Saturday, January 22, 2011

Woodlawn Cemetary Workers Rally To Fight Bosses' Threats

By Dee Knight
Bronx, N.Y.
Published Jan 20, 2011 9:45 PM

The 350,000 permanent inhabitants of Woodlawn Cemetery in the northwest Bronx were not disturbed by the militant crowd that rallied at the main gate during the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. But Woodlawn management was definitely disturbed, as they cowered behind the gate, protected by New York City police. The Jan. 17 rally was organized by Teamsters Local 808, representing the Woodlawn workers led by the Band of Brothers, who have conducted a three-year campaign against plantation-style racist abuse on the job.

The Brothers and their union are now fighting Woodlawn management’s threat to abolish almost two-thirds of the union jobs at the cemetery and replace them with a contractor who employs immigrant workers on “special visas.” Despite the intensified anti-immigrant frenzy fueled by right-wingers, Woodlawn management and other bosses prefer workers whom they can bully into thinking they have no rights and no recourse to sub-minimum-wage pay and miserable working conditions.

Enrique Coss, a leader of the Band of Brothers and union steward, told Workers World he felt “an overwhelming feeling of love at the amount of support we received.” He added, “Many standing with us know these issues affect all workers, not just the Woodlawn workers. We are lighting a torch for the sake of all workers and all union workers in a climate in which they want to bust unions and kill union contracts.”

Coss pointed out that newly elected Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City billionaire Mayor Mike Bloomberg are bringing a long-predicted storm to the workers of New York. “The storm is in the shape of Cuomo and Bloomberg, who want to bust unions, freeze pensions and get rid of union workers,” Coss said. “Today we showed the Bronx and New York that this is only the beginning of a volcano that is slowly erupting in response to this storm.”

Teamster power

Teamster power was evident at the rally. “I noticed a large group of Teamsters there: Locals 831, 805, 814 and 804, as well as 808,” Coss observed. These locals cover warehouse workers, UPS drivers, MetroNorth railroad employees and others. Local 805 President Sandy Pope, a leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union who is running for Teamsters general president, expressed strong support for Local 808 leader Chris Silvera.

Silvera said Woodlawn management talks about needing to save $750,000 per year, so they must either eliminate 23 of the 38 union jobs or impose a 35 percent pay cut. But management has not discussed eliminating some of the super-high top management salaries. Cutting just two of these, plus perks like chauffeured limos and other luxuries, would close the gap while helping to beautify the cemetery.

Silvera points out that Woodlawn is not just robbing 23 people of jobs, but the community and state itself, which would lose the wages circulating in the community and the tax money to pay for public services. Instead workers would be forced to become recipients of public services while their families would be severely hurt.

Silvera said: “This is the beginning of a struggle. We are going to make the president of this cemetery uncomfortable at his house. We’re going to take it to his house so his neighbors will know the crap that he is. This is a country that has in excess of 10 percent unemployment, and if you are telling me you want to kick me to the curb and bring a guy from 2,000 to 3,000 miles away to take my job, you got a war. The bosses are going to see an insurgency.”

Speaking of Cuomo, Silvera said, “He is anti-labor. He wants to throw 100,000 state workers off the payroll, but he doesn’t want to raise taxes on the rich — that’s wrong!

“There’s a lot wrong in this system,” Silvera continued. “This war is wrong. This war is sucking money out of the society that could go toward dealing with these budgetary problems that we face, or that they claim we face. ... We need to end the war and still tax the rich! We need to become part of a global struggle that supports people in Guatemala,” Silvera said. “NAFTA destroyed Mexico. CAFTA destroyed Central America. We are going to assault all of these trade bills. We are not going to stop here — Dr. King lives!”

Teresa Gutierrez, coordinator of the May 1 Coalition for Workers’ and Immigrants’ Rights, said that while we want jobs for all workers, including undocumented immigrants, we’re not for Brickman and Woodlawn management using the plight of workers in other countries to drag them here and use them to break unions or replace the jobs of workers here.

Strong union solidarity

Most notable in the outpouring of union solidarity was District Council 37 Local 374, workers at the world-famous New York Botanical Gardens. When these workers heard of the Band of Brothers’ struggle at nearby Woodlawn, steward Fredy Fret declared, “We’re the Band of Brothers, too.” Their banner showing unity between Local 808 and Local 374-DC37 was prominent at the rally and showed up on television reports on several channels. It was hoisted by Local 374 members wearing newly minted “Band of Brothers” sweatshirts.

Another notable delegation was workers from other cemeteries around New York City as well as Westchester County, which is just north of the Bronx. Enrique Coss commented that these workers “are going through the same issues and harsh treatments as we are. They all feel this is not just happening to us but to workers throughout the cemetery industry.”

There were also strong delegations from Transport Workers Union Local 100, including President John Samuelson, District 32BJ-Schools Division, and Service Employees union District 1199-Health Division. Also United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers, as well as the Professional Staff Congress/American Federation of Teachers at City University of New York, UNITE-HERE and the New York State Nurses Association, with members from nearby Montefiore Hospital. There were also members of the solidarity committee with the Stella D’Oro bakery workers, who put up a protracted battle a year ago.

Community joins in

The New York Labor Chorus brightened the march and rally with labor songs. There was also a delegation of high school and college students from FIST (Fight Imperialism, Stand Together). Bronx high school students carried a sign that read: “The working class has a right to a job.” Many workers’ families were present. At one point Chris Silvera noted that “if our kids are to have a future where they can actually afford to live, we have to fight back now.”

Community groups included the South Bronx Community Congress, of which the Band of Brothers are members, the Freedom Party’s Bronx chapter, the Bronx Green Party, the Bail Out the People Movement, BAYAN-Alliance for Filipino Concerns, May 1 Coalition for Workers’ and Immigrants’ Rights, Picture the Homeless, the Million Worker March Movement and Workers World Party.

In addition to union representatives, speakers included a BAYAN leader who placed the Woodlawn workers’ struggle in the context of the international fight against imperialist exploitation. Brenda Stokely of the MWMM highlighted the importance of involving the broadest possible support from all unions in New York. She and Chris Silvera highlighted the fact that there are 1.4 million union workers in New York City and that they need to be mobilized.

Gavrielle Gemma of Bail Out the People Movement called for all to pledge that if management tries to bring in contractors, “they will not get through the gates — Teamsters work at Woodlawn!” BOPM’s Larry Holmes pointed out that if Woodlawn management is permitted to prevail, it will be a setback for all workers, while a victory at Woodlawn will stimulate many more victories to come for both organized and not-yet-organized workers of all nationalities.

Pastors Lydia Lebron of the Church of the Resurrection in the south Bronx and Doug Cunningham of the New Day United Methodist Church in the northwest Bronx both spoke on behalf of their congregations, whose many members were present. Both underscored the importance of this fight against racism. Cunningham highlighted Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic observation that over and over in history the side of the oppressed has been able to win against overwhelming odds because the power of justice and right is on our side. Bronx State Assemblyperson Jose Rivera also spoke, expressing strong solidarity with the Woodlawn workers.

Next steps were announced. Chris Silvera declared that plans are underway for another rally on Presidents’ Day, Feb. 21. He added that he and other union leaders are planning a major Labor-Community Forum at Hostos College on Jan. 29 to broaden this struggle and link it to a fightback against Cuomo’s and Bloomberg’s union-busting programs.

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