Working-class New York deserves better

November 3, 2017

New York City won't get better for workers because Bill de Blasio is in office, but because workers get organized and fight, argues Julian Guerrero.

THE 2017 mayoral election in New York City is shaping up to be a dud. Barring any unforeseen event, the Democratic incumbent Bill de Blasio is likely to coast into a second term by a wide margin, despite generating little enthusiasm among most New Yorkers.

De Blasio was hailed as a radical liberal game changer in 2013 when he shocked more highly favored Democratic opponents with his "tale of two cities" campaign highlighting economic and racial inequality. But his time in office has done little to change those injustices.

De Blasio has implemented some social programs aimed at easing the hardships that New Yorkers have long endured, including a universal pre-K program, increased paid-parental leave and funding for city parks, along with efforts to keep rent increases at a minimum.

His efforts to scale down "stop-and-frisk" and his declaration that New York City would remain a "sanctuary" in light of Trump's onslaught against undocumented immigrants gives de Blasio the political credibility to ward off any real left-wing challenger from within his own party.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

The reality, however, is that de Blasio has barely made a dent in the tale of two cities that he campaigned against. Income inequality has grown worse, rents have continued to climb, and "broken windows" policing is still in effect.

And yet de Blasio is pleasing many progressives, such as journalist Juan González, whose recent book Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities touts the mayor's "redistribution of $21 billion" among the city's working class.

According to González, de Blasio's accomplishments and his overall left-wing posture are part of international trend of cities shifting toward left-wing administrations. In Reclaiming Gotham, González calls it the beginning of a "new urban movement" against the "growth machine models that have dominated urban America since the 1920s."

But if de Blasio really represents a challenge to the "growth machine," why do recent reports show a growth of income inequality in the city? What is to be said about the rapid growth of luxury condominiums and office buildings? Or the growth of rent costs, transportation woes and homelessness?

As for the "$21 billion revolution," most of that refers to the $15 billion in retroactive pay from city contracts that the mayor signed with unions that had gone nearly 10 years without renewing under the previous administration.

These contracts kept pay increased at or below 2 percent a year and were widely greeted by the business class with sighs of relief that the mayor was able to get the city off so cheaply.

TO BE fair, de Blasio is the city's most progressive mayor after 20 years of the back-to-back right-wing and pro-business administrations of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

De Blasio's ascent to mayor is partly due to his 2013 campaign's ability to ride the wave of discontent against an overtly racist police policy of stop-and-frisk.

But for the most part, working-class New York elected de Blasio out of their concern over the ever-increasing cost of living in the city--something that de Blasio claimed he was going to address. Once in office, however, the mayor has instead protected business' bottom line.

De Blasio's mandate for real-estate developers to set aside 10 to 15 percent of their new luxury condominiums for low-income New Yorkers in need of housing is a prime example of his approach.

Aside from the fact that this measure isn't enough for the hundreds of thousands of people waiting in line for housing, de Blasio's mandate brought about a massive rezoning of most of the city, paving the way for developers to build new office buildings and luxury condominiums almost anywhere they'd like.

In other words, de Blasio's effort to address the housing crisis has actually accelerated the intense gentrification already displacing people from the outer boroughs.

A similar dynamic is in play with de Blasio's decisions around policing strategies and sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants.

GONZÁLEZ ARGUES that New Yorkers are living under one of the most progressive administrations in the city's history, but the truth is that New York has a much more progressive history--and not because of what any elected officials have done but because of the power of New York's working class.

For decades, organized labor went toe-to-toe with the city's most powerful profit barons and won many hard-fought social reforms.

In the 1940s, the Congress of Industrial Organization's Greater New York Industrial Council fought for social legislation concerning housing, health care, education, racial inequality, democratic rights and raising taxes on the wealthy.

Its main focus was a fight against postwar inflation to keep price controls on consumer goods, rent and transportation to avoid losing the gains it made during Second World War. It also fought for greater access to cultural institutions for New York City workers.

The CIO Council was an example of labor's ability to develop its own independent political power in local matters as well. The Communist Party led the council and could have made bigger gains against the two party system were it not for its Popular Front strategy that sought alliance with the Democrats.

Nonetheless, the Communist led CIO Council dedicated resources to strike solidarity for other unions battling employers across the city, organized mass demonstrations, and at times endorsed independent candidates and provided them with vast resources.

Alongside these efforts, it organized massive voter registration drives, advocated for greater proportional representation in the City Council, printed millions of pamphlets and regularly lobbied Albany and Washington, D.C.

The massive strength of organized labor, alongside the coalition efforts and alliances cultivated by the Communist Party, led to election victories in the City Council campaigns of Communist Party members Peter Cacchione in Brooklyn and Ben Davis in Harlem.

Unions also embraced a significant section of Black and Latino workers through its organizing drives, providing Black and Latino communities an institution to leverage for social power in a society still rife with institutionalized racial discrimination.

MANY OF these efforts on the part of the labor movement were impeded in the late 1940s as a result of the Red Scare, union infighting and the massive purge of Communists leaders and left-wing radicals.

While this didn't stop unions from continuing to organize workers, reaching its peak unionization rate between 1955 and 1960, and extending social reforms to nonunion workers, it dealt a fatal blow to further developing the labor movement's political independence from the two major parties.

The New York City fiscal crisis of 1975 would reverse organized labor's gains and political influence. Years of mismanaged budgets by City Hall drove banks to refuse any credit to the city for municipal costs.

Seeing an opening, Wall Street and the business class used the crisis to roll back social democratic institutions and hobble organized labor. When the Ford administration refused to provide the city with a bailout to avoid bankruptcy, business set its sights on privatization.

With the radical unionists who fought for a class-wide vision for the city having already been purged during the Red Scare 20 years before, organized labor sacrificed its support for social democratic institutions in the face of the threat of mass layoffs which would have an immediate negative effect on organized labor's source of funding, membership dues.

Pressured under threat of bankruptcy, City Hall laid off thousands of city workers, shut down public hospitals, ceased city investment in the outer boroughs, and raised subway fares and taxes on the working class.

One of major targets was the City University of New York (CUNY), which provided free higher education for New York City's working class and was itself the product of decades of struggle by organized labor and the left. CUNY instituted tuition for the first time in 1975 after it was threatened with defunding.

While the Bronx burned, City Hall focused investment almost exclusively in Lower Manhattan, using tax credits to entice corporations to set up headquarters in the city's second-largest business district. From then to now, City Hall and the business class gave special preference to the development of the finance, insurance and real estate industry at the expense of working people.

THOUGH NEW York City remains the city with the highest union density in the country--about 24.2 percent of its workers are unionized--organized labor never fully recuperated from the political blow it was dealt with the fiscal crisis.

While still a significant force in city politics, helping to elect de Blasio in 2013 and likely again this year, organized labor's weakness lies in its lack of vision or willingness to fight for its own members, let alone lead a fight for a program to benefit all working-class New Yorkers.

Rather than the militant strikes that forced politicians to deliver 10 or 15 percent raises in the postwar era, the city's most powerful local, SEIU1199, has resorted to exerting its pressure "through a series of e-mails and text messages to the mayor's top officials," as the New York Times reported in an article celebrating the supposed influence organized labor now has with City Hall.

Most union leaderships don't question their political strategy of donating millions of dollars to the corporate leaning Democratic Party who feel little pressure to deliver on the promises they made to unions for their campaign donations and get-out-the-vote operations.

In a sad turn of historical events, most New York City unions feel that with de Blasio in City Hall, they now have a seat at the table of power.

Organized labor's political efforts don't go further than betting on what they believe is a winning horse. If that horse does win, organized labor continues to support it even when "their horse" pushes legislation that will have a negative effect on members in the long term.

This is why the New York Times can write that "the city's municipal labor unions have largely found common cause with Mr. de Blasio on issues of income inequality and affordable housing," and "union members packed his rally in March [2016] after the passage of his affordable housing plan in the City Council."

One of the most egregious examples of the unions' stubborn determination to support de Blasio, no matter what, is the contract settlement that made up almost three-quarters of the "$21 billion revolution" hailed by Gonzalez. These contracts imposed major health care sacrifices in return for back pay and wage increases at levels far below local inflation costs.

In other words, they were concessionary contracts that city unions would have rejected or at least tried to fight under Giuliani and Bloomberg. But coming from a Democratic mayor, they were hailed as victories.

Organized labor faces an array of threats against it. Aside from the same attacks that are also driving down unionization rates outside of New York state, outsourcing and right-to-work laws, the likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court will side with employers in the Janus case will deal a massive blow to the funds and power of public-sector unions.

For an even longer period of time, private-sector unions have lost ground due to an aggressive business class that refuses to recognize them, while public-sector unions face similar attitudes in their contract fights with business-oriented politicians.

In this grim landscape, many progressives have concluded that de Blasio's underwhelming reforms are the best we can get. We have to learn from the more radical chapters of our history to raise our expectations and plot a course to rebuild working class power.

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