May 2, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
With “dignity” and “respect” the words wrapping the twin themes of labor and immigrant rights, thousands of people packed several blocks of Broadway May 1 for the city’s now-annual May Day rally.
Organized by a coalition of unions and other labor, immigrant, and community groups, the event began with a late-afternoon rally on Broadway outside City Hall Park. It ended with a march to Bowling Green, led by a marching band from Musicians Local 802, a line of three taxis and one black cab festooned with “Union Power” signs, and a loud orange-shirted contingent from Laborers Local 78.
“Every person that works should have a decent wage, pension, health care, dignity, and respect, and should come out one day a year to tell the employers we won’t settle for anything less,” Laborers Local 79 staffer Anthony Williamson told LaborPress. “Immigrants too should come out,” he added; he’s originally from Guyana.
“I am the son of an undocumented immigrant,” said CWA Local 1180 president Arthur Cheliotes, whose father came from Greece in 1926.
Raising the minimum wage, one of the rally’s main demands, “cuts to the heart of income inequality,” said Central Labor Council president Vincent Alvarez. He called Senate Republicans’ filibustering a bill to increase it “an absolute disgrace,” and the Obama administration’s 2 million deportations of immigrants “a moral crisis.”
Public Advocate Letitia James, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Comptroller Scott Stringer also spoke, along with Assemblymembers Felix Ortiz and Francisco Moya. “It’s about dignity and respect,” James called out over a Local 802 soul-groove band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“It’s a day to stand up for working people all across the nation, but particularly in New York City,” she said backstage. The just-announced contract between the city and the United Federation of Teachers, she added, “sets a good precedent.” It includes retroactive pay, has raises even if they’re small, “not a lot of givebacks,” and shows a relationship of “mutual respect” between the city government and the union.
The contingent of City University adjunct professors in the crowd was looking for that kind of respect. The Professional Staff Congress carried banners demanding a raise to $5,000 a course.
Meg Feeley, an English adjunct at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, said she makes about $30,000 a year for teaching eight to 12 courses, the same workload as professors who make more than twice as much, and though she’s been teaching for 12 years, she has no security and no benefits. Adjuncts teaching CUNY’s remedial classes are a “third tier,” she added—they make half of what she does.
“Workers of New York City unite—we have nothing to lose but oppression, low wages, and discrimination,” urged Local 1199 SEIU vice president Estela Vazquez.
Amid the choruses of “si se puede,” some union leaders sounded notes of warning. Unions won workers the eight-hour day, said Laborers Local 79 business manager Mike Prohaska, but today they’re fighting just to retain the rights they have, such as the safety protections of the state’s scaffold law. “Unions today are an endangered species,” chimed in Edison Severino of Laborers Local 78. “We don’t need union members, we need union militants.”
‘We have to do things differently if we’re going to stanch the bleeding of wages and benefits,” said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association.
The rally’s organizers were highly pleased. “It’s just wonderful when you can have so many diverse unions—the Ironworkers, 1199, the taxi workers, the UFT,” said Kevin P. Lynch of the Left Labor Project. “This is the year that labor-sponsored May Day became a permanent thing in New York.”
It was a “historic day,” Sonia Ivany of the New York City Labor Council for Latin American Advancement added as the march dispersed at Bowling Green.