June 10, 2015
By Marc Bussanich
New York, NY—Public and private sector labor leaders were honored last week at LaborPress’ 4th annual labor leader awards ceremony. Some warned about the continuing threats to public education, others about the daily shots mainstream journalism lobs against organized labor in the press.
First at bat, Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, who absolutely thanked the heavens for LaborPress’ daily coverage of labor’s plight.
“Clearly, we have our struggles. New York City is no different than any other city in the country, and New York State is no different than any other state in the country—labor is under assault. We face it every day as labor leaders and our members face it everyday. Our country still offers great opportunity, but there are special interests in this country that really want to take that opportunity away,” said LaBarbera. “The middle class is what built this country. At the beginning of the 20th century there was extreme wealth and extreme poverty in this country, but then from the 1930s through the 1960s the labor movement grew so that people can be represented at the workplace, that they could have good and fair wages, health care for their families and retirement security so that they could retire with dignity at the end of their careers. These are the things as a labor movement that we stand for and they are things that we have to protect.”
LaBarbera also noted that the building trades have been forging new relationships to address the issues of all New York City workers.
“But we also have to advocate for those who don’t have an opportunity to be part of the labor movement. And that’s what we’re doing in the building trades. Over the last two years we’ve formed community relationships; we now advocate for the interests of all construction workers, and frankly all workers in this city. That was evidenced on April 15 for the Fight for $15, where ironworkers, carpenters, sheet metal workers, operating engineers, teamsters and plumbers marched shoulder to shoulder with fast food workers. We recognize the importance of a united labor movement, and raising standards up for everyone,” LaBarbera said.
He then expressed anger and frustration at how the mainstream media portrays organized labor, which ultimately undermines labor’s message.
“The message is often skewed in mainstream journalism. Everyday there’s another article whether it’s in the New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that takes shots at organized labor. It’s interesting because it reveals that there are special interests that are trying to control the message. They have their think tanks, like the Koch brothers, that come up with ways to undermine and undercut the importance of organized labor. The importance of what organized labor stands for is equity in the workplace,” said LaBarbera.
Next up was the president of the biggest public sector union in New York—Danny Donohue of the Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000. He too noted that organized labor has a big fight on its hands.
“We are in a fight, it’s a fight that we can only lose if we do nothing. The strength of this labor movement in this city is what built this city and built by not only the building trades and labor leaders, but also people that swept streets, took care of people in nursing homes and took care of people who needed help every day,” said Donohue. “We represent 300,000 civil service workers—truck drivers, doctors, nurses—people of all types. But this is all of our fight, our city and our country and the only way anybody is going to take anything away from any of us is if we just give it up. And that will never happen on our watch.”
Another public sector union president, Ernest Logan of the Council of School Administrators and Supervisors followed Donohue. He said that despite the union’s small size relative to other unions, nonetheless it has a big impact in city politics.
“We’re probably one of the smallest unions in the city. We represent about 6,000 active members and 9,000 retirees, but we impact 1.1 million school children. We’re the ones who really impact what happens for the future,” said Logan.
Then he recounted his union’s struggles during the Michael Bloomberg era.
“Too often we take for granted that the kids are going to be all right. We started to go to sleep in this city. And for 12 years we were in the fight of our lives. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg once said to me that principals should not be unionized because they’re bosses. I looked at him and smiled, and then I went back to my folks and said, ‘Let’s build us a war chest, because if he’s coming after us we’re going to have to fight him.’”
Logan then echoed the other speakers’ main points about organized labor sticking together, but he also issued a criticism to those not supporting public education.
“We are one family. The reason that I’m successful today is because of the labor movement. I’m a kid from the projects. I’m a kid that benefited from public education, and we need to continue to fight to keep education public. But many of us here have allowed the idea of the money to take over public education, and once that happens we’ll never be able to succeed. As long as we don’t fight to keep education public for all children, giving everyone an opportunity, we will lose.”