NEW YORK—It’s just after 5 o’clock on a sweaty Tuesday evening and New York City labor unions are having another rally. With elections looming in the fall, the city’s unions and their 1.3 million members have made a flurry of endorsements recently, though not united behind a single candidate for mayor.
In the past week, the Local 831 of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, city municipal workers’ under DC 37 of the AFL-CIO, the Transport Workers Union Local 100, the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, the TWU Local 100 for bus and subway workers, and the Plumbers Union have all picked a candidate to back.
Tuesday’s rally was put on by the Teamsters Local 237, with their newly minted candidate Bill Thompson in tow, and complete with a rock band that didn’t stop for two hours.
Organizers stated in advance that the goal of the event was to protest reductions in federal funding for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). But it ends up being a hard sell to motivate public housing residents to get out and cast their ballots in the upcoming elections.
That’s no small contingency of voters. In fact, NYCHA’s network, the largest public housing authority in the United States, is made up of 630,000 residents living in 179,000 apartments and 2,600 buildings.
The tone and mood of the rally are in keeping with other recent public housing advocacy events that have pushed NYCHA residents to participate in fall elections, or bear the consequences of loosing a potential voice in the next administration.
But the “get out the vote” message is well-disguised. According to the avalanche of speakers at the rally, it is high time to change NYCHA’s status quo: public housing in sorry disrepair, looming privatization of land at eight developments, a $70 million-plus budget shortfall, and more.
There’s one more grievance to add to the unions’ already gnawing discontent over the reduction of union employees working for the housing authority: NYCHA plans to allow private leasing of 14 sites located within eight of their developments in Manhattan south of 110th St.
The plan, known as infill, and NYCHA’s image as out of touch with its residents and unionized workers, has the crowd fired up.
For over 90 minutes, a succession of rapid-fire, mostly yelling-at-the-top-of-lungs speeches are backed by the rock-jazz band in the background that never stops playing once. Not even when mayoral candidate Bill Thompson takes the stage.
“600,000 residents of the housing authority are our neighbors and friends!” yells Thompson, who is in shirt sleeves. “I hear what the people in the housing authority are saying!”
After Thompson, a slew of labor representatives and city council members take to the stage for impassioned speeches about the vital role that the “working poor” play in New York City’s life.
“The housing authority is the last thing that keeps the city in some semblance of working order for the city’s working poor,” proclaims David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York.
After Jones comes representatives from the Social Service Union, the AFL-CIO of New York State, New York City Central Labor Council, the Legal Action Committee, the NYC Central Labor Council, the Legal Aid Society, and more. The only point where it starts to feel a bit like a rousing Sunday church service, though, is when City Council member Letitia James takes the stage.
“We’ve gotta remind people that this is a UNION TOWN!” yells James at the top of her lungs. She is running for public advocate.
James seems to get the crowd’s attention by driving home an important point: in the 2013 elections, unions are firmly elbowing their way to the table to make sure they, and their members, are heard—even if they have to literally yell at the top of their lungs outside City Hall.