Municipal Government

What Does New York City Owe to Its Public Workers?

July 17, 2013
By Barbara Kestenbaum

I am a retired city employee who worked in the Department of Education for twenty-three years as a Senior School Neighborhood Worker.  In my job, which gave me great pride, I was responsible for making sure that the children of Manhattan who were visually impaired or had hearing problems were given the services they needed—including access to speech teachers and occupational and physical therapy. 

It matters very much to me that children are able to get an education and to participate in the classroom. The work I did was and is representative of the thousands of city workers who take care of the needs of New York City’s children.

That is why I strongly object to the city’s demands for givebacks from the 300,000 public sector union workers: the women and men who do so much for New York and its people.  They have been working under expired contracts for five years now.  Yet the city insists it will sign new contracts only if the unions agree to the givebacks!

Public Sector workers—teachers, firefighters, police officers, traffic guards, lunchroom workers, sanitation workers—keep our great city working efficiently.  When Super Storm Sandy devastated the city, it was public sector union workers including these who were at the forefront, working day and night to return vital services to the people of New York.  Hospital employees evacuated hundreds of patients without a single casualty, and sanitation workers labored tirelessly removing debris from our streets.  Teachers made sure their students continued to learn, even while some schools were badly damaged.    Union workers sheltered the homeless, keeping them out of harm’s way, and union members protected animals at the Coney Island Aquarium, making sure they were properly cared for.  These facts matter!

As a former city worker, I know how important regular wage increases and health benefits are to a person whose salary is not substantial to begin with—especially for women and men raising families.  However, the city claims that if it signs a new contract with public sector unions, it will be without any retroactive raises.  And this administration wants public sector workers to pay more for their health care insurance.  Meanwhile, the city has spent immense sums of taxpayers’ dollars on corporate tax breaks, especially for real estate, and for outsourcing city services.

At a June rally in front of City Hall, Althea Appleton, Local 371 of District Council 37, expressed the frustration and anger of working without a new contract:  “ I have nothing left at the end of the month, no money to even eat!  The cost of living is rising, but my paycheck has stayed the same for the last four years.”

And Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, writes (NY Daily News 6/24/13):  “Since fiscal year 2005, the city has had annual budget surpluses ranging from $2 billion to well over $4 billion.”   What does the city do with this surplus?   Does it go to its dedicated hard-working employees?  No, instead Mulgrew points to the “$200 million annual carried interest [tax] break that goes to hedge funds [and the] hundreds of millions in property tax benefits granted through the city’s Industrial and Commercial Abatement and 421-a programs.”  “These tax breaks,” he stated, “are now worth almost $3 billion.”  And Mulgrew reminded us about cost over-runs citing CityTime, a project that “started out with a projected cost of $68 million, ballooned to a $750 million project” and at the end of the day, “still requires [more] outside contactors to finish the job.”

In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, titled “Our Economy: The Failure of Ill Will,” Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, explains why there are fierce and continuing attacks on public sector unions:

“Today we have an America in which thousands of businesses simply are no more …[and] remaining businesses trying to make profit by using “cheap” foreign labor, or by paying Americans less and less (and attempting to kill unions in order to do so).

Because of this failure…there has been a huge effort in the last decade to privatize publicly run institutions.  The technique is to disseminate massive propaganda against the public institutions, and also do what one can to make them fail, including through withholding funding.  Eminent among such institutions are the public schools and the post office.  The desire is to place them in private hands—not for the public good, not so that the American people can fare well—but…1) to provide new means for private profits to be made—which is necessary if profit economics is to continue at all; and 2) to have people feel that the non-profit or public way of owning and employing does not work and that the only way things can possibly be run is through the profit system!

For the same purpose, we have municipalities giving tax breaks and subsidies to private companies, and handing over public jobs to private firms, while also trying to slash the hard-earned pensions of public employees.”

We believe that this clear explanation of what is happening now can hearten unions to oppose these actions even more effectively, because they are so hurtful to unions and therefore to Americans everywhere.

July 17, 2013

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