By Marc Bussanich
LaborPress City Editor
As New York has the highest unionized work force in the country, the paradoxical question, “What’s Wrong with New York?” was asked yesterday, October 19, 2011, at the Murphy Institute to learn why working New Yorkers have continued to vote for Republican mayoralty.
Moderated by veteran journalist Tom Robbins, panel members John Mollenkopf of the Center for Urban Research, Brad Lander, Chair of the City Council Progressive Caucus and Ed Ott, Distinguished Lecturer at Murphy and former executive director of the Central Labor Council, each gave their reasons for the conundrum.
Mollenkopf believes one reason why New York voters have voted Republican in mayoral politics is because a sizable demographic of older, white-trade unionists who live in the outer boroughs tend to vote conservatively, as do Jewish voters and white-ethnic Italians, who have been voting Republican for a long time.
Mollenkopf added, “Obviously white working class voters see Democrats as too liberal on immigration reform and too eager to spend.”
Ott pointed to the recent special election in the 9th Congressional District as an example of conservative voters voting Republican because they were offended by Obama’s call for Israel to return to pre-1967 borders and by Democrats support for same-sex marriage.
But Mollenkopf said a caveat is that the traditional white conservative voters are becoming the minority as different immigrant groups, such as Russian, Columbian, Chinese and West Indian communities now make up 30 percent of the voting electorate.
But this new immigrant electorate poses its own challenges because the new generation of immigrants “doesn’t fit into the old-fashioned Democrat coalition of whites, blacks and Latinos,” said Mollenkopf.
He added that while the new immigrants are in favor of government social services because they’re doing poorly economically, the irony is they tend to vote Republican because they are socially conservative, which Republicans have exploited to maximize votes.
While Mollenkopf elaborated on the problems and challenges of building a progressive coalition, specific solutions for coalition building were lacking.
“We need to get our house in order to avoid fragmentation. We need dialogue among African-Americans, Latinos, white liberals, unions and the new immigrant communities,” he said.
Ott said that labor missed an opportunity for coalition building when it didn’t take the lead on the wage disparity between men and women. “Rather than labor leading, the movement to eliminate wage disparity became primarily a woman’s issue.”
Mollenkopf emphasized that whatever the coalition’s political platform, it has to reflect general demands without focusing on specific demands of each coalition block.
Ott said labor organizations have their work cut out for them to build political coalitions among different constituencies. He doesn’t believe there is a progressive dominant force in the city right now to challenge the austerity crusade, although the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement could help in uniting and launching that force.
Ott also believes for too long labor has relied too heavily on political strength rather than allowing members to engage in collective action. He lamented the demise of the private sector unions when confrontations with employers usually resulted in economic gains.
“Workers in the private sector used to engage in battles and confrontations on the shop floor. But as we lost industrial jobs, unions turned to political lobbying to influence electoral races.”
Ott also noted that labor is experiencing a period of transition, which is forcing it to face the hard reality of a diminished unionized private sector workforce. “Many current labor leaderships have been around for too long, and new voices are now needed to change that reality.”
Ott pointed to the mostly young protestors of OWS who are trying to come to terms with the new economic realities. “The grievances OWS is expressing, such as the increasing inequality gap, will force labor to go beyond bread and butter issues and figure out the solutions required to build a more progressive society.”