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New York Unions March on May Day

May 2, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
May Day has been celebrated for centuries as a traditional spring holiday, but was invested with political overtones when workers, struggling for the eight-hour workday, were fired on by the cops in Chicago in 1886 at Haymarket Square.

Although not officially recognized as a labor holiday in the United States as it is throughout the word, the New York City labor movement and a broad coalition of immigrant rights groups and OWS marched from Union Square to the MTA’s Headquarters to voice their protests over inequality and economic injustice.

Jason Ide, President of IBT Local 814, whose members still remain locked out by Sotheby’s, said, “If there was ever a time to bring May Day back to the U.S., now is that time. Workers are under attack all over America, both public and private. If there was ever a time to stand up, it’s now.”

LaborPress asked different union leaders what was the march’s main message and weather they were concerned they’d be branded as a bunch of reds for marching on May Day because millions of workers used to march in the former European socialist countries and also because President Obama is regularly castigated as a socialist.

Ide replied, “Our message is that working people have had enough. The employer offensive has gone on for too long. People call it class war. If there’s one side not fighting, it’s our side.”

Ide laughed over President Obama’s socialist label.

“It’s such a joke he’s being called a socialist. We are so far from even a European-style system. We don’t have a nationalized health care system and a safety net. Anytime someone tries to make any progress on social goals or policies, there’s a radical element that’ll taint them as socialist.”

He added, “If you really look at policy carefully, you’d see that nationalized health care, extending unemployment insurance and achieving full employment are all good ideas. These aren’t socialist policies, these are just good policies.”  

Of the different union leaders LaborPress spoke to Arthur Cheliotes of CWA Local 1180 probably had the sharpest class analysis on the issues facing workers and the labor movement.

Local 802 jazzes on May Day“People are starting to realize that the problems we face with international capital are international. Unless we deal with that on an international basis and support workers worldwide, we won’t be able to crawl out of the hole capital is burying us in. We’re joining here to celebrate May Day and commemorate the struggles in Chicago to demand a decent way of life.”

He also noted, “I’m not worried about being red-baited. I’m worried that the corporate media will not convey our message. But I don’t think for a moment that they would interpret what we’re doing here as being positive for our nation.”

In contrast, John Samuelsen, President of TWU Local 100, expressed a more trade unionist view of May Day’s significance.

“May Day for us is a remembrance of the fight for an eight-hour workday. When you see that bumper sticker that says, “From the folks who brought you the weekend,’ that’s what this is about.”

Samuelsen’s not worried about the labor movement being branded reds because, “this isn’t about socialism. The right-wingers have no idea what socialism is. They associate socialism with Sovietism, but that’s not the case.”

Anne Bove, a New York State Nurses Association Director, said that she and her fellow nurses are marching because “we’re looking to give forward.”

“When I was eight-years old my grandfather voted for Lyndon Johnson because of Johnson’s support for Medicare. He told my mother, ‘I’m not only voting for me, but I’m voting for her [Anne] so that when she reaches my age subsequently she’ll have benefits as well.”

She added, “A 28-year old nurse told me the other day, ‘Anne, what’s going on. We’re losing everything that was won the 60s.’ I don’t want to be part of a generation that got theirs and did nothing for future generations and that’s what this is about—the 99 percent is about our future and our country’s future.”Local 372 joins NY unions on May Day

Todd Weeks, Senior Business Representative for the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802 AFM, said his union marched on May Day because the importance of the day has receded in recent years, but is becoming important again because of the growing injustices.

Also, “We’re here to protest injustices perpetrated against jazz musicians in the City. We’re protesting against jazz club owners who routinely record musicians and then distribute the recordings without compensating the musicians.”

Weeks said the local’s primary demand is the formation of a pension. “The Broadway musicians and the Symphonic musicians get a great pension benefit, but we don’t have one. One thing the club owners can do is pay into the $2.1 billion American Federation of Musicians pension fund, but they’ve refused.”

He noted that jazz musicians, when they retire, have no security whatsoever. There are prominent musicians who have contributed to American culture but are left without a safety net.

“Let me give you one example. Trumpet player Clark Terry, who played with the Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestras, suffers from late-stage diabetes and just had his second leg amputated. We fundraised and got $16,000 to help him pay for his medical expenses.”

Santos Crespo, President of Local 372, said his union and the labor movement is marching on this year’s May Day because of the constant attacks on the City’s workforce, especially municipal employees and the attacks on workers around the country such as in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Crespo said this year’s May Day significance is that labor tends to succeed in coalition, such as with the immigrant community.

“They are the future union members of this City and country.”NYSNA May Day contingent

The other importance for this year’s May Day is to celebrate one of the accomplishments stemming from the protests in Chicago in 1886.

“It’s not just unions that benefit from the eight-hour workday, but every worker. Non-union workers are inclined not to appreciate the actions of the labor movement years ago, which laid the foundation for a reasonable workday, social security and safety measures,” said Crespo.

He also noted that Local 372’s message on this May Day is to stop attacking the workers. There’s enough of the economic pie for everybody, but the 1 percent wants it all.

Crespo isn’t worried about being red-baited, like President Obama, because “it has already happened. The labor movement’s roots stem from people who adhered to politically leftist ideas.”

“But how do you say that a lack of justice, a lack of equality and equal opportunity for all is to the left?”

Barbara Ingram-Edmonds, Director of Field Operations for DC 37, said she and DC 37 members are marching because “we’re facing major issues that affect working families and communities, from retirement security, to decent wages and fighting for collective bargaining rights.”

“In addition, we’re faced with challenges of paying for our children’s college tuition and child care cuts that’s affecting our sister council 1707.”

She added, “This May Day is important for everybody to come together as a coalition of labor, community groups, faith-based groups, concerned individuals and families to express their voices that things need to change.”

“DC 37’s message today is, stop demonizing us. Working families, both public and private sector need to be supported because we provide the critical services the City depends upon.”

Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said that this year’s May Day is particularly significant because there really is a new era dawning across the globe—from the Arab Spring to OWS to Wisconsin.

“The coming together of all these movements as one people’s movement is what differentiates this year’s May Day from recent May Day’s in New York.”

The NYTWA’s message, according to Desai, is that “we’re part of the 99 percent. Over 94 percent of taxi drivers are immigrants. They are some of the most exploited workers in the country and we’re still excluded from traditional labor laws because we’re considered independent contractors. If there’s any holiday that symbolizes our struggle, it’s today.” 

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