By Edward Yudelovich
Published Jan 15, 2011 10:38 AM
On Jan. 7 New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg handed the Municipal Labor Committee, which includes all public sector workers and is headed by sanitation workers’ union President Harry Nespoli, a 23-point document that advocates gutting many protections for municipal workers now included in union collective bargaining agreements and New York State civil service law.
Accompanying this general attack on public workers, federal prosecutors, the New York City Department of Investigation and the City Council are all pursuing investigations of alleged slowdowns by sanitation workers. The attempt to scapegoat sanitation workers for the debacle during the Dec. 26-27 blizzard has stimulated a witch-hunt atmosphere reminiscent of McCarthyism in the 1950s.
What are the facts? First of all, the delay in snow removal was caused by reckless management decisions by Bloomberg. This includes his failure to declare a snow emergency, his failure to order the major highways be salted before the snow started falling, his reductions in snow removal personnel and equipment, and his refusal to purchase and deploy GPS technology for all snow removal operations. In short, miser billionaire Bloomberg tried to fight a blizzard on the cheap.
Sanitation workers have been working 12-14 hours shifts for two weeks to fight the blizzard and pick up uncollected garbage. The job is not only exhausting and stressful; it is also the country’s second most dangerous occupation next to lumberjack.
The attack on public workers — and now targeting sanitation workers — is a vicious, organized, anti-labor, right-wing campaign echoed by the ruling class’ liberal establishment. Wall Street banking magnates and their corporate allies are the organizers and beneficiaries of this anti-union campaign.
Similar attacks are taking place nationally to ensure that states and municipalities, which are drowning in debt, sharply reduce budgets and rip apart contracts and laws that serve the interests of the workers and the poor. Additional pressure comes from the humongous $14 trillion-plus U.S. national debt.
Though the banks are sitting on huge reserves of cash, they refuse to make further loans unless local governments and states drastically reduce budget deficits. The banks demand that interest on outstanding municipal, county and state loans be paid before all else.
The banks’ demands mirror the attacks by banks and governments in the Euro zone and Britain on European labor unions and the social contract there. Wall Street has been emboldened by the Congressional extension of outrageous tax breaks to the wealthy and Democratic President Barack Obama’s executive order for a one-year freeze of federal workers’ wages.
In the 1950s, 35 percent of all workers in the U.S. were union members. This shrunk to 25 percent in the 1970s and to only 12 percent today. Now 36 percent of public workers are union members, compared to only 7 percent of private sector workers. The majority of public sector workers are African-American, Latino/a and other oppressed people, particularly women. Attacking public workers is racist. This strategic sector of the working class has fought and won battles for all workers. It is an attack on all.
Wall Street targets key unions
In New York City the two public sector unions that have been absolutely key to the struggles for workers’ rights have been Transit Workers Union Local 100 and the sanitation workers, Teamsters Local 831. If these two unions were ever to strike at the same time, life in New York would grind to a halt. This is why they are targeted.
In December 2005 for two and a half days, 33,000 members of TWU Local 100 — 70 percent of whom are Black, Latino/a or Asian — challenged Wall Street, the governor and the mayor of New York, as well as the courts and the hostile capitalist media. The workers courageously voted to strike despite the severe retaliatory provisions of New York State’s Taylor Law: fines for each worker of two day’s pay for each day on strike, possible fines for the union of a million dollars a day, and loss of dues check-off rights.
During New York’s mid-1970s fiscal crisis, the city laid off 50,000 workers. When the mayor asked the federal government for emergency economic assistance, President Gerald Ford refused it. Or as the Oct. 30, 1975, Daily News front page put it: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” On June 4, 1975, 10,000 union members marched on Wall Street demanding that the city not balance the budget on the backs of the workers. In this spirit the sanitation workers conducted a wildcat strike on July 1, 1975.
Seven years earlier, 7,000 sanitation workers had gathered in New York’s City Hall Park and voted to go on strike to get a decent contract. For years the city had an unfair official policy: Sanitation worker salaries had to be lower than police and firefighters’ salaries, and sanitation workers had to contribute more from their paychecks, but got lower pensions, compared to police and firefighters. The 1968 strike continued from Feb. 2 to 10, despite the media’s demonization of the sanitation workers, which was similar to today’s slanders.
Union President John Delury was jailed. New York City Mayor John Lindsay asked the city’s largest worker union, District Council 37, to take over the duties of the sanitation workers and break the strike. When DC37 refused to scab, Lindsay asked New York State Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to send in the National Guard to pick up New York’s garbage. DC37 and the other unions threatened a general strike of all public city workers, and possibly all private sector workers in the city, if the National Guard was brought in.
On Feb. 10, 1968, the New York Times begged Rockefeller not to call in the guard to avoid “insuring a general strike by all municipal civil service employees, and perhaps by all New York labor.” Only then did Rockefeller flinch. He declined Lindsay’s request and the strike was settled.
Two days after New York’s 1968 strike ended, the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tenn., also went on strike. In April Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike and was assassinated there on April 4. In response to the murder of this great African-American leader, more than 100 oppressed communities nationwide erupted in rebellion.
Jessie Epps is a veteran labor organizer who was personally involved with the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ “I Am a Man” strike. Epps was with Dr. King that April 4. At a 2008 New York City sanitation workers’ union celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday becoming a holiday, Epps said, “It was you who gave [the Memphis Sanitation Workers] the courage to act. It was these men from New York, if I may use the colloquialism, that fired the shot and made America stand up and its conscience be pricked and compelled Dr. King and others like him to come into the fray.”
This kind of spirit of solidarity and resistance is desperately needed today. In many European countries labor, youth and the oppressed communities are fighting back with general strikes and mass demonstrations. In the U.S., however, these forces have not yet mobilized with the same numbers and energy. And two U.S. imperialist wars are raging against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, with saber-rattling threats launched every day against the peoples of north Korea and Iran.
What is needed here is to mobilize unions from the public and private sectors, workers, youth, and progressive and anti-war movements, joining with the unemployed and oppressed communities. We must confront the banks, the billionaires and their surrogates like New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg, today’s successors of Rockefeller and Lindsay of the 1960s.
Articles copyright 1995-2011 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.