NYC labor rallies against cuts

March 9, 2009

Sean Petty, a member of the New York State Nurses Association, reports on a huge mobilization against plans for harsh budget cuts.

NEW YORK--Tens of thousands of union members, joined by students and other New Yorkers, rallied at City Hall March 5 in what United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Randi Weingarten called "the largest trade union mobilization in three decades."

The "Rally for New York" proudly clogged the streets of lower Manhattan, bringing the message to Gov. David Paterson, the New York State Assembly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg that there is power in numbers. The march stretched from City Hall to about half a mile past Canal Street--almost 20 blocks. Estimates of its size ranged as high as 75,000.

Union members from 1199SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the UFT, SEIU Local 32BJ, AFSCME District Council 37 and the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) turned out in large numbers, while many other groups mobilized in solidarity. Simultaneous protests were organized in six other cities throughout the state, including Albany and Buffalo.

Even though the New York Police Department used barricades to segregate union members block by block and herded people into "protest pens," the mood was both furious and energized.

Protesting proposed budget cuts in New York City
Protesting proposed budget cuts in New York City (Doug Singsen | SW)

"The doors closed last weekend at Mary Immaculate and St. John's Hospitals," said Lynne Muchinsky, who was recently laid off after 27 years as a lab technologist. "Monsignor Fitzpatrick Nursing Home also closed, and we witnessed patients who after 20 years had to say good-bye to people they loved and the only home they knew. How many more? How many more have to die?"

The ground seemed to rumble a little as protesters began to angrily chant the main demand of the rally, "No more cuts! No more cuts!"

Many people brought homemade, hand-painted signs that gave a sense of the stakes of this fight, such as "Don't close my hospital," "Save our day care" and "Protect our families."

From the podium, the emphasis was on unity. "We will not be divided," 1199SEIU President George Gresham said. "We are not going to let them make us choose between health and education or any other service. We want it all and we deserve it."

This degree of solidarity, as well as an unrelenting, militant campaign to defend city institutions is what will be required in the upcoming months in the face of massive budget cuts. Gov. Paterson is planning on at least $2.5 billion in cuts to public education, $3.5 billion in cuts to health care and roughly $8 billion in cuts to other services, such as completely severing aid to cultural institutions and huge cuts to libraries.

What you can do

No budget cuts! Tax the rich! Come to an organizing meeting to plan more actions and protests against the budget cuts. We demand Gov. David Paterson and State Senator Malcolm Smith support the Millionaire's Tax!

March 13, at 5:30 p.m., CUNY Graduate Center, Room 5409, 365 5th Avenue. For more information, contact [email protected].

Paterson has so far rejected every call for increased taxes on the wealthy--in one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

To their credit, the unions made an increased tax on people making over $250,000 per year a key demand at the rally. Even New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson was able to express the crowd's sentiment, stating, "We cannot balance the budget on the backs of working people."

STUDENTS ADDED their voices to the fight. "[The budget cuts] are ridiculous," said Leeann McCurry, a student at the City College of New York (CCNY) who attended the rally. "My parents have financial struggles, and I work. It's ridiculous that my tuition increase isn't even going to my school, to buy computers and books and things we need."

Dianna Sierra, a CCNY student, agreed. "I think the budget cuts are a complete violation of the mission statement of CUNY [City University of New York] to serve the whole people," she said. "Its purpose is to support the community. It really shows the inherent racism and classism of the administration. It's already difficult enough for immigrant students to go to school. Another $600 just makes it more difficult."

At Hunter College, 11 classes voted to walk out and stage a rally. "They say cut back, we say fight back," was their response the $300 per semester proposed tuition hike.

The Hunter Student Union (HSU) called the walkout, and word spread quickly. Hunter students rallied for about half an hour, speaking out against the budget cuts and tuition hikes. After the protest, 80 students took the train to Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) to join a CUNY-wide rally already in progress.

As Hunter students marched in, the rally was infused with a new degree of energy and grew to more than 200 students. Students mixed with labor, since BMCC was the meeting point not just for CUNY students, but their professors in the PSC as well. "Students and labor, shut the city down!" became the new call.

The crowd of angry students and professors then proceeded to put their chant into action, taking over Chambers Street, defying police barricades and stopping traffic while they marched to City Hall to join the union rally.

After protesters took over the street, many of the rally's onlookers joined the march, which instantly swelled to 300 people and continued to grow as it went, topping out at just over 400.

THE KEY missed opportunity at the rally was a discussion of what kind of next steps will be necessary to win this fight. The question remains, what should these 75,000 people and their coworkers do to keep up the fight?

On February 28, the Saturday before the rally, 100 trade union militants and other supporters gathered to discuss this question in a packed American Federation of Musicians Local 802 union hall.

A panel of speakers discussed the nature of the budget cuts fight. They included Marvin Holland from Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 and founder of the "Take Back Our Union" movement, Ajamu Sankofa of the Private Health Insurance Must Go Coalition, Doug Singsen from the CUNY Student Union and Kit Wainer from the UFT and Teachers for a Just Contract.

The meeting was endorsed by the CUNY Graduate Center Student Union, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, Independent Community of Educators, International Socialist Organization, Jackie Robinson Tenant Association Inc., New York Collective of Radical Educators, Solidarity, Take Back Our Union Movement, Teachers for a Just Contract and Teachers Unite.

Speakers emphasized rank-and-file organizing to pressure our unions into waging a real fight. Holland argued that we needed to articulate concrete strategies for the upcoming months to break open space in our unions for sustained struggle against the cuts. This became an especially important point given the notable absence of an organized contingent of TWU at Thursday's rally.

Ajamu Sankofa made a call for singe-payer health care as a crucial part of solving the budget crisis because it would save the state money, while Doug Singsen brought the crisis at CUNY into the discussion. Finally, Kit Wainer discussed the dynamics within the teachers' union and the nature of the fight against the governor, the mayor, as well as the officials of the UFT.

An exciting outcome of the meeting was an organizing session afterward, in which participants decided to initiate a protest at the offices of Gov. Paterson and State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith in a month's time.

The fight has just begun. There are many obstacles, such as the local media's almost uniform blackout of coverage of the demonstration. There were no major articles in any of the four major local newspapers--the New York Times, Daily News, New York Post or Newsday.

It's also unclear how willing some city union leaders are to engage is a sustained effort to actually stop the budget cuts.

Two things point the way forward. First, the massive size and militant mood of the participants at Thursday's rally show the opportunities for a massive city workers' movement to beat back the governor's budget ax. Secondly, we need to deepen the networks of rank-and-file militants through concrete actions that may in the future be able to reshape the New York City labor movement.

Owen Hill and Doug Singsen contributed to this article.

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