September 3, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
“I’m running to take on income inequality and climate change, which I think are the two big moral—and really, existential—challenges that we face in society,” says Pete Sikora, one of three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in Brooklyn’s 52nd Assembly District.
Sikora, a research economist and political director for the Communications Workers of America, seeks to succeed Joan Millman in the district, which includes downtown Brooklyn and the surrounding neighborhoods out to Park Slope and Prospect Heights. He “caught the activist bug in college” and went on to work for the New York Public Interest Research Group, where he helped organize the coalition that got the city Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act passed over Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto in 2004.
He believes New York State could reduce both income inequality and carbon-dioxide emissions with one program: requiring mandatory energy-efficiency upgrades for buildings. This, he says, would “trigger an enormous amount of retrofits” and thus create “tens of thousands of good, sustainable, mostly union jobs.”
The state would not have to pay for that work, he says, because landlords and homeowners would save enough on heating and electric bills for the improvements to “pay for themselves within five years.” The most it would have to do is create a “backstop financing agency” to provide loans to owners with shaky credit.
These projects—energy audits and fixing windows, seals, caulking, and roofs—are now done much more routinely than they were 15 or 20 years ago, he adds, but a mandatory state program would make the number of them big enough to create jobs and cut carbon pollution significantly.
Sikora’s platform also calls for strengthening unions—but “labor laws are toothless in America” and the state government can’t directly settle labor disputes, he notes. So, he says, the state needs to find “creative ways” to help indirectly. For example, it could repeal the property-tax exemption given to Madison Square Garden, owned by Cablevision and its “ruthless union-buster” CEO, Jim Dolan.
In construction, he says, simply enforcing safety and tax laws would protect good-paying jobs in an industry that’s “mostly out of control.” It would rein in the growing numbers of nonunion contractors who often don’t pay their taxes, don’t pay workers’ compensation, don’t have the right safety standards, “and therefore can underbid the union contractors by a lot.”
He also supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and criticizes Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s cuts to state workers’ pensions. “We’re going to have a terrible retirement crisis in this country, because defined-benefit retirement plans are going away,” he says. What New York State could do, he contends, is create state-managed defined-benefit plans that both individuals and employers could contribute to—which would help workers retire in more secure ways than “completely inadequate” 401(k) plans do.
If elected, he says, he would become the second Assemblymember with a union background; the only current one is Samuel Roberts of Syracuse, a former United Auto Workers official.
“I think it’s really important to have someone who really understands our issues,” Sikora says. “Unions are the only thing holding up the middle class, keeping working people from getting ground into the dirt. We can’t fail.”