December 7, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
“We cannot let the 1 percent have everything. They have to share,” Kuba Brown told the crowd at LaborPress’s annual leadership awards Dec. 1. “Get off our asses and let’s fight.” Brown, head of Local 94 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, started off by joking about the grievance procedure—“we have to protect our knuckleheads, because they need a roof over their heads”—but then waxed serious, talking about the importance of learning union history.
America has lost its middle class, he said, because people forgot how they got there. Some 300 people filled the tenth floor of the New York City District Council of Carpenters headquarters for the event—a “100% union-owned and operated building,” noted Carpenters President Steve McInnis. The six honorees were Brown, AFSCME Local 372 President Shaun D. Francois I, Carpenters secretary-treasurer Joseph A. Geiger, and Michael Goodwin, president of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, for labor leadership; Thomas H. Canty, vice president of Empire BlueCross Blue Shield, for community leadership; and state Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie. New state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, the former co-president of SAG-AFTRA, and City Councilmember Daneek Miller also spoke. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was a major theme. “Anybody who works a 40-hour week or a 35-hour week should not have to live in poverty,” Heastie said.
A member of District Council 37 and the Organization of Staff Analysts before he was elected to the Assembly in 2000, he said he was proud of passing legislation to raise the minimum wage and make seasonal workers eligible for unemployment compensation. DC 37 head Henry Garrido, introducing Shaun Francois, said that the fight for $15 isn’t just about fast-food workers. More than 20,000 city employees, such as school cafeteria workers and crossing guards, still earn less, he said. Francois cautioned people to read the fine print in minimum-wage legislation. An increase that doesn’t happen until 2018 or 2021 won’t help very much, he said: “We need $15 now!” If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready,” he concluded, drawing a standing ovation. McInnis praised Geiger as “a soft-spoken guy, but he leads.” Building-trades unions are now negotiating with the real-estate industry over how much developers receiving the 421a tax subsidy for housing construction will be required to pay prevailing wage, and the de Blasio administration has indicated that constructing more below-market apartments is a bigger priority than having them built union.
That, McInnis said, presents an “unfair choice” between building affordable housing and union jobs—and “Joe refused to accept that. Developers “get over $1 billion a year in subsidies. There’s no reason they can’t have good-paying jobs, prevailing-wage jobs,” Geiger told the crowd. “If there wasn’t a union movement, there wouldn’t be a middle class in this country,” Thomas Canty said. He thanked unions for enabling him to grow up in comfort—his father and grandfather were members of Ironworkers Local 40 and IUOE Local 94—and said he was “very proud” of his son for going to Wisconsin to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-labor legislation in 2011. OPEIU secretary-treasurer Richard Lanigan called Michael Goodwin a “prolific organizer” whose “creativity, determination, and a real organizer’s mindset” had helped the union grow by 30% over the last 20 years. Goodwin, on last, said the others had already covered what he wanted to say, so he stressed the importance of “labor communications”—having good pro-labor news media.