09/07/2007 01:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In NYC, Labor Joins the 21st Century, Finally

If anyone had any doubts about the changing face of labor, literally and otherwise, one need look no further than the two union leaders currently in the news in NYC -- Ed Ott, Executive Director of the NYC Central Labor Council and Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

Desai is, on the surface, an unlikely union leader. A woman in an industry that's 99 percent male and an immigrant from India, she is one of the most outspoken and refreshing union leaders in NYC. This week, her union called for a two-day strike because the city is demanding that all cabs use global positioning systems and video screens that will allow for credit card payment. The reason for resistance: among other things, the cabbies fear they will be dogged by this expensive and potentially intrusive Big Brother technology and that the use of credit cards will cost them an extra 5 percent per fare, something they can ill-afford. It's estimated that cabbies in NYC drive the first 5 hours just to pay off fees and gas. Every single one of the drivers works 6 days a week/12 hours a day. Some work 7 days. It's a hard job, a job that's mostly done by an immigrant workforce.

It looks like the strike was fairly successful. Here where I live, in Brooklyn, I saw a huge line of taxis just sitting by the curb on 4th Avenue in Park Slope, near one of the main taxi depots, on the first day of the strike.

This job action coincides, not accidentally, with the week of Labor Day, traditionally, in NYC anyway, a holiday commemorated with a parade.

A parade? With organized labor under increasing pressure not only from employers but from outside financial realities, escalating internal costs, a much more ethnically diverse work force, and an increasing police state mentality that abhors organizing, who cares about a parade?


So thought Ed Ott and the Executive Board of the NYC Central Labor Council. They scrapped this year's parade in favor of a more direct and relevant action -- a rally tomorrow, Saturday, September 8th, that will focus on the health care needs of those who worked cleaning up the mess after 9/11. Six years later, it's clear that there are health problems that are still surfacing and that haven't been addressed.

(Tomorrow's rally starts @ 10 am @ West Broadway between Barclay Street & Vesey Street on the north side of World Trade Center Site. Click here for more info.)

Both the strike and the rally represent a more activist approach to "celebrating" Labor Day and a return to the true core principles of unionism -- taking on issues that are actually relevant to working people.

But, of course, there were some naysayers who were wringing their hands about the loss of the parade.

Some of the mainstream media, in particular -- which has what I'd kindly call a "checkered" history when it comes to covering labor -- wrote about this change in plans. One New York Times columnist even took a sideswipe at the parade's cancellation without, obviously, ever having talked to anyone in organized labor. Ironically, a search of the Times' own online archives reveals that the paper hasn't covered the parade as a separate feature since 1996, the year that the parade was changed from Labor Day itself to the Saturday following Labor Day. The Times' moaning about the loss of a parade it never covered seems not only to be simply hypocritical, but underscores the fact that the parade isn't a good way to garner attention for real issues.

Parades were, once upon a time in the 19th and 20th centuries, one of the only ways for people to gather and make a show of force and solidarity.

However, in the 21st century, with all of the new computer-based technology that's available and a very different kind of workforce which is facing challenges unheard of in the last century or so, a stroll down Fifth Avenue doesn't quite do it.

And so, just in time for this year's Labor Day celebration, a more activist, worker-centered, modern view has finally come to the labor movement in NYC.

Welcome to the 21st century.