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New York Labor Voices

September 10, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
 
Members of New York’s diverse unions on Saturday, September 8 marched, held up banners, union flags and political messages, and rode Harley Davidson motorcycles and drove flatbed trucks and mobile cranes up 5th Avenue to celebrate Labor Day’s 130th anniversary. Leaders and members spoke on a range of issues, such as the significance of this year’s Labor Day, the national election and support for the Chicago Teachers Union who might be on strike when this story goes to Web. LaborPress was there to capture their messages.

No economically-insecure laborer himself, Mayor Michael Bloomberg nonetheless attended the parade and said, “I want to say to New York’s working men and women that Labor Day is what makes America. America is a place where people always come, not because it’s easy, but because of our meritocracy. If you work hard, maybe not you, but your kids or grandkids can grow up to be president of the U.S. That’s been the history of America.”

He noted that it would be hard to manage the city if public city workers weren’t organized.

“It is government’s job to try to make their life as good as possible so they can concentrate on their jobs but it must be consistent with what taxpayers are willing to pay.”

He alluded to the squabbles that come up every year when a new budget must pass.

“It’s hard to argue that we don’ have pretty good relations with public sector unions. Sometimes we yell and scream at each other.” But he shrugged off the disputes as merely posturing to get ready for negotiations.

He was asked about last week’s job numbers (U.S. employers added 96,000 jobs). “They clearly show we’re not creating enough jobs. But when you compare that to numbers in New York City our unemployment is up. Why? Because more people want to come here and work. There are more jobs available today and more people working today in the city than ever before in our history. It’s exactly the reverse of what’s going on in the rest of the country.”

Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers and the 2012 parade chairman, said that his union has been in contact regularly with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). As the majority of labor will be supporting President Obama in his re-election bid, a CTU strike will be embarrassing for the Democrats. A CTU-produced video (http://bit.ly/Q7M6rA) shows how Democratic Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff to President Obama, Rahm Emanuel, is relying on consultants and an assortment of AstroTurf organizations who appear to be grassroots movements but whose real aim is to pursue a corporate agenda of privatizing education in Chicago.

“It’ll be a shame if they strike. In Illinois it’s not illegal to strike. In New York, the Taylor Law does not allow us to strike. But I’m hoping that the mayor and the Chicago School Board come to their senses. We have people who come into office who just don’t understand schools. They say, ‘We need a longer school day.’ The CTU in return says, ‘How is the longer school day going to be meaningful for the kids?’ It was the right question to ask, but now they’re getting attacked,” said Mulgrew.

He added that UFT brothers and sisters will be there for the CTU. In the UFT contingent, Sandy, a 26-year teacher in the city said in response to the possibility of a CTU strike, “more power to them.” And Marie, a 13-year school secretary said she and her union colleagues need a new contract. “We haven’t had one for several years. We want what’s best for kids and what’s best for us,” while a colleague bellowed “Go Chicago!”

Some union members held up signs or wore T-shirts expressing their support for President Obama’s re-election.

Kuba Brown, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 94 and recording secretary of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, said that “Only a Democrat will support labor, Davis Bacon and the Triborough Amendment. The Republicans want to eat that all up and get rid of it.”

Chris Erikson, business manager for IBEW Local 3, noted that the President has done everything he possibly can. “The initiatives he tried to implement to get our members back to work were thwarted by Tea Party Republicans. They don’t want this economy to move forward and it’s going to backfire on them. President Obama has done more than any other president has done for labor in a very long time. We support him completely.”

Bill’s been an IBEW Local 3 member for 38 years who held up a sign, “Something’s Gone Awry in America.” He said it reflects the growing disparity between the middle class and 1 percent, which is really hurting working people. He works in the construction division, which has about 10,000 members. Unfortunately, about 30 to 35 percent of that membership is either on furlough or unemployed. Bill believes that Obama’s re-election will at least keep the country on a slow, however painfully, but steady path of improvement. “If Romney is elected, labor will take a step back.”

Henry Garrido, Associate Director for DC 37, said Obama’s re-election is critical to labor.

“The direction of the country is at stake. Health care, immigration and affordable tuition are just some of the issues at stake in the upcoming election. Labor has to come out strong and send a clear message that we are in support of Obama and his policies. So this Labor Day march has a greater significance.”

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, believes the choice is clear in November but was disappointed that there was little mention of the plight of workers and the poor at the recent Democratic National Convention.

“President Obama has such a strong mandate from the people that he should have been very aggressive early on in his administration. The candidate Obama is who should have ruled the White House for the past 3 ½ years. But Romney will sell this country even more to corporate America. The Republican Party wants to tax the poorest, while giving tax cuts to the very wealthy. The party, even compared to Reagan’s time, has become so deeply dehumanizing and really just a cruel party that truly hates the working-class and poor. It would be dangerous times if Romney and [Paul] Ryan get elected,” said Desai.

John Samuelsen, Transport Workers Union Local 100’s President, noted how this year’s Labor Day march has a lot of significance for public sector workers in the city.

“We’re still in a situation where a huge number of state workers have been saddled with concessionary contracts. But we still remain resolute that we won’t accept that kind of deal. We’re here to say we’re not taking that deal and that the MTA and the State have to pump money into this contract,” said Samuelsen.

He also noted that bargaining has been on the difficult side and while MTA and State officials have been saying publicly there’ll be a contract by the end of the year, “the truth of the matter is they can’t have a contract unless they pump in money.”

James is a six-year electrician of Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America and is thrilled to be back to work.

“It feels great,” said James. “It’s unfair that new hires [after July 1, 2012] will not be getting a defined pension benefit. Their futures just got a little darker.”

Another Local 1-2 member whose name is also James, has been working for Con Edison for 8 years. He acknowledged it’s unfortunate that new hires will not receive a defined pension benefit, but noted that defined pension benefits just aren’t prevalent as they used to be.

“I don’t know what we can do about it. That’s the sad part. But I am happy with the contract as a whole. We got the basics of what we were negotiating, although there are portions I’m not happy with.”

A recent report produced by the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, “The State of the Unions 2012,” notes, “Although relative to the nation as a whole, organized labor remains strong in New York City and State, significant erosion has occurred there in recent years.”

But Mario Cilento, NYS AFL-CIO’s President, said “We have 2 ½ million members in the state. Labor Day is a day we show our pride, our solidarity and our unity and look back at what we’ve accomplished but also to look forward to doing more to meet the needs of New York’s working men and women.”   marc@laborpress.org  

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