THE BLOG

Keeping Labor in Labor Day

09/01/2011 06:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 01, 2011

Labor Day is a time to be with family and enjoy the end of summer (and maybe spend time stuck in traffic). But I will be doing one more thing on Labor Day this year -- thinking about workers and the state of unions in our country.

Unemployment is at 9.2 percent. The wealth gap is at record levels. More people are on food stamps. And yet, the very institutions that make things better for working people are under attack.

All year, we have been witnessing serious blows to the labor movement -- from the radical, union-busting law passed in Wisconsin under Governor Scott Walker, to the worker harassment and intimidation of restaurateur Dean Poll at the Central Park Boathouse, to the concessionary contract demands that sent Verizon workers out on strike last month.

So when 45,000 Verizon workers walked off the job a few weeks ago -- members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) -- I knew it was time to stand with them. I brought them ice-pops, walked the picket line with them, and called on the Department of Education not to approve a $120 million contract for Verizon until they bargained with the union in good faith. I could understand why they had made the difficult decision to go out on strike. Verizon demanded that its unionized workers accept retirement benefit cuts, fewer sick days, and even give the company the right to outsource their jobs. And despite the draconian demands, Verizon never claimed that it was in tough financial times. In fact, the company is making money hand-over-fist -- $19 billion over the last four years.

Meanwhile, in New York, many of the public institutions that working people (and everyone else) rely on have been under attack in the City and State budgets. In a bizarre twist, many talking-heads are blaming the public sector workers themselves for our budget woes. In my opinion, we are lucky to have people who spend their careers as librarians, school teachers, police officers, fire-fighters, custodians, cooks, and child welfare workers. Many could make far more money elsewhere.

Of course we need to balance the budgets, take smart and reasonable steps to control costs, and be willing to come up with the money needed to cover the public services we want to have. If we aren't collectively willing to provide the revenue -- e.g. by keeping the existing New York State millionaire's tax in place, rather than letting it expire and giving a $5 billion tax break to the state's wealthiest households -- then we're going to have to cut things we desperately need. But if that is the decision we make, it simply is not right to blame public sector workers for our own insistence on giving millionaires a tax break.

Luckily, as Labor Day, the Verizon workers, and the Central Park Boathouse workers (who want to unionize with the New York Hotel Trades Council) remind us, we can push back. New York's millionaire's tax does not expire until December 31, so we've got four months to push for fiscal sanity.

In addition, along with many allies, I have been pushing for reforms that would provide a bit of opportunity and relief for struggling, low-wage workers in New York City.

I am a proud co-sponsor of legislation that would insure that all working New Yorkers have something that most of us take for granted -- paid sick leave. If you are sick, or your son or daughter is sick, you should be able to stay home without fear of losing your job or losing money. Forcing sick people to go to work is not good for our families, nor is it good for public health.

I have also cosponsored a law that would require developers who receive millions in City subsidies to pay a living wage of at least $10 per hour to all the workers on the project. It's just common sense. If we are going to spend taxpayer dollars with the goal of creating jobs, they should be good jobs, not poverty jobs.

And, when our neighbors go out on strike with their unions, I will continue to walk the picket line with them. I hope you will too.

So enjoy your Labor Day weekend. Take the opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing working people in our city and our country, and what we can do together over the next year to start to turn things around.