July 3, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
Labor unions have a “bright future” because they’re necessary, says District Council 1707 director Raglan George.
“We set the standards for the working people in this country. There’s a need for us,” says George, whose union represents about 20,000 workers in New York, most in nonprofit social-service agencies the city hires. “You’re going to see a big change.”
“They make us the enemy because we try to keep up with the cost of living,” says Lillian Roberts, head of DC 37, the largest city workers’ union, talking to LaborPress after a luncheon the two unions held June 28. “I don’t think it’s going to be any worse than it is now.”
After 12 years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg—“he hates unions,” says George—the two hope that the next mayor will help them change things. The unions were able to fend off cuts to child-care funding in this year’s city budget, George says, but the child-care workers DC 1707 represents haven’t had a contract or gotten a raise in eight years.
DC 37’s main priority is working against the outsourcing and privatization of city services, says Roberts. In 2009, the union issued a report saying that almost half of the “controllable spending” in the city’s budget, and 15 percent of the total, went to a “shadow government” of private contractors. If the city used its own clerks, custodians, and computer technicians, the report said, it could save hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If there’s no money, we’re prepared to tell our members,” says Roberts. “We’re fighting the waste, services being cut, people being laid off.”
For example, she says, Madison Square Garden doesn’t pay taxes, and the city is giving landlords $3,000 a month to house homeless families instead of building permanent housing.
Working with Comptroller John Liu on these issues led to DC 37’s endorsing him for mayor, says Roberts. “We came to respect him,” she explains, citing Liu’s investigating the more than $500 million lost to waste and fraud in CityTime, the privately developed effort to computerize the city’s payroll.
DC 1707 hasn’t endorsed a mayoral candidate yet. But with every city employees’ union now working without a contract, George says, the next mayor will have to find money to give them long-overdue raises—and as comptroller, Liu might “know where the bodies are buried” financially.
While many have said that the city’s unions endorsing different candidates has diminished labor’s clout in the mayoral race, Roberts brushes that off. “That’s democracy,” she says. The unions all “feel the same assault,” and will collaborate on other matters, adds George.
Both believe unions need to be part of a bigger social movement, on issues ranging from stop-and-frisk policing and privatized prisons to the city’s cutting library budgets while increasing funds for charter schools.
“We’re not connecting the dots,” says Roberts. “It’s a whole world of viciousness. Somebody’s got to turn it around.”