May 19, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
The Bronx is one of the most nation’s most unionized counties, and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. celebrated that fact May 15 with a Bronx Week Labor Breakfast at Borough Hall. About 150 people attended, including union leaders and local elected officials.
Diaz praised the labor movement for getting involved with issues that affect more people that just their members, such as raising the minimum wage, marriage equality, and affordable housing—going back to unions building the Amalgamated Housing and Concourse Village nonprofit co-ops, which are now home to more than 3,300 households in the borough. He also noted that the struggle for the city’s living-wage law began over a proposal to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory, and that two former AFL-CIO presidents, George Meany and John Sweeney, grew up in the Bronx.
Mario Cilento, head of the state AFL-CIO, also grew up in the Bronx—long enough ago, he joked, so that he can point to the place on Fordham Road that used to be the Alexander’s department store. Thirty-one percent of working people who live in the Bronx are union members, he added—more than the state’s nation-leading percentage, and almost three times the national rate.
Labor has won several legislative victories in New York in the last year, Cilento said: raising the state’s minimum wage; raising the maximum unemployment benefits for the first time in 14 years, from $405 a week to $786 over the next 13 years; a 50% increase in workers’ compensation benefits; and the Safe Patient Handling Bill, limiting how much health-care workers can lift, which he said will “revolutionize” work in hospitals and nursing homes.
Raising both the minimum wage and union members’ wages is “the key to a good economy for all of us,” said Assembly Labor Committee chair Carl E. Heastie.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 president John Samuelson, who once worked the tracks on the Pelham line, noted that 8,000 of the union’s 39,000 members live in the Bronx. He also urged the state legislature to pass a bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Walter Mosley and state Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein, that would require the Transit Authority to install silent alarms and partitions to protect drivers on city buses. An average of three bus drivers are assaulted every week, he said.