LaborPress

NEW YORK, N.Y. – You won’t have much luck trying to pay for groceries by telling the cashier you’re an “essential worker,” District Council 37 executive director Henry Garrido told several hundred city workers at a rally in Foley Square June 16, before leading a chant of “show me the money.”

DC 37 members rally for livable wages and benefits at a rally held in Foley Square June 16. Photos by Steve Wishnia.

The union’s 100,000 members, who encompass clerks, hospital workers, librarians, probation officers, sewage-treatment workers, and 911 operators — have been working under an expired contract since May 2021, and negotiations with the city have not yet started. Money is a big issue.

“We’re not getting the raises that make a difference. Everything is going up but our paychecks,” DC 37 president Shaun D. Francois told LaborPress before the rally.

Francois, head of DC 37’s Local 372, which represents school employees such as health aides, lunchroom workers, and crossing guards, says that what his members are paid would be a good salary in Georgia, but not in a city where studio apartments cost $2,000 a month. It would take $30 an hour for a two-person household to have a decent standard of living here, he continued.

“Are we going to get that? No.” he said. “We’re going to get the best we can and the most we can.”

“The $15 minimum just isn’t cutting it,” he told the crowd later.

DC 37 treasurer Maf Misbah Uddin, also president of the accountants’ Local 1407, laid out the numbers. Under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, city workers went 4½ years without a raise. Under Bill de Blasio, they got raises of 1% to 3% a year, compounding to about 18% over eight years, when inflation over the same period was 27%. This year, inflation is running at an annual rate of 8%, and “we have more homeless in our union than ever before,” he said.

The city’s pension fund got a 24% return on its investment last year, so there are funds available, he added.

“I love what I do, but we need more pay,” a sterile processing technician at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn told LaborPress, asking to remain anonymous. 

“We’re not getting the raises that make a difference. Everything is going up but our paychecks.” — DC 37 president Shaun D. Shaun Francois

The “central sterile” unit is “the heart of the hospital,” she said. “If we shut down, the operating room shuts down.” The workers there take used, bloody surgical instruments, wash and sterilize them, and repackage them so they can be used again. They also fill the “crash carts,” carts full of the equipment needed to resuscitate people going through cardiac or respiratory arrest. It takes two hours to pack a neonatal crash cart, she said, which contains things like endotracheal tubes, needed to save babies from suffocating from “meconium aspiration” — defecating in the womb while being born, and inhaling a mix of feces and amniotic fluid.

The technicians need to be certified, but their salaries are often in the $39,000 to $45,000 range. “We are underpaid,” the woman said.

“Money’s a big issue, obviously, with the rate of inflation,” Garrido told LaborPress before the rally. But healthcare coverage, safety, and hazard pay are also important issues. More than 500 DC 37 members have died of COVID-19, he said, and thousands more have long-term effects from being infected — particularly respiratory therapists, who worked directly with sick patients during the pandemic.

“It doesn’t mean anything if you give workers a decent raise and then take away their healthcare,” he added.

The rally also drew a few dozen retired city workers protesting the city’s attempt to switch their coverage from traditional Medicare to private Medicare Advantage plans, which are cheaper in the short run, but have more bureaucratic barriers and offer less universal coverage than Medicare. 

“We want to remind them that they’re entitled to a good-pay contract, but not on the backs of retirees,” said Marianne Pizzitola, president of the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees, which has filed a lawsuit that has so far stalled the switch. 

Garrido said DC 37 endorsed the change last year because health-insurance premiums had “skyrocketed” and “we’re looking at a financial cliff.”

Other speakers stressed DC 37’s “we make the city run” slogan, and that its members had kept city services going during the pandemic. “We were at the building while everyone else was home,” Local 372 member Carlos Sanchez, a community associate at a Manhattan high school catering to Spanish-speaking immigrants, told the crowd.

“We cleaned bedpans. We protected children. We protected adults,” declared Anthony Wells, president of Local 371, the Social Service Employees Union.

Addressing Mayor Eric Adams, he added, “We helped put you there. Come to the table with an offer that makes sense.”

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