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No Ordinary Labor Day Celebration

No Ordinary Labor Day Celebration

September 5, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
New York’s labor unions from the public and private sectors and the building trades will be marching this Saturday to commemorate the 130th anniversary of Labor Day in the U.S. Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council, and Joshua Freeman, professor of history at Queens College and author of “Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II,” said the significance of this year’s march is measured by the importance of this year’s presidential election and the continuing attacks on unions.

Alvarez noted that working people can’t afford to forget the historical and traditional significance of Labor Day while also understanding the context within which the march is taking place.  

“We want to celebrate what working men and women mean to this country because I think it’s being lost. With the 2012 national elections, it makes this year’s parade even more significant than ever. Throughout the country and here in New York City in particular, we see a growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots and it’s time for us in labor to redouble our efforts to push and advocate for policies that lift up all working people and create opportunities across sectors,” said Alvarez.

As the city’s unemployment rate is over nine percent, Alvarez believes the clock will be turned back for working people if Mitt Romney is elected president.  

“The city is a microcosm of what’s gone wrong in the country—high levels of poverty, intolerable levels of unemployment and increasing income disparities. While we’ve made some progress, there is a lot of work to be done. We have to focus on creating good jobs with family-sustaining wages, decent benefits and make sure that we’re embracing policies that are going to lift up all workers and really create the broad-based prosperity that we’re going to need to get this city and country moving again.”

The theme characterizing this year’s march is “Building Our Future Together.” Alvarez explained the significance of the slogan is the unity the labor movement has displayed and continues to display for the different affiliates of the CLC, which was very evident during the Con Ed lockout when more than 10,000 union members gathered at Union Square on July 17 to show their support for the 8,500 members of the Utility Workers Union of America, Local 1-2.

Alvarez said, “We saw that unity on display in a very effective collaboration during the Con Ed lockout. That type of unity will need to be present as we move forward and deal with ever increasing pressures on public sector employees with respect to their benefits and the contracting out of services, and the pressures private sector employees are experiencing at the bargaining table,” such as with the Communication Workers of America in its struggle with Verizon for a new contract.

“The Verizon struggle is a classic example of placing outrageous and unreasonable demands on working people. We’re fully supportive of the CWA and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers,” Alvarez said.

The unity displayed for Local 1-2’s members is also being extended to previously marginalized workers in the low-wage sector, noted Alvarez.

“We have to build our future together with those workers who don’t have the benefit of a collective bargaining agreement. We’ve done a lot of work with community coalitions and their allies throughout the year. We want to embrace an agenda which includes the hopes and aspirations of all working people, not just those who have the benefit of a collective bargaining agreement. We really do have to get back to working together across sectors.”

Some of the best examples of where that unity is being built among traditionally underrepresented workers in the city’s workforce include taxi drivers of the Taxi Workers Alliance and car wash workers of the WASH New York campaign headed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“There are a slew of campaigns where we’re working with low-wage workers. These relationships send a strong message that we in labor will provide support for all working people because we see outrageous violations—wage and hour violations or safety and health protections—that are intolerable and we are going to make sure we stand with these workers in their fight. It’s very significant that we reached out to them and we look forward to working with the taxi alliance and car wash workers campaign in the future,” noted Alvarez.

Joshua Freeman said that the significance of Labor Day 2012 is reflected by the intense and unrelenting attacks on labor, particularly the public sector, which is different from previous years when private sector workers bore the brunt of corporate and right-wing attacks.

“It’s a very defensive climate for a lot of members of the labor movement, but there have also been impressive mobilizations in response in Wisconsin and Ohio. There’s a sense that the public sector is still pretty strong, but I think a big change nationally from 30 years ago is that public sector employees are the new target. Locally, our Governor has been extremely hard on state employees and their union contracts. Although there’s a Democratic administration in Albany, the current environment is particularly anti-public sector—all of that is the background for this year’s march.”

Freeman explained that public sector unions will only be able to survive via a resurgence of union representation in the private sector.

“Compared to the rest of the country, we still have a robust labor movement in New York City and State. But we shouldn’t lull ourselves into thinking that because we’re stronger than the rest of the country we’re in great shape. I think the public sector will be vulnerable in the long run unless we have 20 to 25 percent of workers back in private sector unions.”

When asked if the Governor is purposely pitting public and private sector unions against each other, Freeman said, “I think there’s some truth to that, absolutely. It’s not like everything the Governor does about labor or non-labor issues is something I necessarily think is bad. He’s done some excellent things. But, indeed, he may be driving a wedge.”

Freeman added, “I don’t think the mix the Governor has chosen is the only possible mix. He’s clearly concerned about jobs. But with the labor march coming up, there are hundreds of thousands of public employees without contracts and those with contracts often face years of declining wages because they have zero increases. It’s not a great time for labor.”

As Alvarez highlighted the importance of building relationships with new sectors of workers, Freeman also mentioned that the only way the labor movement can move forward, or even keep what it’s already got, is to rebuild its strength among new segments of the working people of the city—supporting union building among low-paid, immigrant and young workers.

“Initial steps have been taken and it’s hard, but that’s the road labor has to go rather than simply holding onto what it’s got. I see things happening that I like, such as the city’s Central Labor Council embracing groups like the Domestic Workers Union, the Taxi Workers Alliance and building relations with worker centers. I’d like to see a lot more of that. Some good things are happening, but it’s just so hard to tell what will be the larger political and economic environment and that will in part determine how well we do here in the city,” Freeman said.

On whether the re-election of President Obama or the election of Mitt Romney will make a difference for labor, Freeman said, “Labor will be facing an uphill battle no matter whose president. But it will be a much more uphill battle if Romney is the next president of the country. I don’t necessarily think the re-election of Obama will bring about a sudden improvement in conditions, but if he loses, then we’re all in bad shape.”

In the opening pages of his book, “Working-Class New York,” Freeman notes, “The cosmopolitanism, energy and sophistication of New York’s working population was a major factor in the city’s post-World II success in projecting itself as the global center of power, innovation and modernity.” But with the de-industrialization of the city’s economy, it seemed the city was no longer a blue-collar town.

However, Freeman mentioned that New York is not necessarily losing its working-class character.

“We’re growing in a different way. Clearly, there is less blue-collar work, especially factory work. But sometimes we’re not as aware of the new kinds of work. For example, the air freight industry is a huge industry and there are more people working in that industry than there ever were of workers working on the docks 50 years ago. But we don’t see it as much—they’re working in back buildings at JFK and Newark airports. New York has become less blue collar, but I wouldn’t say that working people are less important in the life of our city.”  

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