Gotham Gazette Thu, 19 Jul 2018 00:26:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) ‘It’s Really a Race’: Supreme Court Ruling Intensifies High-Stakes Battle for Public Workers gov cuomo legisla

Gov. Cuomo supports labor unions (photo via the Governor's office)

On a recent morning, Pam Stemberg tiptoed toward an open doorway. "My job is to stalk people," she said. 

That's not quite her job. An English professor at City College in Upper Manhattan, Stemberg chases down colleagues in her second role as a union organizer. But her union pitch hasn't emphasized pocketbook issues like wages or benefits; it’s been focused on the threat posed by a Supreme Court case called Janus v. AFSCME, which concerns whether millions of public sector workers nationwide can opt out of the fees imposed by the union that represents them.

On Wednesday, the high court handed down a landmark 5-4 ruling that labor advocates like Stemberg feared and conservative groups sought: public workers can now opt out of union fees and must affirmatively opt in. 

The ruling intensifies a high-stakes recruiting war as public sector unions try to keep workers paying fees, while conservative groups persuade them to opt out or not opt in at all. If a critical mass of workers chooses to stop paying, it could financially cripple public sector unions, hurt their ability to organize and negotiate, and diminish their political contributions, which largely support Democrats. The outcome of the recruiting battle will determine the power of organized labor in New York, the nation’s most unionized state, with ramifications for much of the policy that comes out of Albany and City Hall. 

"It's really a race," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, a union that represents 1.6 million public employees nationwide and has affiliates with over 600,000 public workers and retirees in New York state, during an interview earlier this year. “This is an existential threat.”

At issue in the case were agency fees, payments assessed to workers whether or not they join the union at their job as full-fledged members. The lawyers for Illinois child support specialist Mark Janus argued that such fees violate workers’ free speech rights, since the payments go to support collective bargaining.

Because the salaries of public workers are borne by taxpayers, the bargaining services amount to coerced political speech, the lawyers argued. Unions said the fees are necessary because workers who decline to pay them become freeloaders, benefiting from union services without financially supporting them.

Ultimately, Janus prevailed. The high court’s five conservatives sided with Janus, while its four liberals dissented. Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch, who cast apparently decisive votes on Tuesday in contentious cases concerning abortion and the Trump travel ban, again showed his impact on the court.

Overall union membership in the United States has plummeted for decades, reaching an all-time low of 10.7 percent in 2016, but public-sector union membership nationwide has held steady at a far higher rate of 34.4 percent. That rate is even greater in New York, where two out of every three of the state's 1.4 million public sector workers belong to a union, the highest such rate for any state in the country.

Now that public sector union fees are optional, some workers will likely rescind their payments, reducing union revenues. Consider Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana, where right-to-work laws passed in the last decade have contributed to an average 2.1 percentage point drop in union membership, according to the left-leaning Illinois Economic Policy Institute.

The decision in favor of Janus will result in the eventual loss of 726,000 public sector union members nationwide, a decline of 15.3% in the 22 states that, until now, have required workers to pay union fees, an Illinois Economic Policy Institute report said last month. The study predicts that 136,000 of those lost fee-payers will be in New York, a more than 10-percent drop in the state.

The unions have sought to minimize their potential post-Janus losses by converting fee-payers to full-fledged members, and so retaining their payments, said Shaun Richman, program director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College and a former organizing director with the AFT.

“The public sector unions are making sure they ask every single represented worker to join,” he said.

The Professional Staff Congress, or PSC, a union that represents 30,000 faculty and staff in the public university system in New York City, added two full-time organizers to what was a staff of five, said vice president Mike Fabricant. Another 200 union members, including Stemberg, have been talking to coworkers one-on-one about the importance of supporting the union, Fabricant said.

“They’re the lifeblood,” he said. “When a faculty member or staff person makes that argument it has a different gravity than when a PSC organizer does.”  

A year ago, 86 percent of full-time professors represented by PSC were members; now 94 percent are, Fabricant said several weeks ago. The union has also seen an uptick in membership among adjunct professors: 54 percent a year ago has jumped to 62 percent, he added.

In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that helps unions soften the blow of a decision in favor of Janus. The law requires public employers to inform unions of new hires and let them meet with the workers within 30 days; it also allows the unions to deny some services to workers who opt out of paying fees.

But the decision in favor of Janus will intensify right-wing outreach aiming to encourage public workers to opt out of union fees, said Dan DiSalvo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a professor of political science down the hall from Stemberg, at City College. In recent weeks, the conservative Freedom Foundation has sent mailings to workers on the West Coast about their now newfound opportunity to opt out. In the past, the Freedom Foundation has event sent organizers to knock on workers' doors.

“It’s a communications war,” DiSalvo said.

“The position of Janus is his First Amendment rights are being violated because he’s being forced as a condition of his job to pay into an organization with which he disagrees politically,” DiSalvo said. Conservative groups are “not trying to recruit anyone to become a conservative or anything like that, but to inform people of their rights.”

Richman says such recruitment will eventually reach populous blue states, the union strongholds.

“Nobody should be under any illusions that that’s not going to happen in Illinois, in California, in New York,” Richman said. “You might think they’re going to get punched in the face if they knock on the door to get people out of the union. They’re going to do it anyway.”

If public sector workers decline initial overtures from such groups, the workers can still withdraw from union fees down the road. “This is something that’s going to play out a bit longer than ‘oh, today there are unions; tomorrow there aren’t,’” said Richman.

The political implications could be significant, reducing the power not only of public sector unions but of the liberal politicians they support. “Perhaps there will be a rebalancing of the political playing field in states like California and New York,” said DiSalvo. “There might be a better policy mix.”

At the April signing of a bill to help unions in the event of a ruling in favor of Janus, Cuomo condemned the anticipated decision as an attack on workers.

"Too often, and at the hands of this federal administration, we are seeing the labor movement going backwards,” he said. “In New York it is a different story, and our efforts to protect working men and women are moving labor forward, making the workplace fairer and more just than ever before.

On this issue, Mayor Bill de Blasio appears to be in lockstep. "Organized labor brought us the middle class in this country," de Blasio reportedly said on Tuesday when asked about the then-impending Janus decision, adding that the anticipated outcome would be misguided and troublesome.

When the ruling came down on Wednesday, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew issued a statement, saying: “The Janus decision reflects years of scheming by forces desperate to destroy workers' rights and to undermine public education." He added that the teachers union "will remain strong, and we will not be silenced. Everything we have been able to accomplish for our members and our students has come from our ability to work together, and we will continue to fight for the rights of workers, their families and for public education.”

Stemberg said when she talks to coworkers, she focuses on building bonds, hoping that will minimizing any long-term losses. “You’re not only getting them to sign up but to value the union,” she said.

She said the organizing around a Janus decision has been bittersweet.

“I’m so grateful more people are paying attention,” she said. “Did I want it to be this way with Damocles’ sword hanging over our heads? Absolutely not—it’s scary.”

by Max Zahn for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette @MaxZahn_

‘It’s Really a Race’: Supreme Court Ruling Intensifies High-Stakes Battle for Public Workers Wed, 27 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Fallacy of Janus at The Supreme Court uft arthurgold feb

photo: @UFT

The Supreme Court of the United States will shortly rule on the Janus v. AFSCME case. Janus contends that any and all union activity is inherently political, that no one should have to contribute anything to union activity, and that we should therefore become a “right to work” nation. That’s an interesting concept.

My union, the United Federation of Teachers, has a political fund called COPE, and I contribute. I frequently disagree with UFT candidate endorsements and decisions, but I believe it’s important to empower our union. Not all of my friends believe that, but contributions to the political fund are strictly voluntary.

Union does, however, help press for things like higher pay, better working conditions, and increased benefits. We teachers and our union are frequently criticized for those demands. I see our working conditions as student learning conditions. I see our profession as a pathway to the middle class. At least two of my former students are now my colleagues, something I’m proud of. I think it’s our responsibility to leave our profession better for future generations. Of course, others may disagree with what we strive for.

It’s entirely possible there may be a class of teachers who want more work, less pay, and fewer benefits. A ruling for Janus, which would certainly weaken unions, could help achieve that. I’m UFT chapter leader at the largest school in Queens, and I represent Democrats, Republicans, and independents. I’ve never met a single member who wanted more work, less pay, and fewer benefits, but I don’t doubt they may exist. There are over 200,000 UFT members, and I don’t know them all.

Nonetheless, I’m fascinated by the concept that Americans ought not to be compelled to contribute toward political activity that, at least in theory, benefits them. If SCOTUS rules for Janus (and smart money says it will), then this “freedom” ought not to be limited to union activity. For example, like many Americans, I don’t want to pay for Donald Trump’s golf outings. Why, then, is my money covering those trips?

In fact, I don’t really want to pay for Jared and Ivanka in the White House either. I understand Ivanka may not be taking a salary, but I’m sure she incurs expenses -- an office in the White House can’t be cost-free. Why do I need to pay for the space and upkeep? I’d like to opt out of that as well.

It’s entirely conceivable that Donald Trump may start a war to divert attention from the ever-rising tide of scandal that perpetually engulfs him. If he does, I’d rather not pay. If he ever builds that wall, I don’t want to pay for that either. I could go on.

I understand that, under the new Trump tax system, New York will be further picking up the tab for states that levy little or no income tax. Why should New Yorkers have to do that? If other states don’t wish to tax their citizens, it shouldn’t be up to us to build their roads or pay for their services. Maybe, like the union members who want more work for less pay, those states have residents who don’t want roads or services.  They should have the absolute right to live without them, and we ought not to get in their way.

Like a state or country, a union is a group of people who share an interest. Together we try to make things better for our group. We work together to advance our interests, and that’s why we have collective bargaining. I understand that, in a large union and in a democracy, I may not always agree with the direction in which we’re moving, but I have to do my part. And more broadly, I understand, as a citizen, that I have to do my part.

I freely acknowledge that our union may not be adequately representing the interests of teachers who want more work for less pay. I can understand that they may wish to opt out of union dues, even if doing so leaves them with more pay in the short run. (Call me cynical, but, if the SCOTUS ruling goes for Janus, I suspect some people who don’t want more work for less pay will also opt out just to save a few bucks.) The fact is that so-called right to work states have lower pay and fewer benefits, and that could become the norm after Janus.

However, if union activity is inherently political, so is government activity. If people are permitted to opt out of union dues, we ought to also be able to opt out of taxes. As soon as we can do that, I will consider supporting Janus.

But until that happens, everyone who benefits from a union should pay their fair share.

Arthur Goldstein is an ESL teacher and UFT chapter leader for Francis Lewis High School. On Twitter @TeacherArthurG.

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The Fallacy of Janus at The Supreme Court Mon, 26 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
More Than 400 City Workers Have Utilized De Blasio Paid Parental Leave Policy de Blasio paid parental leave city hall

De Blasio signs parental leave order, Jan. 2016 (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

In the nearly two years since Mayor Bill de Blasio made six weeks of paid parental leave available to about 20,000 city employees, more than 400 have taken advantage of the added benefit.

The number through September 30 was 436 individuals, including an almost even split among men (203) and women (221), according to city data (12 who have utilized the program were “unknown” in terms of gender). The policy, announced by de Blasio in December 2015 and signed in January 2016 into retroactive effect beginning November 9, 2015, covers city employees who are not part of labor unions where such benefits must be collectively bargained. De Blasio and his aides have indicated that paid family leave is part of the recently-begun next round of contract negotiations with the city’s municipal unions.

Similar to his implementation of a $15 per hour minimum wage for city employees and those in city-contracted nonprofits, de Blasio’s move on paid family leave has been seen as part of the successful push for similar statewide programs that Governor Andrew Cuomo championed and pushed through the state Legislature in 2016.

"A parent never forgets those first few weeks after their baby is born, and we certainly did not want to stand in the way of those moments,” de Blasio said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Paid parental leave is a common sense policy that will make for healthier and more financially stable working families – making it good for employees and employers. We couldn't be happier that almost two years in it’s proven to be such a useful policy for our new parents."

Before de Blasio’s policy, city employees who wanted to take paid time off to be with a newly born or adopted child had to use vacation and sick days. Employees can still use those other days in addition to the six weeks provided by the city to its managerial and other employees not represented by unions.

According to city data provided to Gotham Gazette upon request, the 436 employees who have availed themselves of the new paid parental leave policy through September 30 average 37.5 years of age and seven years of service with the city. They work at 41 of 63 eligible agencies, a number that includes the Mayor’s Office. A total of more than 10,600 days had been used under the policy, with the average use 24 days.

When de Blasio announced the benefit in December 2015, a City Hall press release said the “new policy brings New York City in line with the most generous localities in the country, Austin and Pittsburgh.”

That press release also noted that the city was ready to enter negotiations with labor unions to extend the benefit to their members -- there are about 300,000 unionized municipal employees, including teachers, police officers, and many others. But, none of the contracts have been amended to include paid parental leave, so it is part of the equation in new contracts being negotiated.

A City Hall spokesperson for labor-related matters, Freddi Goldstein, told Gotham Gazette that “Paid Parental Leave is a benefit that that must be dealt with during contract negotiations and we’ll be having those conversations with all interested parties during the next round of collective bargaining.”

That round of bargaining is already underway for some unions. When de Blasio came into office in 2014, all of the city’s municipal labor unions were operating under expired contracts and there was a great deal of frustration among union leaders and members. De Blasio and his team, led by labor relations chief Bob Linn, moved quickly to settle new contracts, which included retroactive pay raises. But because some of the deals were going back several years, it is again time for a new batch of contracts and an established pattern, whereby the first major contract struck, with the teachers union for example, will establish guidelines for the contracts with other unions.

Beyond the obvious, the December 2015 announcement by the de Blasio administration also noted other reasons to offer paid family leave to employees: “Studies consistently show the positive impact of paid parental leave not just for employees, but also for employers and the people they serve – helping to reduce turnover, while ensuring that employees are able to return to work ready...Additional studies have found that families that benefit from paid leave are less likely to receive public assistance, and that the program can substantially reduce infant mortality rates and improve a child’s overall health.”

According to the city, the current program costs city taxpayers nothing additional, given that it is provided through “repurposing” of a managerial raise scheduled for this past July and of two vacation days allotted to the city’s longest-serving employees.

The state policy signed into law by Cuomo in April 2016, meanwhile, will cover employees at most businesses and nonprofits for 12 weeks of paid parental leave and will begin to be phased in starting in January 2018. It will reach full capacity in 2021, at which time eligible employees will be able to receive “67 percent of their average weekly wage, capped to 67 percent of the statewide average weekly wage.” The program will be funded via a small employee payroll deduction, it will not cost employers anything, other than minimal administrative work. Employees must have worked for their employer for six months to be eligible.

According to City Hall, the state policy will not change the city policy for its relevant staff, nor will it dictate collective bargaining -- it largely applies to the private sector.

[Read: With Some Contracts Now Expired, De Blasio Administration Begins Next Labor Negotiations]

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

More Than 400 City Workers Have Utilized De Blasio Paid Parental Leave Policy Sun, 29 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Voters to Fill Vacant Bronx Council Seat in Special Election salamanca

Rafael Salamanca meets voters before Tuesday's election (via @JohnJrBX)

Residents of District 17 in the Bronx will vote for a new City Council Member on Tuesday in a special election to fill the vacancy left by former Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who resigned and the end of last year. As with all special elections for the City Council not held on regularly scheduled election days, it is a nonpartisan contest, meaning no candidate will appear on the major party ballot lines. Instead, each candidate had to create his or her own “party.”

Voter turnout is expected to be low and the winner will likely be decided by level of institutional support - from labor unions and the Democratic Party apparatus - and access to campaign funds. The winner is all but certain to enter the Council as a Democrat - the Bronx is overwhelmingly Democratic in terms of party registration and the party identification of elected officials (every elected official representing the Bronx at all three levels of government is a Democrat).

There are six candidates still in the running, down from eleven initial contenders after several were knocked from ballot contention for various mistakes. Those who will be on the ballot include small business owner George Alvarez; Marlon Molina, a community activist and banker; Joann Otero, former chief of staff for del Carmen Arroyo; Julio Pabon, an activist and entrepreneur; J. Loren Russell, a financial consultant; and Rafael Salamanca, Jr., district manager at Bronx Community Board 2.

In this crowded field, Salamanca, Jr. seems to be the frontrunner, with the backing of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, support from Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and virtually all of the City Council members from the Bronx, as well as the endorsement of Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s mother, Carmen Arroyo.  

Salamanca, who was also endorsed by the District Council 37 labor union, has far surpassed his opponents in raising campaign funds. He has raised $70,107 and has received $36,732 in public matching funds. Other candidates have raised $7,000-$20,000. Russell and Pabon are the closest - Russell has raised $15,795 and received $42,846 in matching funds; Pabon has raised $15,813 and received $33,432 in matching funds.

“Usually the candidate with the most institutional support wins a special election,” said Jerry Skurnik of Prime NY, a political consultancy. He pointed out that the short timeframe within which special elections are held are an advantage to candidates like Salamanca, who have the local political machinery behind them. City Council special elections are usually held on the first Tuesday after a seat has been vacant for 45 days.

Skurnik also said that other candidates only stand a chance if they can outspend opponents or invoke wide grassroots support. “There have been some upsets in special elections, but there’s usually some kind of special circumstance which doesn’t look like it’s happening in this Bronx special election,” he said.

One major issue in specials is getting people out to vote. “Between 5 and 10 percent of registered voters is relatively good for a special election,” Skurnik said. The numbers bear this out.

Three recent elections to City Council seats give an indication of what turnout looks like. Donovan Richards won the 31st Council District in Queens in a special election held on Feb. 19, 2013. There were 76,866 active voters enrolled in the district in 2012 (the number increased to 81,165 as of April the next year). Of those active voters, 9,147 - or 11.89 percent - cast their ballots in that special election, with 2,646 voting for Richards.

The other two elections, for District 51 in Staten Island and District 23 in Queens, were technically not special elections, in that they weren’t nonpartisan, but they were held this past year to replace two Council Members who resigned midway through their terms. A primary was held in September followed by the general election on November 3, Election Day. But the voter statistics are comparable.

Held in a low-key election cycle in an off-year, turnout was low, but relatively higher than with Richards’ election. In District 23, there were 11,305 votes cast (13.9 percent of the 81,027 active voters in the district), with 6,156 going to the winner, Barry Grodenchik, a Democrat.

In District 51, Republican Joe Borelli received 9,111 votes out of the 13,002 cast (14.2 percent of the 91,224 active registered voters) even though he ran unopposed.

To reach out to the 71,795 active registered voters from District 17 to get them to vote in Tuesday’s special election, the Bronx-based nonprofit Nos Quedamos Community Development Corporation partnered with the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s voter engagement arm, NYC Votes.

Nos Quedamos organized a community forum last month, livestreamed by BronxNet, to inform residents of del Carmen Arroyo’s resignation and to introduce the candidates who wanted to replace her. Ten of the eleven initial candidates were present.

Nos Quedamos has also been holding a voter registration drive for the last two weeks, first targeting the large concentration of homeless shelters in the district, whose residents are often overlooked when it comes to registering to vote. As election day approaches, they have been focused on reaching out to the nearly 4,000 housing units in the 19 buildings in their organization’s network.

“For special elections like this, (turnout) is a concern for us because it’s not on everyone’s radar,” said Jessica Clemente, CEO and president of Nos Quedamos. She said the resignation announcement being made over the holidays meant that very few people were aware that their Council representative had resigned and Nos Quedamos had little time to tell them. “Forty-five days is a blink of an eye,” Clemente said, pointing out that grassroots door-knocking is crucial in such a short time frame to inform voters and bring them to the polls.

“You are always going to have low voter turnout when a special election is held,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good government advocacy group. “But better it’s held in an open nonpartisan way than a closed partisan way because voters at least have a choice of candidates in City Council special elections.”

Citizens Union last year called for state legislature vacancies to be filled through nonpartisan elections so that they are no longer “party-controlled coronations.”

Dadey conceded that party support does still have a role to play in nonpartisan elections. “The major political parties still exercise a great degree of control because of their ability to pull out voters and support candidates,” he said. “But we’ve seen time and time again where the favorite candidate does not always win. So there’s an opportunity for community leaders unaffiliated with a political party to win an election.”

[Related: Special Election Spotlights Machine Politics in the Bronx]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

Note: this article has been updated to clarify that it is Carmen Arroyo, not Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who has endorsed Salamanca; and to add campaign finance information for candidate J. Loren Russell.

Voters to Fill Vacant Bronx Council Seat in Special Election Mon, 22 Feb 2016 03:24:54 +0000
Labor Leaders Declare State of Unions Strong, At Least in New York de blasio uft

Mayor de Blasio at a UFT conference (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Four of New York's top labor leaders assembled recently to give a state of their unions, and to assess the broader union climate in New York and elsewhere.

Each sounding like a determined boxer in the middle rounds of a grueling fight, they decried attacks on unions across the country, but indicated that they are pleased with the strength of the labor movement in New York. They credited intra- and inter-union solidarity for much of the movement's staying power, at times referencing the importance of relationships with community groups and City Hall - making sure to acknowledge the new, more union-friendly occupant of the mayor's office.

While unions have taken legal and membership hits across the country in recent years, labor has indeed remained relatively strong in New York. City union leaders speaking to this phenomenon alternate between sounding hesitantly triumphant and passionately defiant. Never far from their minds, it seems, is that what the labor movement has fought for could slip away any time.

At a panel discussion titled "What is the future of organized labor in New York?" hosted by the government relations practice group of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, the assembled union heads were Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers; Harry Nespoli, President of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association; Gregory Floyd, President of Local 237 Teamsters; and Vincent Alvarez, President of New York City Central Labor Council. They were questioned by two moderators, both Stroock attorneys: Alan M. Klinger and Robert Abrams, who is also former New York State Attorney General.

"The state of unions in New York City is strong," said Mulgrew, of the teachers union, citing "the relationships of the union leaders" as essential to the survival and success of labor.

Time and again, Mulgrew and others referenced the fight that is often characteristic of union work, with the UFT president at one point describing a 20-year "war" with City Hall, referencing his union's relationship with Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. He also noted that public opinion of unions is on the upswing after some decline, saying that the broader population has come to appreciate unions more as they realize corporations and many government officials do not have workers' best interest at heart.

At the Stroock event, the labor leaders referred to lobbyists and corporate interests as out for union demise, with Mulgrew saying, "there's a group who are advocating for what they want for their industries or for their own bottom lines. They want more profit and they don't care what they have to do to get it. And if that is to leverage a state or a local municipality to get breaks the way they want, they'll do it."

Mulgrew's city chapter has been part of a larger, ongoing teachers union feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has aligned himself with an education reform movement that is highly critical of the teachers unions and is supported by wealthy donors. Cuomo has said he intends to break the teachers union "monopoly" on public education.

"I said it, and I'll say it again," said Nespoli of the sanitation workers union, in one of his several segments of animated commentary, "New York, we're the last of the Mohicans. If you look throughout the country, what they did to unions is a disgrace; what they did to the middle class."

The data on union membership and wages support Nespoli's point. Nationwide, about 11 percent of workers belong to a union, indicative of a steady, decades-long decline according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1973, the national rate was 24 percent - which is about New York's current rate. Still, New York's union rate was 35.5 percent in 1964. New York has historically been a place of labor union strength and continues to be so, though union leaders note without prompting that unions continue to feel under threat and in a perpetual fight to survive.

For evidence, union bosses, especially Mulgrew, need look no further than the ongoing legal challenge to teacher tenure laws. A case in New York is modeled after a successful California case (set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court) alleging that tenure rules violate students' civil rights because they lead to weaker teachers with strong job protection in disadvantaged schools.

There are currently about 2 million union workers in New York State, with about 877,000 union members in New York City, according to the Joseph Murphy Institute at CUNY Graduate Center. New York City has about 25 percent union membership, about the same as the state overall. Albany has the highest metro area union membership rate in the state, about 36 percent of the capital's workforce is union. In the city, about 70 percent of government employees are union; whereas private sector workers are about 18 percent unionized.

More than 100,000 of the city's union workers are UFT members (the union also has many thousands of members who are retired, of course). Mulgrew said that 40 years of attacks on unions did some damage, but that things are trending up. "We're part of the solution," Mulgrew said, "I know that the teacher unions, the city and state teacher unions, are trusted more than the elected officials. When's the last time that happened?"

Key to this trend, he said, is partnership with community-based groups. Unions, Mulgrew asserted, were in the past too myopic, only focusing on their members and their issues. It is essential, he said - and others agreed - that individual unions support each other, while also partnering with community and advocacy groups. "That's what makes New York different, the fact that we communicate with each other," Nespoli said of leaders of different unions.

Floyd said, "Well, it's important for us to understand that we not only represent our members, but we represent the community. Because, without the labor movement, there would be no middle class."

A different approach has produced results.

"It starts in New York City," Mulgrew told Gotham Gazette after the panel, "I mean, for my union, you could just see in all the polls - when it was us against Bloomberg, by the end [the public] trusted us much more than they trusted the mayor. Now, the same thing's happening with the governor." Adding that it is on education issues, but also throughout the city and state, "the whole idea of unions is trending upwards."

Indeed, a September Quinnipiac poll found that "voters statewide trust the teachers' unions more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo to improve education in New York State 54 - 31 percent." Quinnipiac did note, though, that that margin was slimmer in New York City (47 - 43 percent).

There has been a stark contrast between public sector unions' relationship with Mayor de Blasio and with Gov. Cuomo. But the disparity in positivity has been shrinking as Cuomo has championed a higher minimum wage.

"And let's not make any mistakes about it, the $15 an hour wage increase that the governor has put forth is because the union movement had it on its agenda," Floyd said of union impact on public policy.

As much as de Blasio and Mulgrew have praised each other, coming to a much-needed new contract for city teachers that also set the bargaining pattern for others, it is not all rosy between labor and city government, of course.

The Policemen's Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file NYPD officers, did not agree to the pattern the de Blasio administration established with the UFT and then uniformed unions, and is now in arbitration with the city. The proceedings are not going well for the PBA and it may come around to accept what other unions have gone with. (The UFT contract announced May 1, 2014 covers nine years, some retroactive, expiring October 31, 2018. The PBA may be able to pursue a deal akin to what firefighters have inked with City Hall, more in line with the uniformed worker pattern that is slightly different from the non-uniform one.)

Some have called the union deals inked by de Blasio too generous. Meanwhile, Nespoli is among those who think that those contracts were not as good for labor as they could or should have been. At the Stroock panel, he said the public should know that labor made concessions.

"We sat down, we made adjustments and we got the contract done and we saved a ton of money," Nespoli said. "This city right now is in great shape financially. Don't ever let anybody tell you they're not because they're all full of it. They have the money. They have it. And thank God that the tourists are still coming in here. And that's thanks to the city workers that actually take care of this city to make it safe, clean, and teachers, and custodians and sanitation workers, police, fire - that's the backbone here."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Labor Leaders Declare State of Unions Strong, At Least in New York Wed, 11 Nov 2015 21:09:13 +0000