Workers protest: ‘We’re not going to take this anymore!’

NEW YORK—A militant demonstration called by the union of school support staff brought together thousands of people—workers facing layoffs and their supporters—at City Hall June 17 to protest against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget that could result in the layoffs of thousands of more than 2,500 school workers alone.

The workers, members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union District Council 37 Local 372, prepare and serve lunches, serve as teacher’s aides, and perform other services in public schools.

While it looks as though the reduction of teaching jobs has been averted, teachers still face trouble under the new budget. If school support workers are laid off, their duties would fall on teachers and other school staff. This would have the effect of more work for teachers and a lessening of services for students.

“We’re not going to take this anymore!” Bill Thompson, the City Comptroller and the Democratic frontrunner in the November mayoral election told those gathered. “We have to let everyone know you are a part of the school community.”

Thompson’s speech, and the rally itself, underscored the disdain city workers feel for the current mayor. At certain points during the rally, chants of “Who’s got to go? Bloomberg’s go to go!” erupted.

“We’re going to vote with that union power,” local 372 president Virginia Montgomery-Costa added.

D.C. 37 executive director Lillian Roberts said Local 372 members “are part of our schools too,” and that they were among the city workers who could least afford to lose their jobs. The school support staff and other groups of city workers bear the brunt of the cuts. However, all New Yorkers will feel the pain. The city will increase sales tax and abolish a tax exemption on clothing sales over $110.

While the regressive sales tax has been increased, the Bloomberg budget reworks the corporate tax formula to give breaks to those in the world the mayor came out of—the big corporations.

Though the City Council voted for the budget after reaching a recent agreement with the mayor, most rage has been directed towards Bloomberg, who first proposed even worse. His original plan included cuts through attrition and layoff of nearly 14,000 public employees, as well as the shutdown of libraries and fire stations and other cuts.

One of the most important victories was the derailing of a plan by Bloomberg to add a fifth tier to the pensions of D.C. 37 workers. The division of pension benefits into “tiers” based on date of hire is despised by trade unionists, because it both reduces overall income of newer workers and sows disunity between newer and older workers.

After protest and fightback by labor, advocates for education and thousands of others in the city, the current budget was agreed to. Progressive city councilors were unhappy with the agreement, but voted in favor of it, assuming that it was the best that could be won under Bloomberg’s reign.

But much is still up in the air. The changes in taxes have to be agreed to in Albany, and, given the standoff in the State Senate, no one is certain when or what the outcome will be there. According to a report by Thompson’s office, the budget is full of risks and may not fix the city’s deficit problem. Thompson, along with a number of city councilors, called for no sales tax increases; instead he proposed a special tax for three years on people making over $500,000. Bloomberg rejected this idea outright.

And the number of layoffs of school staff is as of yet undetermined. The budget mandates that school principals reduce expenditures in their school by about four percent, and the exact mixture of layoffs is to be determined in each locality.

While the budget itself has been agreed, unions are still fighting. According to a white paper released by D.C. 37, the city wastes billions of dollars by hiring private contractors at exorbitant rates to do jobs, instead of maintaining a workforce of union full-time workers. Replacing private contractors with union workers would at only 10 city agencies would, according to the report, save New York nearly $130 million. All together, the city spends $9.2 billion on 18,000 contracts, making up 46 percent of discretionary spending.

At the rally, many supporters, including officers of DC 37 locals, City Council member Robert Jackson, who chairs to council’s education committee, and Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, urged workers at the rally to continue their fight, not only in the city council, but also by calling Mayor Bloomberg and his administration, and at the state and federal levels. Every call for continued fightback produced enthusiastic responses from the workers.

The crowd included teachers, members of several other AFSCME locals, and members and officers of CWA 1180, which also represents public workers, as well as other members of the community.

D.C. 37, which represents some 120,000 city workers, has yet to make an endorsement in the mayoral race. While some have feared that D.C. 37’s leadership might stay neutral in the election, it seems apparent that to those who saw the rally that the union would find it hard to not support Thompson.