Labor fightback sweeps NYC

NEW YORK – A four-day wave of labor fightback swept this city June 7-10, winning victories for thousands of health care workers and energizing other unions locked in battles with the city administration. Workers from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 1707, Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1199, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the Uniformed Firefighters Association, and the police union poured into the streets by the tens of thousands in some of the largest public demonstrations seen in years.

The actions started June 7 with a midday rally by more than 12,000 workers represented by 1199. They were there on behalf of 25,000 home health aides who were staging a three-day strike against 12 agencies, demanding a pay raise from their current $7 dollars an hour to $10.

“The cost of living in this city is crazy,” said Vera Angeles. “Do you know what $280 a week before taxes buys you? Almost nothing – and that’s if you’re lucky enough to work full time. We don’t all, always. I can’t do it anymore, none of us can.”

The rent for the one-bedroom apartment Angeles shares with two roommates is $800, more than her entire after-tax monthly earnings.

The agencies that employ the aides receive $17 dollars per hour per aide from state Medicare funds. The union argued that those who actually do the work should be given a larger portion of that sum. They also vowed to work with the agencies to demand that the state raise, or at least not lower, the amount allotted per worker.

The effect of the strike was almost immediate. Dennis Rivera, head of the local, announced from the rally’s stage that a deal had been reached with Partners in Care, which employs 4,000 of the workers. Partners had agreed to the raise. By the end of the day, a total of four health care agencies agreed to the demands.

On the second day of the strike, 12,000 workers were told to return to work, victorious. The strike ended as scheduled on the third day. But 1199 officials and workers vowed to keep up pressure on the seven agencies that did not sign agreements, saying the 10,000 workers in those agencies would strike again if demands were not met. Keith Joseph, SEIU 1199 Vice President for Home Care, told the World another tentative agreement was reached June 15. It is essentially the same as the other agreements, and affects 1,200 workers at the All Metro Health Care Agency.

On June 8 the unions representing the city’s teachers, firefighters and police united in an unprecedented City Hall rally. The UFT said the protest was one of the largest municipal labor demonstrations in city history, with over 60,000 coming out.

Rally speakers, who included UFT President Randi Weingarten and the leaders of the other unions, politicians and celebrities, pointed out that the city had a $1.5-billion budget surplus this year. Despite this, all three groups have been working without a contract for more than a year – the teachers since May 31, 2003, the police since July 31, 2002, and the firefighters since May 31, 2002.

Steve Cassidy of the firefighters’ union pointed out the hypocrisy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sings the praises of the city’s firefighters when talking about the 9/11 tragedy, but refuses to budge when it comes to dollars and cents.

“We have been working more than two years without a contract. We have been working more than three years without a raise,” said Cassidy. “Acknowledge what we do. Pay us a living wage!”

The same week, members of AFSCME District Council 1707 Local 205, representing 7,000 child care workers, and the Council of Supervisors and Administrators held a planned three-day strike. Local 205 members work in 346 publicly funded day care centers and meet the same qualifications as public school teachers. However, they have not had a raise in four years and receive between $5,000 and $10,000 less than teachers in their starting pay. They are seeking the same pay raises that other city workers received in 2001.

Annabel Palma, a City Council member from the Bronx, told the World that, although many people in her district – one of the city’s poorest – would be inconvenienced by the strike, they are working people too and would support the strikers.

Commenting on the week’s labor actions, Weingarten told The New York Times, “The city has a big budget surplus, the national economy is improving, and that motivates people who feel left behind to be militant and more active.”

The author can be reached at dmargolis@cpusa.org.