly 500 union members, organizers, local and state politicians, and church members for an annual event that usually packs Varick’s Dixwell Avenue pews.
This year, amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the calls to continue MLK’s legacy of fighting for racial and economic justice took place through recorded videos, hundreds of messages posted in the Zoom chat, online polls with questions about Yale’s wealth, and live MC-ing by New Haven Rising leader Scott Marks.
Over and over again, Monday’s speakers pointed to the past month’s on-the-ground organizing in Georgia as emblematic of what dedicated, well-organized mass movements can achieve.
Marks said that New Haven Rising and the local UNITE HERE unions sent 65 people to Georgia and made hundreds of phone calls in the runup to the Jan. 5 runoff U.S. Senate elections. Two Democrats, Raphael Warnock and Jonathan Ossoff, prevailed in the historic elections, tipping control of the U.S. Senate to their party.
As in the union’s organizing efforts in swing states before the November election, he said, that in-person outreach proved consequential in winning elections.
In the Peach State, the New Haven contingent joined up with 1,000 UNITE HERE-backed canvassers from around the country who knocked on 1.5 million doors and had 15,000 conversations with voters per day.
“We delivered the first Black and the first Jewish senators” in Georgia’s history, Marks note about Warnock — who is the senior pastor at MLK’s former church — and Ossoff. The electoral victories came roughly two months after Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the state’s presidential contest in November.
“Twenty-eight years a red state,” Marks said, “and we turned it around. Not just by us just showing up in Georgia, but also from years of work” by state Democratic Party organizers like Stacey Abrams.
With Democratic control over the legislative and executive branches of city, state, and federal government, Marks said, “This is a year when we begin a just recovery. This is the year when we we reject white supremacy by organizing with love and justice … This is the year when we fight for the Third Reconstruction.”
And the seeds for those electoral victories and coming policy pushes around high-quality employment, healthcare, housing, and education, he said, lay in stories like Taylor’s about making sure that people like Helen could vote.
Watching Out For Helen
Taylor was one of a half-dozen New Haven Rising and UNITE HERE members who spoke up on Monday about their experience canvassing in Georgia in the runup to the runoff.
The stories they told focused on the importance of live, person-to-person interactions and conversations—even during a pandemic—in building collective political power.
Taylor said they were in Fulton County, Georgia for about a month leading up to Jan. 5.
Right before Election Day, they met Helen. The two made a voting plan. “Everything was pretty smooth.”
Then Taylor followed up on the day of the runoff, and found Helen on her porch. “She hadn’t voted,” Taylor said.
“She was watching her house. She didn’t have a lock for the front door.” People had broken into her home and stolen some of her belongings in the past, Helen said. She was reluctant to leave, even just to go to her polling place a few blocks away.
So Taylor asked if she trusted them and their organizing partner enough to let Taylor stay at home and watch Helen’s house while their partner accompanied Helen to the polls.
She said yes. So they did.
“There’s all of these things working against us,” Taylor said. “We know there are these bigger things we’re facing. But that kind of mutual aid, just checking in, asking how can I help you with this. It’s the small things” that make a difference.
Yale undergraduate and Students Unite Now (SUN) organizer Naomi D’Arbell said she too traveled to Georgia to canvass for Warnock and Ossoff.
Neither of her parents has health insurance, she said, and she’s worried that one bad medical break could bankrupt her family.
D’Arbell remembered sharing her concerns about her family’s precarious medical-financial situation with a Georgia voter—and that voter responding with a strikingly similar story of her own.
“Her brother was in that same situation,” she said. “He was uninsured, and he had caught Covid recently. His wife was scared of how they’d pay for attention in the hospital. She wanted something different. She wanted everyone to be insured and have access to quality medical care.”
So they made a voting plan. When D’Arbell followed up after Election Day, she found out that voter had cast a ballot.
Yale PhD student and Local 33 member Adam Waters said that one of the defining moments of his canvassing work in Georgia was when he found out that a prospective voter had lost her driver’s license, had been turned away from an early voting location, and had subsequently decided not to vote at all.
“We decided to make a plan,” he said. “She would bring every form of ID possible. She would bring her state ID, her passport,” anything she had. If those were rejected, she’d cast a provisional ballot. They also decided that her mother would give her a ride to the polls.
Waters recalled seeing this woman and her mother get in their car then and there, drive to the polls, and vote.
“I really learned the value of coming together and organizing and being with people who have ideas similar to yours in order to make a change,” said fellow New Haven-to-Georgia canvasser Paris Robberstad. “After going there, I was like, I want to take that energy and that momentum and that excitement and bring it back here to Connecticut.”
Local 34 member Renee Reed agreed. “I had to do my part to make a change,” she said about why she traveled to Georgia for three weeks to knock doors for the Democratic Senate candidates.
She said she was struck by “the level of homelessness, the underemployment, the lack of adequate healthcare. That just made me want to work harder and harder to give my brothers and sisters” a chance to get a good job, a livable wage, and decent healthcare.
Reed said that many days on the ground in Georgia were quite emotional when she saw “people who never voted before because of the hopelessness” cast a ballot. “This race gave those people hope. And I am happy that we are about to change history, and we’re going to do something for people who look like me.”
Turning Back To Yale
Marks and Local 34 President Laurie Kennington, who helms Yale’s clerical and technical worker union, steered the night’s program from Georgia and back to the Elm City.
Marks said that New Haven Rising’s goals for the year ahead are four-fold:
• To get the state legislature to follow New Haven’s lead and pass a worker recall bill that allows workers laid off during the pandemic to have seniority rights to return to their jobs when their former employers start hiring again. The city recently passed a local recall law for hotel workers;
• To pressure Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital to “contribute their fair share of revenue” to city budget coffers to make up for local property taxes they don’t have to pay because of their largely tax-exempt nonprofit statuses;
• To get Yale to “settle fair contracts with its workers” and “make good on its job commitments to our community.” The current union contracts for Yale’s blue collar and clerical worker unions expire in 2022;
• And to get Yale to “invest in its educational mission” and “to recognize the right of graduate workers to form a union” by officially recognizing Local 33.
Kennington picked up on those latter three points during her brief time at the virtual mic.
“Our union right now has been extremely blessed,” she said. Local 34’s roughly 3,700 members have kept their jobs and their salaries since the start of the pandemic.
“This is only because of you all,” she continued. “That only because of the years of collective struggle and the power we have in our workplace and in our community that Yale has been forced to do that.”
Now, she said, union members have to work to “lock down a contract that forces Yale to keep that going for the years to come.”
“We need a commitment from this incredibly wealthy university that they are going to keep all these good union jobs and not use [Covid] as an excuse to get rid” of current Local 34 employees and positions.
Financially, the university has thrived during this crisis, she said. Its endowment sits at over $31 billion, and it recently posted a $203 million operating surplus. All while many New Haveners are struggling to make ends meet during the Covid-induced public health and economic crises.
The university must refrain from layoffs, recognize Local 33, and “hire more from our neighborhoods and pay their fair share.”
“This is a moment when we should be expecting much more from Yale,” she concluded. “Not less.”
Following is an abridged version of Yale spokesperson Karen Peart’s responses to three requests for comment related to Yale-related claims during Monday’s MLK Day service. Those claims are in bold, and Peart’s responses follow. See the bottom of this article for previous statements by Yale and YNHH in response to similar calls by the mayor for those institutions to up their voluntary financial contributions to the city.
1. Yale and YNHH should contribute their “fair share” of revenue to the city every year to make up for over $150 million in “tax breaks” resulting from their nonprofit tax-exempt statuses.
Yale spends over $700 million annually directly on New Haven. This includes compensation to New Haven residents who work at the university and many programs and initiatives that we support throughout the city. Yale University’s $13 million voluntary payment in FY21 to the City of New Haven was the highest from a university to a host city anywhere in the United States and Yale continues to be among the top three real estate taxpayers in New Haven due to its Community Investment Program. On average, Yale annually also pays about $5 million in permitting fees. Yale builds primarily on its existing land, so the city benefits immediately, not just through these permitting fees, but through increased demand for construction as well as opportunities for jobs.
Like churches and some schools, Yale is a nonprofit institution and is exempt from paying property tax on its academic properties; however, the university pays about $5 million in property taxes on non-academic properties through its community investment program, making Yale among the top three real estate taxpayers in New Haven. We are the largest employer, a major contributor to economic development and even if you exclude our annual compensation to New Haven residents (over $675m), we invest annually over $65m in outreach, programming, and direct fiscal support to New Haven.
Yale University values its relationship and partnership with the City of New Haven. We care deeply about New Haven. When COVID-19 struck, we immediately established the Yale Community for New Haven Fund. Since March 2020, Yale has distributed over $2.7 million to our local nonprofits and organizations to support New Haven residents negatively impacted by the pandemic.
2. Yale should “settle fair contracts with its workers” and commit to not “getting rid of good union jobs” during ongoing negotiations with Locals 34 and 35.
Yale is currently engaged in contract bargaining with Locals 34 & 35. In addition, Yale has paid its staff their full pay and benefits through the pandemic, including premium pay for those reporting to campus during the first two-and-a-half months and full pay and benefits for more than 200 staff who are at home not working due to their age (over age 65) or an underlying health condition. Yale has continued pay and benefits despite the fact that a significant number of union staff have not been fully deployed since mid-March, given the change in Yale’s academic, patient care, and other services caused by the pandemic. Yale also has worked with our union partners to redeploy staff and temporary employees to meet new and unexpected work needs.
During the pandemic, Yale has continued its commitment to hiring New Haven residents, including keeping temporary staff paid for many weeks when their on-campus work was eliminated due to the pandemic. In a recent meeting with community leaders, the university provided detailed information about hiring of New Haven residents and reaffirmed its commitment to the New Haven Hiring Initiative. While hiring has slowed down, it will continue in the near term and we anticipate it will accelerate as we recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. Yale remains committed to hiring from the community, particularly neighborhoods of focus identified by the community.
3. Yale should recognize Local 33 as a graduate student-teacher union.
Graduate students at Yale are represented by the graduate student assembly. In 2018, UNITE HERE-Local 33 withdrew its petitions to the National Labor Relations Board to represent graduate student teaching fellows in eight of the 56 departments of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Yale is deeply committed to graduate student education, and to providing its teaching fellows with the mentorship and training necessary to complete their degrees and go on to rewarding careers.