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In a Six-Day Strike, Bronx Produce Workers Doubled Their Raise and Inspired New York

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Drivers and warehouse workers who feed New York City have won their strike. After six days off the job, the strikers at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx ratified a contract that doubled management’s wage offer and defeated a health care cost increase.

The 1,400 workers at the world’s largest wholesale produce market, members of Teamsters Local 202, are responsible for packing and delivering 60 percent of the fruits and vegetables that go to restaurants and grocery stores in New York City.

The unit is comprised of 14 different companies that bargain a contract together. Before the strike, the employers were offering a raise of just 32 cents an hour, and wanted to pass on to workers an increase in health care costs.

The strikers demanded a $1-an-hour raise and no increased cost for health care. They pointed out that they have been working throughout the pandemic, putting their lives at risk. Ten workers have died of Covid since the pandemic began.

“The companies stopped providing PPE [personal protective equipment] months ago, back in September,” said Frankie, a Local 202 member I met on the picket line, who has been with his company for 28 years.

“They don’t even require workers to wear masks at work,” he said. “They also took the handwashing stations out back in September. It’s like they decided that Covid was over.

“Meanwhile the companies received $15 million in PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans each! I’m striking to show my daughters that just because we are poor does not mean we don’t stand up for what we deserve.”

ARRESTED ON MLK DAY

The workers called the strike on a Sunday night, January 17, after negotiations broke down. They started to picket both entrances to the Hunts Point Market.

The next evening, police showed up in riot gear and announced that any workers continuing to picket in the entrances would be arrested. The workers kept their picket lines moving until a group of around 50 police officers rushed them and arrested five people.

“It is outrageous that after being called essential heroes for months, several of our members were arrested while peacefully protesting for a raise today,” said Local 202 President Danny Kane in a statement. “These are the essential workers who went to work every day through the worst of the pandemic to feed New York. All they are asking for is a dollar-an-hour raise so they can feed their families too. The fact that they were arrested on Martin Luther King Day reminds us what side of history we are on.”

Videos of the police attacking the striking workers soon went viral, and the community responded with an outpouring of solidarity. Major support came from the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, which set up a table to keep the strikers fed and warm, and collected donations totaling more than $31,000 that went to things like firewood, hand warmers, and hot food.

The workers continued to picket behind the barricades that the police had set up on both sides of the entrance. They resorted to shouting down scabs and co-workers who were crossing the picket line. The police attempted to stop the strikers from trying to talk people out of crossing the line, in some cases physically escorting them back to the barricades.

The police continued to be a presence and were accused of targeting the night shift, where most workers were Black and Brown and the white leadership was visibly absent. Some workers were eager to continue to picket in the entrance, while some of the union leadership urged them to be patient and let leaders handle the situation.

The workers received a number of visits from local politicians, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who does not represent the district but lives nearby. Teamster leaders and rank and file were overwhelmed by the support; many visited the table to thank the supporters, and said things like, “We wouldn’t be able to still be out here if it wasn’t for you guys.”

The picket line ran 24/7; people took the same shifts they normally would work. Many of the workers mentioned that this was their first time striking—but that they felt it had been a long time coming.

“Every contract we talk about striking, but we never do,” said Jason, a packer who has been with his company for seven years. “This time was different. In 2021, in the middle of a pandemic and they’re saying we are essential and all of that, so why not pay us the dollar?”

‘WE KNOW THEY NEED US’

By Wednesday, union leaders announced that they were back at the negotiating table, and workers were anticipating a deal soon. “Yesterday, a whole train full of produce from Ohio turned around and refused to cross the line,” a driver named Jose told me that day. He has been with his company for 35 years.

“The guys that they are trying to bring in to do our jobs don’t know kale from spinach,” he said. “The food will go bad waiting for someone to unpack, and they can’t take those losses for too long. They think anyone can do this job, but we know that they need us.”

Spirits were high on the picket line, and on Friday, after another visit from Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, leaders announced they had a tentative agreement. Terms were to be announced the next morning on the picket line; supporters were invited to a victory brunch.

On Saturday morning, crowds gathered at the picket line; leaders led groups of workers a few at a time into the market to discuss the terms and vote on the contract. Supporters stood by waiting anxiously.

Soon the news was shared and celebrated by all: the deal had been ratified by 97 percent of the members voting.

HOPING TO INSPIRE

The new contract includes an immediate raise of 70 cents an hour, followed by a 50-cent raise in 2022. Warehouse workers who currently make $18.57 an hour, as well as all drivers, will see a 65-cents-an-hour raise in 2023. Warehouse workers currently earning $20.70 will receive a $1,300 bonus in 2023 instead of the 65 cents. The strike also stopped the company from increasing what workers pay for family health care benefits.

“It’s not the dollar we wanted, but it’s a win,” Jose said, “and next time we will fight even harder. I’m glad we did this, because before we felt like nobody cared about us, nobody knew us.

“Now we know that New York City supports Black and immigrant workers, some of us formerly incarcerated, many of us just trying to feed our kids and make a better life for them.

“Hopefully other workers will get inspired to fight for what they deserve, by seeing us do it.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bianca Cunningham is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Essential food workers strike over $1 in New York City, this week in the war on workers

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Remember back in April when everyone suddenly realized that food chain workers are essential workers? A group of workers in the Bronx is trying to make good on that realization as they negotiate their next contract—and it’s led to a strike, as the bosses at the Hunts Point Produce Market refuse the workers’ call for a $1 an hour raise and added help with healthcare costs. Union representatives say that hundreds of workers have gotten COVID-19 and six have died, but New York City has gotten the food it needs—the 1,400 Teamsters workers at the market handle around 60% of the city’s produce.

“We’re working in a pandemic, now risking our life, every day, and you want to give us less than what you gave us the last time in a normal situation?” union trustee Charles Machadio told Gothamist. Pointing out that management rhetoric about the “continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic” is in sharp contrast with the fact that the produce market has remained open throughout, Machadio thinks this is more than just a normal wage dispute: “I think they’re using the pandemic to try and get out of the contract.”  

The market is offering 32 cents in added pay and 60 additional cents toward healthcare coverage.

Rallying with the workers on Wednesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said “Our entire city needs to stand by our essential workers. And it’s not enough for us to just say it and it’s not enough for, you know, we have to say thank you to all of our essential workers from our nurses to our food workers to the folks loading the trucks. But it’s not just enough to say thank you. We have to support them in their demands for a better life.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on January 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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New York City fast food workers to get a major new job protection, this week in the war on workers

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The New York City Council voted to dramatically strengthen protections for fast food workers with two bills this week, both supported by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The really big deal bill would ban fast food restaurants from firing workers without just cause—that means workers could only (“only”) be fired for performance issues or other serious problems, not just because the boss felt like it.

Most workers in the U.S. are currently “at-will,” which means exactly that—your boss doesn’t actually need a reason to fire you. As Jared Odessky explained at Data for Progress last summer, moving to a just cause standard could help crack down on discrimination: “Currently, the burden is on a fired worker to show that they were terminated for an impermissible reason like their race or sex. This is true even though the employer has greater access to and control over information about the firing. After the worker makes out a case of discrimination, the employer can then point to another basis for the termination, benefiting from an at-will presumption that permits employers to fire workers for almost any or no reason. In reality, employers can simply invent reasons after the fact. The burden then falls to the worker to show that the reason the employer gave was a lie.”

The other bill passed by the city council would require layoffs to go in order of seniority. Both bills apply to fast food stores belonging to chains with more than 30 locations.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on December 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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With City’s Economic Future in Doubt, Can New York Unions Stop the Cuts?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has killed nearly 25,000 New York City residents. The worst of the public health crisis may have passed, but its dire toll has triggered a second crisis. Shutting down huge swaths of the economy was necessary to save lives, but the deep freeze on economic activity has plunged the city into its worst fiscal crisis since the troubled 1970s.

Then as now, municipal workers and their unions are in the crosshairs. If the city’s economic and political elites have their way, labor will pay for the crisis againjust like it did in the 1970s.

A FRAGILE GIANT

New York City’s economy was particularly vulnerable to a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 thrives on close interaction, and so do many of the city’s leading industries: personal services, tourism, leisure and hospitality, food and drink, education, health care, entertainment. In normal times, millions of workers travel to and from the city daily to work in densely packed offices, ride crowded elevators, crush against each other in subways and buses, and pack bars and restaurants.

With New York’s contact-intensive economy suspended, hundreds of thousands of workers were unemployed or thrown into the uncertainty of indefinite furlough. While employment has begun to rebound, about 16 percent of the city’s workforce was still unemployed in late September, twice the national average.

Medicaid enrollment has increased nearly 10 percent since February and SNAP (food stamps) recipients increased by more than 12 percent. And of course the city is paying for a sharp increase in staffing in the public hospitals, personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, testing, and other coronavirus needs.

Unemployment is up, tax revenues are down, and emergency expenses are still necessary. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council passed a fiscal year 2021 budget that cut overall spending by $5 billion from the previous fiscal year. The city made immediate cuts to trash collection, composting, and the Staten Island Ferry, and it kept most public swimming pools closed for the summer. But this is only a small taste of what could come under a post-pandemic austerity program.

The FY 2021 budget’s $5 billion cut doesn’t even include the truly crucial number for New York’s 325,000 municipal workers—the additional $1 billion in labor savings the city says it must find in order to avert 22,000 municipal layoffs.

‘HARD CHOICES’ FOR WHOM?

The city needs to balance its budget if huge service cuts and layoffs are to be avoided. The question is which choices will be made, and who will pay for them?

For New York’s business elite and their mouthpieces, the answer is easy: unionized municipal workers and working people in general. The Citizens Budget Commission, an influential business-backed “fiscal watchdog” group whose “nonpartisan” budget analysis shapes public debate, called for “Hard Choices” to shore up the city’s finances. To anyone familiar with the CBC, its recommendations are hardly surprising: cuts to services, cuts to the unionized workforce, and shifting health care costs from the city to employees, among other measures.

While the CBC does not call for layoffs, it proposes a sharp pace of attrition, filling just one of every three vacancies over the next two years. It wants to eliminate the Absent Teacher Reserve, popularly known as the “rubber room” or “teacher jail,” which would permanently lay off hundreds of “excessed” union teachers. Since many teachers end up there without explanation or justification, this would amount to an unfair denial of their due process rights under the contract.

“Premium-sharing” for health insurance would save the city $700 million each year. Nearly all New York City employees and retirees currently do not pay premiums for health insurance, which also includes their dependents—a benefit that most American workers can only dream of.

The CBC wants retirees to pay 16 percent of their pre-Medicare insurance premiums and 25 percent of Medicare Part B and Supplemental Medicare coverage. This would cost pre-Medicare retirees $2,500 annually and Medicare recipients $800.

Current city employees with salaries below $65,000 would contribute 6 percent of premiums for single coverage ($575 per year) and 8 percent for family coverage ($2,000). Those with salaries above $65,000 would contribute 14 percent for single coverage ($1,350) and 16 percent for family coverage ($4,000). For years the unions have traded higher wage increases for maintaining the zero-premium health benefit, so any cost-shifting to employees has a real impact, particularly on the lowest-paid workers.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio and the municipal unions struck the first “health savings agreement,” aimed at reducing insurance costs without implementing premiums. They struck a second such agreement in 2018, and these deals have allowed them to wring out billions in savings through measures like raising co-pays for emergency room visits and terminating coverage for ineligible dependents.

Since the low-hanging fruit was picked in 2014 and 2018, it’s possible that concessions on zero-premium insurance could actually be on the table this time around. That would be a major victory for the budget hawks at the CBC and in the business community, who have been pushing to shift the cost of health insurance on to labor for decades. They consider the zero-premium benefit an unjustifiable expense precisely because it’s so rare. In their view, since most other workers in the U.S. pay premiums, New York’s municipal workers should too.

WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?

Mayor de Blasio, city council members, and the municipal unions have called for the governor to give the city long-term borrowing authority to plug budget gaps, something it hasn’t had since the imposition of financial controls by the State during the 1970s fiscal crisis. But business interests and budget hawks in both parties are strenuously opposed to taking on debt. For them, this would signal a return to the bad old days of the 1970s, when New York was supposedly led to ruin by runaway welfare spending and overpaid municipal workers.

In addition to borrowing authority, the union-backed Strong Economy for All Coalition is also calling for tax increases on billionaires and millionaires at the state level. Those increases would prevent the state from cutting billions of dollars in aid to schools and local governments, including New York City. The unions are also proposing an old standby for hard times, an early retirement incentive for state and local government workers, to reduce the workforce without layoffs. Along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, they are also calling for federal aid to close budget gaps.

It’s clear, however, that Washington won’t be coming to New York’s rescue as long as Donald Trump is in the White House and Republicans control the Senate. Even if Joe Biden becomes president and the Democrats make gains in Congress, it’s not guaranteed that the city would receive enough federal aid to avert a deep austerity program. Biden’s closest advisors have already signaled that they think the federal “pantry is bare” because of the Trump tax cuts, and that a massive increase in federal spending is not forthcoming.

The force of events may change their perspective, but Biden’s long record as a fiscal moderate does not inspire confidence that he will spend what’s needed to keep state and local governments out of budget hell.

Unfortunately, the city is not the master of its own fate. That power lies, to a significant extent, in the hands of Governor Cuomo and the state legislature’s Democratic Party majority. If the city is to take on debt, raise taxes on the wealthy, and otherwise avoid an austerity program, it must get authorization and support from the state.

One might think this would be easily forthcoming, considering the fact that all the most important political figures here are Democrats. But Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio can’t agree on the time of day, much less the right fiscal policy, and the state is facing its own serious budget crunch. The governor and many of his closest allies have already announced their opposition to soaking the rich, on the false grounds that they will leave for greener pastures in other states.

For its part, the state legislature’s Democratic majority includes an exciting new crop of democratic socialists and other progressives, but also many suburban moderates who have ridden the wave of anti-Trump sentiment into office. They may not be willing to send enough help to a city that many of their constituents believe, against all evidence, is falling into violent chaos.

WHERE’S LABOR?

As the 2020 school year approached, it briefly looked like a previously unthinkable event might come to pass: a public schools strike. This was because of the dogged organizing of activists in the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), the reform caucus in the giant city teachers union. The union’s Delegate Assembly scheduled but ultimately did not carry out a strike authorization vote because the leadership hammered out a reopening agreement with the mayor before the meeting. But rank-and-file members have continued to organize, and their organizing for a sickout and other actions showed their ability to mobilize members for worker and student safety.

Aside from these actions, and some public health worker demonstrations for increased funding and PPE, the municipal labor movement has been rather quiet. AFSCME District Council 37 and other unions held a rally against layoffs in September, but like most of the city unions’ labor rallies, it went largely unnoticed. Despite the scale of the crisis, it appears as if New York’s labor establishment is turning once again to its well-worn playbook of behind-the-scenes lobbying, politicking, and dealing.

The uncomfortable fact is that New York’s municipal labor movement is, with some notable exceptions, hidebound and risk-averse. Union membership in the public sector remains very high, and the collective bargaining system has not been dismantled. The city’s system of labor relations has largely been preserved: a labor-management partnership in which deals are hammered out at the top with little in the way membership participation or collective action. This has insulated the municipal unions from the worst effects of the national anti-union offensive, but has tended to make leaders inward-looking and resistant to change.

This situation stems, to a significant extent, from the resolution of the 1970s fiscal crisis. New York’s municipal union leaders still talk about how labor “saved the city” by buying municipal bonds with pension funds and accepting massive contract concessions: layoffs, wage freezes, benefit cuts, and, in future contracts, the linkage of wage increases to productivity gains. The unions eventually regained their membership numbers, supported by the passage of New York State’s 1976 agency shop law. But these measures and those that followed tended to draw union leaders closer to public officials and away from their own members and the people they serve.

NEW YORK IS NOT OVER

New York City is not “over,” as so many commentators have recently claimed. But it will probably be different, now that we know that many workers, particularly white-collar office workers, can work remotely and don’t need to fill Manhattan’s mammoth office buildings every day. If they don’t come back in big numbers, workers in retail, restaurants and bars, and other service industries will continue to suffer even after the public health crisis is resolved.

With the future of New York’s economy in doubt, the labor movement has an opportunity to articulate a different vision for the city as a whole—one that is less reliant on the consumption spending of office workers, tourists, and the wealthy. But doing so will require many of the city’s unions to adopt a different approach, one that is proactive instead of defensive, activates the dormant power of member action, and embraces the common good in addition to their own needs and interests

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Chris Maisano is a union staffer in New York City.

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New York City could see 400,000 workers return next month in first phase of a long recovery

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As many as 400,000 workers could head back to work when New York City begins the first phase of its reopening in June, as the national epicenter of the crisis looks to begin a long recovery from the coronavirus shutdown. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday laid out guidelines for businesses that will be allowed to open their doors in the coming weeks, and estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 more people will be reporting to work in person when the restart begins.

But a litany of unanswered questions remain, chief among them being how those workers can safely get around amid concerns about packed subways and buses being a conduit for the spread of Covid-19. 

De Blasio punted when asked about transportation options for a city so reliant on public transportation. 

“For the next few months, people are going to make their own choices,” he said. “Some people are going to be comfortable on mass transit, some are not.”

New York City is the only region in the state that remains under a full-fledged shutdown order. Officials estimate that some time in the first two weeks of June, it will hit the public health benchmarks needed to kick off the first phase of a gradual reopening.

When that happens, construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail pickup will be allowed to reopen — but with a host of restrictions meant to reduce transmission of the disease.

“We’ve come a long way. We’re not going to blow it now,” de Blasio said.

Since March, all nonessential businesses have been ordered closed in the city. The resulting loss of tax revenue has cratered the city budget and put New York on track to adopt 1970’s-era budget fixes to fill what is now an estimated $9 billion hole. 

Those industries slated for the first phase of the restart include all construction sites; clothing, electronics, furniture, machinery, printing and textile manufacturing; wholesalers for chemical products, household appliances, apparel and metals; and stores selling office supplies, clothing, electronics, furniture and sporting goods. Regular retail stores will only be allowed to offer curb-side or in-store pickup.

Businesses will be mandated to keep people six feet apart, with only one person allowed in tight areas like elevators and check-out counters. They’ll have to make sure employees wear masks, and check them for symptoms each day.

The city plans to publish a detailed rule book next week, and launch a hotline for business owners with questions, de Blasio said.

Officials will do random inspections of reopening businesses, starting with warnings to correct safety violations that will escalate to fines if they don’t comply. While a handful of businesses have begun to reopen in defiance of shutdown orders, de Blasio called it “idiotic” not to wait for the official go-ahead.

The mayor did not give a specific date for when the restart will begin. “The day it happens is the day the numbers tell us we’re there,” he said.

When that happens, more riders are expected to head for the subway system, where ridership has already begun to rebound from the rock bottom levels it hit at the height of the pandemic.

De Blasio had little advice to offer New Yorkers wary of risking their health with more people on the subways and wondering how they can get around safely.

“You may see people use their cars more in the short term, if they have a car, or use for-hire vehicles for example,” he said “But that’s a short-term reality.”

The mayor said he plans to meet Thursday with MTA chairman Pat Foye and discuss setting limits on how many people the subway system can safely carry. The state-run agency has not given any estimates on passenger limits. Cities like London have said they can only carry 15 percent of their normal passenger load. 

“You’re going to see a certain number of people who their only option is to take a subway or bus, and they’ll need to come back to it,” de Blasio said. “There’s some people who are just not going to be comfortable in the short term. And I think to some extent, it will be a little bit of natural sorting out.”

More than half of city households do not own cars. De Blasio did not respond when asked if the city has any plans to use its own streets to provide safe transportation options. With billions in tax revenue lost to the crisis, he has proposed almost $11 million in cuts to existing bus and bike lane programs.

“He’s planning to fail at this moment,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance. “A plan of inaction is a plan for gridlock.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on May 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Erin Durkin is a reporter for POLITICO New York and the co-author of New York Playbook. Before joining POLITICO, Erin wrote for The Guardian and was a City Hall reporter for the New York Daily News, where she covered the de Blasio and Bloomberg administrations and the City Council. She also reported on urban development and local politics in Brooklyn.


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Bloomberg’s Job Killing Budget Cuts

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amytraub4It’s the city’s ninth round of budget cuts in three fiscal years, and the most brutal. Mayor Bloomberg calls for 6,201 layoffs of public workers in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. Instead of responding at our firehouses, serving our frail elderly, and helping job-seekers perfect their resumes on the library computer, former New York City employees will instead crowd the unemployment lines – where, given the fact that there is just one job opening for every five Americans looking for work, they are likely to remain for some time. But this understates the impact on New York’s economy.

When we lay off public workers, we not only lose the services they provided to New Yorkers but also their spending power as city residents. As a result, laying off 6,200 New York City workers means destroying an additional 1,860 private sector jobs. The last thing New York needs is another 8,000+ jobless.

Think about it: the administrative worker in the city finance department who used to support her family on $45,000 a year now qualifies for a maximum $405 a week in unemployment benefits. She’ll buy cheaper groceries, cancel the cable, pull the kid out of ballet lessons, and put off the next shoe purchase, for starters. Suddenly the neighborhood grocery store, shoe shop and ballet studio have lost revenue: multiply that and they’ll quickly be ready for more layoffs of their own. Small businesses already on the edge may close up shop completely. In the meantime, New York taxpayers pick up the tab for her unemployment benefits as our former city worker searches in vain for a new job. It’s a bad deal all around.

Worse still, destroying 8,000 jobs in New York City is completely unnecessary. Economists find that progressive tax increases on higher income households do far less economic harm than spending cuts and layoffs. As the Fiscal Policy Institute has pointed out, New York City could raise $1 billion by raising personal income taxes on residents making more than $250,000 a year while still reducing taxes for lower-income households. Studies at the national and state level find that wealthy taxpayers do not flee tax increases in significant numbers. Yet Mayor Bloomberg has categorically ruled out such an increase, arguing that killing jobs and decimating city services is preferable.

DC37, a public employees’ union with a big stake in avoiding city job cuts, has identified still more sources of new revenue. The city could more seriously enforce its existing tax laws on billboards and cell phone antennas, for example, and could crack down on inappropriate property tax exemptions, making certain that when non-profits sell land to for-profit companies, property taxes are once again levied on those previously exempt parcels. Yet there’s no sign that these common sense proposals are on the table either.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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New York’s Lousy Jobs (And How We Can Make Them Better)

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amytraub4Should we tear down the city’s middle class? Or work to turn lousy jobs into good ones? That’s the policy choice facing New York’s city and state leaders. So far, their decisions aren’t encouraging: for years New York has failed to use its economic development programs to promote the creation of good, family-supporting jobs. Now it is welcoming Walmart’s industry-decimating low-wages with open arms. The state has so far failed to take a stand against $1 billion a year in wages stolen from New York’s lowest-income workers, but instead is spoiling for a fight of a very different sort: vowing to scale back the pay and retirement security of middle-class teachers, transportation workers, and other public employees.

The result? A disappearing middle class amidst the proliferation of lousy, low-wage jobs. It doesn’t have to be this way.

For the time being, New York City is getting more lousy jobs. We are gaining retail and restaurant jobs — positions that often lack benefits and fail to pay a living wage – while losing middle-class jobs in the public sector and manufacturing. To make matters worse, education and health care – among the few bright spots in New York City’s recovery over the past year (as well as the state’s job growth over the past decade) — are the very areas Governor-elect Cuomo has vowed to cut.

As a result, the disappearance of New York’s middle class is likely to accelerate. We may continue to be home to more millionaires but we’re also apt to see more people with jobs showing up at food pantries because they’re not earning enough to feed their families.

None of this is inevitable. The economic trends impacting New York today were heavily shaped by past public policy decisions at the federal, state, and local level. Meanwhile the choices made by our political leaders today could redirect (or intensify) the way the city’s economy develops. What will New York stand for?

If we’re stung by the loss of good jobs, one reaction is to turn our resentment on the folks who still have solid middle-class careers: deplore teachers who still have protection from arbitrary layoffs and insist that the biggest problem New York faces is that parks department workers still have pensions. We could assert the worker protections they enjoy are outdated, trash the compensation these public workers earn, and turn their jobs into lousy jobs too.

While we’re at it, we can welcome Walmart into the city and insist that it’s perfectly acceptable for people to go to work every day and still need food stamps to feed their children. Maybe the teachers we’re laying off can get jobs there.

Or we could try something different.

We could, for example, to look at the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development subsidies the city spends every year and insist that these taxpayer dollars be used to promote jobs that allow working people to support their families. New York could emulate Pittsburgh’s decision to stop using subsidies to foster poverty wages. We could pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act to insist that the mega-developments underwritten by our public dollars pay decent wages. These measures won’t put an immediate halt to the decline of job quality in New York, but at least they’ll put the city’s economic muscle on the side of the angels.

We could also work to ensure that the job standards we have now are enforced. New York’s minimum wage is an inadequate $7.25 an hour, yet a fifth of the city’s low-wage workforce (317,200 working people) are cheated out of even that meager pay or fall victim to other workplace violations in a typical week. The state’s Wage Theft Prevention Act, now languishing in Albany because the Assembly and Senate passed slightly different versions, would be a step towards enforcing the laws now on the books to protect New York’s lowest paid workers.

It’s not too late for New York to take a stand for good jobs, strengthening and expanding the city’s middle class rather than tearing it down. But the longer New York waits to reverse course, the more difficult it will be.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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Wrestling With Racial Bias, New York Firefighters Resist Reform

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Michelle ChenNew York City’s firefighters have been embroiled in racial and ethnic politics throughout their history, and the Fire Department’s latest civil rights controversy has stoked a political standoff and a hiring freeze.

The FDNY is still reeling from a federal court ruling in August that put firefighters at odds with anti-discrimination law. The judge ruled that the Department’s recent hiring exam was systematically discriminated against Black and Latino candidates.

But to accommodate the need to hire new personnel, the court offered the city the option of initiating an interim hiring process, as long as the procedures were not discriminatory. The city has so far refused. So now, a long line of frustrated aspiring firefighters remain in limbo, denied a fair shake at obtaining a coveted spot in the ranks of New York’s Bravest.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and lawyers representing the Vulcan Society, an association of Black firefighters, accused the FDNY of obstruction:

We had searched for the least disruptive, least discriminatory, and most fair ways to hire this class. Judge Garaufis, rather than forcing any one method on the City, opted to give it the choice to select the method it preferred.  Instead, the City continues to obstruct any efforts at collective resolution and drag its feet when it comes to diversifying the firefighter workforce.

This suit is in some ways the inverse of the famous Ricci v. DeStefano case, in which a group of mostly white firefighters in New Haven sued over the city’s rejection of exam results that might have invited charges of racial discrimination. In New York City, advocates for Black firefighters charged that the city’s exam process effectively imposed racial barriers.

The controversy is especially heated not just because of firefighters’ status as urban folk heroes, but because the bias at play here isn’t blatant racism but a more subtle intransigence that’s embedded in the institution’s cultural mindset.

While the FDNY’s defenders posture themselves as victims of political correctness, the crux of Judge Garaufis’s ruling was fundamentally not about constructing a race-conscious hiring process, but rejecting tests that simply don’t do their job:

The City has not shown that the current examination identifies candidates who will be successful firefighters. Because the test questions do not measure the abilities required for the job of entry-level firefighter, the examination cannot distinguish between qualified and unqualified candidates, or even between more and less qualified candidates…. What the examination does do is screen and rank applicants in a manner that disproportionately excludes black and Hispanic applicants. As a result, hundreds of minority applicants are being denied the opportunity to serve as New York firefighters, for no legitimate or justifiable reason.

The FDNY’s problem is that it can’t really justify why its squad bears so little demographic resemblance to the city it serves. While Blacks and Latinos make up only 4 and 7 percent of the city’s firefighters respectively, the plaintiff’s lawyers point out, “More than half of Los Angeles and Philadelphia’s firefighters, and 40 percent of Boston’s are people of color.”

The only reasonable explanation appears to be a latent tolerance, if not active defense, of an entrenched white majority. Below the surface lies a complex fraternal subculture rooted in the sinewy traditions of Old New York, when fire companies operated more like ethnic gangs than a government agency.

Today, the FDNY may function more or less as part of the city’s vast bureaucracy, but its resistance to court-ordered reform betrays an arrogance grandfathered from an earlier time.  With their refusal to institute an interim hiring process, they’ve apparently decided that for now, they’d rather put up a good fight, than work with the community to figure out a way to sustain its ranks without violating civil rights. Old habits are hard to extinguish.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Racewire.org. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com


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Living Wage Law Would Create Benefits for Business, City’s Economy

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John PetroIn response to the hottest legislative issue in City Hall right now, the Daily News ran two opinion pieces on a bill that would guarantee living wages to all workers at city-subsidized development projects. This would mean that if a developer receives city tax breaks or other assistance to build a mall, for example, the retail workers, janitors, parking attendants, and any other employee at that mall would be paid at least $10 an hour with health benefits, or $11.50 an hour without benefits.

The principle behind the bill is simple: the city should only use taxpayer dollars to create high-quality jobs. Subsidizing the creation of poverty-level jobs makes little economic or fiscal sense. After all, it already costs the state at least $5.2 billion to provide services and assistance to the working poor. Why should we use scarce tax dollars to subsidize development that will only add to these public costs?

In a piece filled with false assumptions and unsupported claims, Diana Furchtgott-Roth argues that guaranteeing the creation of good jobs will actually hurt the city’s economy and its taxpayers. Not only is the living wage in Furchtgott-Roth’s crosshairs, but also the prevailing wage and even the minimum wage. In other words, Furchtgott-Roth rejects the idea that government should regulate the labor market.

Clearly there are good reasons for government to do exactly that, not just in the name of altruism but for the sake of the taxpayer, the business climate, and the city’s overall economy. In 1960, speaking to members of Congress, President John F. Kennedy noted that, “The increases in purchasing power resulting from a higher minimum wage will help to restore consumer demand required to put our idle industrial capacity back to work.”

Even in China, which built its economy on low-cost labor, cities are passing new laws that boost worker wages in order to increase the purchasing power of Chinese households and to create domestic demand for Chinese goods and services.

But the discussion about wages and business in New York City has become so backward that the real and demonstrable benefits of boosting wages for the city’s economy has become lost in a sea of misinformation.

Take Furchtgott-Roth’s piece. The living wage bill will, according to the author: stall development, cause businesses to flee the city, waste taxpayer money, and increase unemployment. Notably absent was any evidence to support these claims.

In reality, living wage laws have not had any significant negative impact on businesses in the over 120 cities that have passed these laws. In Santa Fe, New Mexico every single worker within city borders is guaranteed by city law to be paid a living wage. This is, by far, a much more ambitious bill than what is currently under consideration in New York City, where only workers at subsidized buildings will be covered. And yet, a study by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research has shown that since Santa Fe passed its living wage law there has been no demonstrable negative effects on employment or firm growth. Studies of other cities with living wage laws have demonstrated similar results.

Despite the evidence the living wage bill in New York City is strongly opposed by Mayor Bloomberg and real estate interests. This is because the bill challenges the current economic development status quo. Instead of promoting the types of projects that create the most wealth for a select group of developers, the bill would ensure that working New Yorkers benefit directly from the city’s economic development efforts

About The Author: John Petro is an urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. He runs the Progressive Urban Model Policies (PUMP) Project, a first-of-its-kind initiative to organize and share best practices in policy design and implementation. His writing on urban issues has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and his recent research has been covered in Politico, The New York Times, Reuters, and other media outlets.


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