Low-Wage Workers March in New York — Will It Make a Difference?

Several thousand union and non-union workers came together in Manhattan the afternoon of July 24 for an unusual display of solidarity between people who until the 2008 economic crisis had often seemed to belong to completely different social classes.

The event, the “New York Workers Rising Day of Action,” brought out a mix of low-wage workers — car washers, cab drivers, domestic workers, retail and restaurant employees — and members of long-established unions for a series of protests.  About 500 low-wage workers marched 17 blocks down Broadway starting at 4 pm, with brief pickets along the way at local stores and restaurants accused of exploiting workers.  At 5 pm, the marchers joined a rally that filled the north end of Union Square.  Another march then left from Union Square to join locked-out electrical workers rallying at the nearby Irving Place headquarters of New York’s main power company, Consolidated Edison.  In the evening there were more pickets, some in the Union Square area, some as far away as Brooklyn and Queens.

“In my years fighting for working people, I witnessed something on July 24 I never thought I would see,” Camille Rivera, who heads UnitedNY, the action’s main sponsor, wrote afterwards.  Low-wage workers and union leaders had “found a way to bring all of our causes — all of our fights for a fair economy for all — together.”

More than 100 years ago Rosa Luxemburg wrote that “cooperation of organized and unorganized workers” is necessary for victories by working people.  Was July 24 a step in that direction?  And if so, what can be done to keep the process moving?

Low-Wage Workers on the Move

The idea for July 24 came from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which planned a national event to put pressure on Congress for an increase in the federal minimum wage; the last increase took effect on July 24, 2009, from $6.55 to $7.25.  But it was hard for sponsors of the New York City action to keep the focus on legislation.

Labor organizing has been going on for years among New York’s low-wage workers — mostly immigrants and other people of color — but until recently it has generally stayed below the surface.  Now this organizing has become more visible, with something like 10 campaigns getting public attention and varying degrees of community support.

Supermarket workers at smaller shops in Brooklyn have been organizing with New York Communities for Change, Make the Road NY, and Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and United Food and Commercial Workers (UCFW).

— The Restaurant Workers Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) has been holding regular protests outside a Capital Grille restaurant in Manhattan to demand better pay and a promotion policy for immigrant workers and workers of color.

Protesters have picketed Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets to support demands from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based farm workers’ organization.

The list goes on: there are organizing drives at car washes, among contract employees at area airports, among cab drivers, nannies, housekeepers, caregivers for seniors.

Activists involved in this sort of ferment weren’t likely to limit themselves to asking for better legislation from a do-nothing Congress in an election year.  And they had the precedent of recent actions that pulled together demands from many of the city’s social sectors: last fall a number of unions and community groups backed marches supporting Occupy Wall Street, and this year’s May 1 demonstration combined a unified main march with picket lines at different locations.

Add to all this the lockout at Con Edison — an unpopular utility with a history of blackouts and brownouts now shutting out its employees for almost a month in a summer expected to set heat records.  It’s easy to see why the emphasis would shift from legislation to calls for mutual support among the locked out and the excluded.

Drowning Out the Politicians

The result was a strikingly diverse and energetic crowd at Union Square.  Clusters of Con Edison employees, many of them older white males, mingled with young workers of color, including a large number of immigrants and women.  Hand-lettered signs dominated: “Con Edison took away my American dream,” “Cheap-otle, workers’ hell,” “99%.” “Lolita Low Wage,” a young woman in a maid’s uniform, carried a sign asking: “Hey Wall $treet, can U spare this low wage worker a dime?”  A people of faith contingent carried a biblical Golden Calf — a gold-painted replica of Wall Street’s Charging Bull labeled “False Idol.”

An organizer of low-wage workers complained — off the record — that UnitedNY’s approach to the event was too “top down.” A former official in one of the city’s largest unions said — again, off the record — that far from supporting actions like July 24, the leadership of United Utility Workers of America Local 1-2, the Con Edison workers’ union, had actually discouraged solidarity demonstrations even by other unions.  Still, the timidity of the leaders failed to dampen the crowd’s spirits.

Politicians addressed the Union Square rally — including at least three candidates for mayor in the 2013 elections — but the sound system wasn’t strong enough to reach all the participants.  Eventually a group of Latino workers started up the traditional chant, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” the people united will never be defeated, and the demonstrators around them gave up trying to hear the speeches.

Of course, it isn’t clear how united the people are at this point.  There are many prejudices that work against the “cooperation of the organized and the unorganized”: racism, sexism, an endemic xenophobia reinforced by decades of media rants against “illegal immigrants.”

One way to counter these prejudices, according to longtime local union organizer Ray Laforest, is to explain to the better-paid workers how their own interests are connected to the well-being of low-wage workers: how raising the pay rates for the workers at the bottom creates upward pressure on wages for other workers.  But it’s not easy to get relatively privileged workers to absorb this message, Laforest acknowledged.  “I can explain it, but the problem is getting them to make it their own.”

“Getting Educated”

But it’s also important for unionized workers to participate in events like July 24, Laforest said.  “They get educated.”

For one thing, they start to see the practical advantages of finding allies among low-wage workers, who account for about 31 percent of the workforce in New York.  Mike Friedman, an adjunct professor at the City University of New York, marched to the Union Square rally with a contingent of about 200 Con Edison workers.  They were impressed with the size of the crowd, Friedman reported.  “Look at all the people!” they kept saying.

One of the smaller protests that followed the main rally was an informational picket line around 7 pm outside the Capital Grille restaurant near Grand Central Station on 42nd Street.  These protests normally draw about 20 people; this time the group was double the usual size, thanks to a tired but enthusiastic contingent from the UnitedNY youth brigade.

Passersby in the area at that hour tend to be office workers who have stayed late at the job or have had something to eat before they start the commute home.  A few have always been sympathetic to a workers’ demonstration; despite better pay and working conditions, most office workers aren’t dramatically better off than restaurant employees.  But the passersby seemed more receptive now than in past years, more willing to take a flier, more likely to smile.

On July 26, two days after New York Workers Rising, Gov. Andrew Cuomo brokered a tentative agreement between Con Edison and Local 1-2, ending the lockout.  Officials said the impetus came from concern about a threat of major electrical storms over the next few days.  They may also have been worried about the political climate — about the possibility of a political storm if another major blackout had resulted from the giant utility’s anti-worker policies.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.  He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.

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