Editor’s Note: Councilman Justin Brannan is a former shop steward who now represents District 43 in Brooklyn.
New York, NY – Each year, Labor Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on the importance of organized labor in providing basic rights and protections to workers everywhere. But in New York City, where essential workers are helping us dig out from Covid, we should brainstorm ways to become the “Union Town” we always talk about being.
To the extent that we’ve made it out of the first few waves of a global pandemic, we owe it all to New York City’s essential workers. Not only the workers who have administered vaccines and nurses who cared for us in hospitals, but the teachers who taught our children, the bus drivers who kept our city moving, the office cleaners, sanitation workers, police officers, and firefighters. There should be no doubt about it: if it weren’t for organized labor, there would not have been a recovery. And without the workers in our hotel, hospitality, and tourism industry, there will be no New York City comeback story. Given this, it should be a priority for the incoming Council to center organized labor in our work.
One could be forgiven for wondering why the Council does not take a more proactive role in strengthening organized labor in the first place. Of course, most members are in touch with unions to get their input and feedback on legislation or support their efforts on an individual member basis. But what role does the Council, as the city’s legislative body, play in the development and strengthening of organized labor itself? Right now, very little.
Part of the problem is that the Labor Committee – even when run by strong leaders who know the importance of organized labor like my friend and colleague Councilman Miller – has been defanged by the New York City Administrative Code, and Home Rule limitations prevent the Committee from hearing legislation that would go a long way to strengthening worker power. But we have an opportunity to fix that: the next Council class should partner with our colleagues in the New York State Legislature to enact changes to state labor law and the Charter to give us a supercharged Labor Committee.
If the City Council had a Labor Committee with real teeth, the Council could play an oversight role during union organizing drives within the five boroughs, which are thankfully happening with increasing frequency. The committee could evaluate whether companies and institutions are violating the NLRA and determine whether labor peace agreements are being honored. The committee could also evaluate ways to reward essential workers who shepherd our city through emergencies like the COVID19 pandemic. Should those workers be offered early retirement? Changes to their pay? Increased pension benefits? The committee could play a bigger role in determining what is feasible for the city to enact for its workers, and how best to honor frontline workers for their contributions.
A revved-up Labor Committee could also shed light on the way our city is using its colossal purchasing power as it relates to union-made goods and services. If New York City really is a union town, why would we be spending our tax dollars to buy anything – be it pencils or potato salad – from anti-union companies? Since 1993, the Supreme Court has held that, while local governments cannot compel companies to recognize unions, they can choose to only do business with companies that have labor peace agreements. The way a city spends its money directly reflects its values. A strengthened City Council Labor Committee could push bills and set policies to ensure we are leveraging our purchasing power and putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to being a Union Town.
Finally, this committee could also require and conduct worker utilization studies, which could determine the number of jobs, and the quality of jobs, that would be created by new developments in the city. It could determine how much city money goes toward union jobs, or whether our city’s investments are yielding strong enough returns for retired workers. Currently, the city spends hundreds of millions hiring outside consultants to do work that City employees could do for far less. It is imperative that we end this practice. A fired-up Labor Committee could do more to ensure the City relies on a highly trained workforce of public employees with deep knowledge of the tasks at hand while creating a smoother pathway to civil service jobs for New Yorkers.
While there is generally a consensus in the Council that unions play a critical role in our city, there has been less attention given to how it might be our responsibility to bolster these unions. Now, as our city battles the Delta variant, we need to remember that there can be no recovery without organized labor. If we truly talk about being a Union Town, we need to walk the walk, and give New York City’s legislative body the power to improve the rights of workers.