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How to Shop Small This Holiday Season


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(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The holiday season is upon us and we all know the temptation of online shopping. The ease of getting the things we want at the click of a button might seem harmless, but it has major consequences for local small businesses.

Shopping online takes away from the livelihood of local residents and strips the community of its extraordinary businesses. E-commerce also means you don’t have the ability to inspect your purchases before receipt, you have to go through the hassle of repackaging and returning items you don’t want to keep, and you’re depriving yourself of getting to know the business owners in your neighborhood.

The better way is the smaller way. Shopping small means you’re supporting your community. Small businesses are the backbone of New York’s local economy, with over 230,000 businesses, employing 3.69 million people. Besides contributing to the workforce, small businesses connect communities and help create unique, energetic neighborhoods throughout our city.

As the holiday shopping season approaches, I’m encouraging all New Yorkers to show some love to our small businesses. Here are some ways you can help your local small businesses that extend beyond just your purchasing power:

Participate in Small Business Saturday. Avoid the Black Friday mayhem and shop small on Saturday, November 30.

Pledge Your Shopping List to Your Community. This holiday season make a commitment to buy half of your shopping list from local small businesses. Jewelry, clothing, pottery, and books are all great gifts that can be found in your neighborhood. Consider gifting a “made in New York” basket with your favorite local items. 

Share Small Business Content on Social Media. A great way to support your favorite local businesses is to share their content on social media. It can be as simple as posting a picture on Instagram or checking in on Facebook.

Leave Positive Reviews. While word-of-mouth recommendations are always good for small businesses, it doesn’t hurt to leave positive reviews on Yelp and Google. Leave an online review for small businesses to get more traction and visibility.

Join the fun! Participate in seasonal fun on your block and in your neighborhood, or even in another neighborhood you enjoy or are eager to explore for the first time. From tree-lighting events to local gift guides, get involved and shop small.

While you’re preparing for this busy season, remember to continue supporting the diverse, independent small businesses that enrich neighborhoods across New York City. As we enter this busy holiday season, don’t forget to shop small!

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Gregg Bishop is the Commissioner for the New York City Department of Small Business Services. On Twitter at @NYC_SBS and @GreggBishopNYC.

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The Right to a Free and Quality Public Higher Education in New York


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(photo: The City College of New York)


CUNY has long been the pride of New York City and its cradle of opportunity. But at a recent legislative hearing on higher education in Brooklyn, we heard from teachers, administrators, and students about a harsh reality: After years of state underinvestment in public college, our CUNY system is teetering on the edge of crisis. 

Both of us have been blessed with a CUNY education. Yet both of us see firsthand the heartbreak and struggle that many students face when they seek to advance themselves through higher education. In the end, some graduate. Some don’t. And some never get to try because it’s just not affordable.

Students desperately need relief. CUNY’s six-year degree completion rate is only 55%, and financial strain is one of the main reasons students drop out. In a 2017 report on college success, the Center for an Urban Future shared that 75% of dropouts at Kingsborough Community College had a financial “red flag” in their accounts such as owing money or loss of scholarship. To make matters worse, a staggering half of all CUNY students experience food insecurity, and many struggle with housing insecurity or even homelessness. 

There’s a reason for this dire situation: Tuitions have risen steadily year after year, as the share of the budget that comes from tuition has grown from 20% to almost 50% over the past 30 years.

In other words, students are bearing the burden of our failure to invest in quality public higher education.

This penny-pinching on the part of New York has led to further consequences. Adjuncts, upon whom CUNY increasingly relies, are grossly underpaid, even with a new contract that would increase the minimum pay per course. The ratio of full-time faculty to students is significantly higher than national standards. Facilities have deteriorated and class sizes have become overcrowded. These trends cause lower retention rates and greater time to graduation.

This is a downward spiral that we must stop. 

In today’s age, a higher education is no less necessary to succeed in most fields as a high school diploma was two generations ago. And a college degree is a pathway to economic opportunity and financial security: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person with only a high school diploma has nearly double the unemployment rate of a college graduate and earns on average 39 percent less per week. 

A CUNY education has been shown to be one of the most successful ways to bring a student from the bottom quintile in family income to the top—with a mobility rate of more than three times those of the most elite institutions.

The struggle of our CUNY students and underinvestment in our CUNY system mirrors the budget cuts for public schools across the nation that occurred after the Great Recession. State funding for public schools across the country is $9 billion below 2008 levels, adjusted for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Recognizing the necessity of free college, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature implemented the Excelsior Scholarship in 2017, aiming to make four-year college tuition-free for many. 

Yet as of 2018, only about 3% of the state’s undergraduates benefited from the scholarship. The majority of applicants who applied were rejected because they didn’t meet the onerous credit requirements.

New York is missing out on future climate scientists, doctors, and other leaders because students can’t pay for rent, food, and a MetroCard without a job, which makes them unable to access or retain the Excelsior Scholarship. 

It’s time to transform New York State with a robust promise for free higher education. We did it once before with K-12 schooling and we should boldly aim to do it again by making New York the first state in the country to constitutionally guarantee a free, quality public college education.

Higher education should not be a luxury for the few but a tool for many. Let New York lead the way and make our state a model of what a commitment to public education in the 21st century should be. 

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State Senator Andrew Gounardes represents parts of Brooklyn and is an adjunct professor at Hunter College. Timothy Hunter is chair of the University Student Senate and a CUNY Student Trustee. On Twitter @agounardes & @thunter_tim.

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The Schools Chancellor Goes Rogue on Specialized High School Admissions


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Chancellor Carranza, with Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has gone rogue over the issue of what to do about the specialized high schools like Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and five others that use the SHSAT, a competitive academic test to determine admissions.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio is now saying that he is open to keeping the test with some added admissions features and the City Council is convening a task force intended to include all stakeholders, which will take a year to examine the issues and make recommendations, Carranza recently demanded that the state Legislature simply “get out of the way” and repeal the state law mandating the existence of Tech, Stuy, and Science with the current admissions system.

This year saw the refusal of the state Legislature to consider the chancellor’s favored bill that would have replaced the test with geographic and other preferences intended to replace much of the Asian student admission with black and Latino students. It wasn’t surprising that many in the Asian community reacted to this by calling the proposal racist.

The chancellor claims that the state should repeal the state law, Hecht-Calandra, because it should get out of the business of running city schools. This ignores that the state gives the city over $11 billion a year to run our schools as well as the myriad of state regulations limiting the city’s unfettered discretion. The state is simply involved, and no amount of rhetoric can make that fact go away.

In return for eliminating the law that mandates the existence of Tech, Stuy, and Science, the chancellor tells the state Legislature to trust him for maintaining the quality of these schools; he says hold him accountable. Of course, that requires that he be around to be held accountable. In the past ten years we have had five different chancellors. Mayor de Blasio, who appointed Carranza, will be out of office at the end of 2021.

Carranza’s “just trust me” approach to eliminating the law mandating the existence of the three schools ignores that he and the mayor have the authority to reverse the city’s decision to voluntarily add five additional schools to the test-in requirement. We don’t have to trust him; he and the mayor can show the Legislature and the public that they can make their desired reforms with those five schools, but they choose not to.

The chancellor claims eliminating the law that mandates the existence of the best high schools in the city is necessary so he can diversify their student bodies “overnight” while maintaining their quality. But the DOE’s failure to diversify academically challenging high schools where there is no state mandated admission system belies this claim.

Of the 22 best STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) high schools in the city making Newsweek’s list of the 500 best in the country, the sad truth is that the city’s public schools were in the minority. Most of the city schools on the list are private and charge tuition, which can be over $40,000 a year. And of the public schools, the overwhelming majority were specialized high schools. Only three others, Eleanor Roosevelt, Townsend Harris and NEST (Manhattan) made the cut.

Where the city has had the unfettered right to determine admissions processes for these high-achieving STEM high schools, it has ignored the need to diversity their student bodies. At Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, which has a city-mandated preference for students coming from the Upper East Side, the school is over 60 percent white and only 4 percent black.

The city’s schools are described as being the most segregated in the nation. And the explanation for this, particularly from the mayor, is often that we have segregated housing patterns. But at Eleanor Roosevelt, the DOE is affirmatively supporting racial segregation while falsely claiming it is open to all students in the city.

Putting these facts together suggests that the state would be advised to keep the law as it is while allowing the City Council’s task force to do its job. In a very difficult environment, made more difficult by the chancellor, it may be able to heal the wounds caused by the previous effort to eliminate the test and rationally deal with the issues of promoting academic quality and diversity. Both are needed if the children of our city are to be given the best chance to excel in life.

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Larry Cary is the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation. He is a practicing attorney in Manhattan.

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What New York Can - and Must - Do Right Now to Help End the Addiction Crisis


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(photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)


When your medical career is bookended by two of the worst public health emergencies in modern American history – the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and our country’s current crisis of overdose and addiction – it gives you a unique perspective on the problem and the solutions.  

To overcome this deadly crisis we must begin by viewing addiction for what it is – a treatable disease – and then bring to scale evidence-based medical strategies that we know give patients the best chance for a positive outcome. 

Medication Assisted Treatment – or MAT – is the quickest, easiest-to-start weapon we have to prevent patients from exposure to possible overdose. In combination with counseling as needed, it is the most effective tool we have to combat the opioid epidemic.

MAT involves prescribing medication approved by the Federal Drug Administration to treat opioid dependence. The medications reduce cravings and withdrawal and support patients who are recovering from illicit opioid use. Patients respond differently to the dose, formulation, and delivery method given their histories and prior experiences, as agreed upon with their physician. In my experience, MAT coupled with regular counseling and medical supervision is the best chance patients have for success.

New York is poised to become the latest to join a growing list of states – politically blue, red, and purple – that are removing obstacles to MAT and instead rightly focusing on patient care and access. On-demand access to all FDA-approved medications for opioid dependence is the national trend because it is smart public health policy. California, Ohio, Texas, and Missouri are just some of the states to embrace the wisdom of MAT and pass laws or regulations to increase access and availability.

New York’s bi-partisan legislation removes burdensome and potentially deadly barriers to treatment like prior authorizations and covers the medicine under both private insurance and Medicaid. Enacting these reforms now requires Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature. 

At Damian Family Care Centers, in our various clinics in New York City and hard-hit Upstate New York, we regularly witness the difficulties involved when a patient has to wait for MAT because the insurance company or Medicaid requires prior authorization. Patients who are struggling with opioid dependence often have challenges with impulse control as part of their addiction. It is essential that the medications prescribed for the patient are available to the patient as soon as possible. Otherwise the patient will not tolerate the wait and will turn to the streets. And the streets are more dangerous than ever because of the proliferation of fentanyl, which is exponentially more powerful than prescription opioids or heroin. When fentanyl becomes part of the equation, a “regular” dose can easily become a lethal dose.

Any delay, let alone 24 to 48 hours or more, can make the difference between life and death for a patient who agrees to Medication Assisted Treatment. 

The bottom line is we are in the midst of a raging opioid epidemic. If people were dying from an infectious illness, would we think it was ethical to require prior authorization for any of the possible medications? Would it be effective to limit the medicines we know can help? The doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants on the front lines of the crisis must be able to make medical judgments in the best interests of their patients. That requires the ability to prescribe all the medications the FDA has approved for the treatment of opioid dependence.

Nearly 4,000 people died in New York State from drug overdoses in the last year, including one every six hours in New York City. 

The barriers to treatment – while well-intended – were built during a different time under vastly different circumstances. The most meaningful action New York State, and all states, can take right now regarding the opioid, heroin, and fentanyl crisis is to ensure MAT is readily available to the thousands of people who need it. 


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Sonia Lopez, MD, is the Director of Addiction Medicine at Damian Family Care Centers.

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National Grid Saga Highlights Need for Public Power


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


For six months, National Grid has held New Yorkers’ gas hostage in an attempt to force through an environmentally-disastrous pipeline that those same New Yorkers fiercely oppose. Last week, Governor Cuomo finally pushed back against National Grid, in a letter threatening to revoke the company’s license to operate downstate. Considering that National Grid has stranded 1,100 households without gas in the freezing winter under false pretenses, it’s a necessary first step.

But if the next step is to give that license to another private corporation, Cuomo will only be handing the keys from one con artist to another.

Currently, our utility system—the means through which our energy is delivered from generators to users—is controlled by Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs). These are private corporations whose primary goal is to make as much money for their shareholders and executives as possible, at their customers’ expense and instead of funding necessary infrastructure improvements and the just transition to green energy.

The real story behind National Grid’s so-called “gas moratorium” illustrates its priorities perfectly. In May, the company claimed that it had to stop hooking up new gas connections, leaving businesses unable to operate and residents unable to heat their homes, because of a gas shortage that could only be remedied, they say, by the construction of the Williams Pipeline.

It’s a compelling story, save for one small inaccuracy: there is no gas shortage. Report after report show that gas demand is flat, and would actually decrease were National Grid to follow sufficient energy efficiency measures. The company’s own regulatory filings show that even after adding 12,000 more customers than predicted in 2017, gas use was 35% lower than expected. They’ve even been selling surplus gas to third parties for the last five years—hardly the actions of a company about to run out.

They are, however, the actions of a company trying to make money. And the Williams Pipeline would make National Grid a lot of money.

While the so-called “gas moratorium” is a particularly egregious example of how private utilities prioritize profits over people, National Grid is just doing what all Investor Owned Utilities are designed to do: generate profits. It’s not an exception, it’s the rule. A glance at New York City’s other major IOU, Con Edison, confirms this.

When massive blackouts shook the city earlier this year, ConEd came under fire for its failure to repair ailing infrastructure until it had literally burst into flames. One of ConEd’s many justifications for a 2013 rate hike was a $350 million program to modernize old relay systems, including the West 65 Street substation whose failure left over 72,000 people without power on July 13. ConEd got the rate hike and we got higher bills, but despite making around a billion dollars a year in profits, they never funded the relay repair project, and never made the repairs.

ConEd won’t reveal where that $350 million went, and is actually requesting another rate hike this year. We have some idea where that money went, as they are still able to pay $9.5 million a year to CEO John McCavoy, six figure retainers to each of its board members, and $846 million in shareholder dividends.

Stronger regulations can’t change the fundamental incompatibility between private profit and public need. The only solution is to wrest power from multimillionaire shareholders and put it in the hands of the public. This is the goal of Public Power NYC, and a central plank of the Movement for a Green New Deal coalition: to replace these IOUs with a Public Utility that prioritizes people over profits.

As Western Queens City Council Member Costa Constantinides wrote last week, more than 2,000 communities in the United States, including the entire state of Nebraska, get their power from publicly-controlled utilities, providing power to one in seven Americans. These public utilities have already been proven to be cheaper and more reliable than privately-owned utilities and have been leading the charge in the transition to renewable energy our planet needs to survive.

Constantinides is one of a rising number of elected officials who support bringing utilities under public ownership and, as chair of the Council’s environmental protection committee, his voice carries some additional weight in New York City. However, the change we need can only come when our representatives in Albany wake up to the failure of the status quo.

State Senator Kevin Parker and Assembly Member Michael Cusick, as the chairs of their respective state committees on energy policy, have the opportunity to fix the fundamental flaws of our investor-owned system, and we call on them to lead on bringing our utilities under public control.

To be sure, no public utility is perfect, and existing public utilities must go further to combat climate change. But the difference between private and public utilities is that they can go further, because they can be truly democratic and accountable to the people they serve.

We only have to look at the incredible aid work in the face of disaster by groups like Occupy Sandy to see what democratic control could look like. When the storm hit, it was ordinary people who came together, ultimately setting up an extensive relief network that provided thousands of meals and delivered vital supplies. They didn’t run the numbers to make sure it was profitable, demand payment in return, or blame storm victims for their circumstances. They just came together, pooled their resources and skills, and helped each other survive.

Imagine if this community solidarity could be harnessed before disaster strikes, and used to shape systems with the same values that made those relief efforts possible. A truly democratic and accountable public utility will make decisions in, and only in, the public interest. It will prioritize safety, reliability, and affordability. It will decarbonize as quickly and comprehensively as the planet requires. And it will do this all with union workers making good wages and full benefits, with provisions to hire from—and invest in—the marginalized communities who have been hurt most by the last century of private, polluting energy regimes.

This is what Public Power makes possible, and why it will be a vital part of any Green New Deal—be it for New York, the United States, or the world. The engines of private profit have been driving our energy system for decades, and they’ve nearly run our planet off a cliff. They need to be replaced with the engines of public good, powered not by thirst for private profit but by the desire to meet our communities’ needs in the best and most sustainable ways possible.

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Charlie Heller is a member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, Ecosocialist Working Group; Jamie Tyberg is a member of New York Communities for Change; and Alex Beauchamp is a member of Food & Water Action. On Twitter @NYCDSA_Climate, @jtbrg, and @AlexAtFWW.

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New York Needs to Make Young Voters a Priority - Here’s How


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(photo: Paige Polk/Mayoral Photography Office)


2018 was an historic year for youth voter turnout across the country. Just not in New York. Nationwide, 31% of young voters (ages 18-29) made it to the polls. In New York, that number was about 16.4%, the second-worst in the nation in states for which we have data. New York’s young voters are not more apathetic than other states; instead, we have an election system that does not facilitate our participation, and in fact suppresses it.

Our organization, Generation Vote, works to empower young people across the state to participate in the political process and make their voices heard. We hear stories from young people on the ground who tell us that opportunities to register to vote are limited, registration deadlines are restrictive, and closed party primaries restrict new voters from participating in such elections. They also cite policy decisions made at the local level, such as poll sites placed in locations away from both college campuses and public transit, which place further obstacles to youth participation.

Young people are forced to enter the electoral process at a time when their lives are highly transient and unstable, when the process to vote is often most complicated, and before they have had a chance to develop a habit of participation. Next year, voters between the ages of 18-29 will make up 40% of the voting-age population. Our generation, which is the most diverse in our country’s history, will live with the decisions made today and tomorrow for the rest of this century and needs to have a say in that future.

New York has the potential to empower young voters for next year’s crucial elections and beyond.

We need to make youth voting rights and engagement a renewed priority for reform in New York State. This will require a two-pronged approach: one is removing statutory barriers to youth voting in New York, and the other is creating avenues for authentically engaging youth voices in the political process.

There is an array of possible reforms suggested by youth voting experts at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University and the Fair Elections Center. These include automatic voter registration, lowering the voting age to 16, codifying the re-enfranchisement of people on parole, and mandating on-campus poll sites.

These reforms will remove barriers to accessing the polls for young people, opening up the process to new voters. They should form the basis of a new pro-youth voting reform package taken up by Governor Cuomo and State Legislature at the start of the next legislative session in January.

Thankfully some key pieces are already in motion in New York, such as pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds; same-day registration, which is likely to appear on the ballot for New York voters in 2021; and a bill that would require SUNY and CUNY college campuses to expand their voter registration practices, which awaits the governor’s signature to become law.

We also have to build a culture of participation and engagement that authentically brings young voices into the process. Steps including the creation of a youth delegation to state government, embedding standardized civic education into our schools, and lowering the age requirement to be a poll worker to 16. Building a culture of engagement will make voting a part of a wider civic experience, and create a healthier democracy.

With 2020 around the corner, the stakes have never been higher for New York to make it simpler, not harder, for young voters to make their voices heard. At Generation Vote, we’ve already hit the ground running with the first New York Youth Voting Rights and Engagement Summit, which took place on November 9.

We’re bringing together young people from across the state to build on our work as part of the Let NY Vote Coalition by creating a new agenda for youth voting rights in New York State. If you want to help us build a democracy which authentically includes young people, visit our website and find us on social media, then get in touch and involved.

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Garrett Shor, COO, and Brianna Cea, CEO, are co-founders of Generation Vote. On Twitter @GenVoteUS.

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Why I’m Voting No on the CUNY Staff Contract


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PSC CUNY rally, with the author center back (photo: @PeteHarrisonNYC)


After over two years of negotiations, the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York (PSC-CUNY) and the university have reached a tentative deal on a new contract for the 30,000 faculty, adjuncts, librarians, and professional staff in our union.

The leadership of PSC-CUNY has hailed the contract as a historic deal and part of a larger stand against austerity. In particular, they sight the pay gains for adjuncts, which will increase by 71% by 2022.

As an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College, I would stand to gain from these increases, so even though I was skeptical of the contract campaign (and have participated in #7korstrike actions), I was open-minded and eager to hear my colleagues out. It’s tough to take a position against a pay raise because of my own financial insecurity. I also think the agreement secures legitimate gains. I have no doubt that they weren’t easy to get and that the executive committee worked extremely hard, creatively, and thoroughly.

But as I listened to the (at times heated) debate last Thursday night at the Delegate Assembly, I made up my mind to vote “no” on the contract.

My decision is based less on the technical merits of the contract (here’s analysis for and against) and more about the process that got us here and what it says about union power in New York City today. To me it says that it is time for generational change in union leadership.

People that I respect at the meeting and on other occasions say that our leadership has been fighting austiery and leading strikes against it in education for over 20 years; that this contract campaign is part of a longer-term strategy to defeat it. That tax cuts to billionaires makes it hard to fight.

I agree. Our leadership has been fighting for a very long time under ever tighter budgets and tougher political climates. No contract negotiation is going to result in 100% of our demands. Billionaires are making it really hard to fight back.

But the strategy simply isn’t working. Just in my case, the gains adjuncts will see fall short of our goal of $7,000 per course, which is still short of a livable wage in New York City. The overall increases for everyone won’t keep up with inflation. And it is clear that some of the new money will come from higher tuition and fewer courses for students.

To the union leadership’s credit, they acknowledge the shortfalls and vow to fight on for more in the next contract. I believe them. But it is clear that so many years of fighting against corporate power has diminished the sense of what is possible for many of our leaders. For all the rhetoric of standing against austerity, they have accepted it in practice. What’s more, they’ve done so at a time of immense opportunity for organizing in education.

Just as teachers across the country are striking and winning improvements, the leadership didn’t support a strike authorization (someone even dismissed the success of the Chicago teachers strike compared to this contract campaign). Just as a new level of energy and base-building has emerged among staff and students, the leadership claims that the membership isn’t motivated enough for mass action. Just as the left in America is finding new confidence, allies, and roads to power, PSC leadership has seemingly worked to protect establishment relationships.

I deeply value the years of experience our leadership has in this fight and the knowledge they have about the contract process. There’s no question that they know more than I do about how things work.

But I, and many members and students know that “how things work” isn’t working. The strategy to make change isn’t working. We live it everyday with higher rents, longer commutes, more work, and lower wages.

Just as importantly, I and many others believe that there are better strategies to make things work. We don’t have the time to wait around for incrementalism. We need to elevate new leaders in these spaces to carry on the fight for the future.

Fighting austerity will take mass mobilization of the working class, and not just in education or the public sector. It means building solidarity with gig economy contractors, service industry workers, and tech workers, among others. It means supporting fights for undocumented workers, sex workers, and the victims of mass incarcertaion who sit in jails or can’t find work. All of the pieces are in place and all of the parts are moving. Educators should lead the way.

Voting “no” on this contract and voting instead for a strike authorization should be the spark that unites a general strike against austerity and the billionaire class that thinks they beat another generation of workers. They are wrong.

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Peter Harrison is a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress (NY-12) and an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College. He lives in Stuyvesant Town. On Twitter @PeteHarrisonNYC.

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A Key Piece of the City’s New Trash Overhaul You May Not Be Aware Of


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(photo: @BKROT)


For most New Yorkers, the city’s private sanitation industry is mostly out of sight, out of mind. Yet it impacts us in major ways. The industry’s old trucks chug and idle along inefficient routes, spewing pollution throughout the city each night. Once collected, the trash is dumped in communities of color, namely north Brooklyn and the south Bronx. Carters make huge profits while paying their predominantly black and brown workers horrendous wages.

Some workers have reported making as little as $80 for a 16-hour shift. Even more disturbing, some carters have created their own “unions” as a way to block legitimate labor organizing.

In 2013, I started a grassroots, organic waste micro-hauling business called BK ROT. At the time, I thought we were creating a small pilot. Six years later, I have come to realize that we’ve created an entire new sector of zero-emissions waste carters that are highly efficient at diverting large amounts of organic waste from landfills in New York City. When BK ROT started, we were the first micro-hauler in NYC, now there are seven across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx.

BK ROT offers composting services to homes and businesses not serviced by the city’s sanitation department or by private carters. We collect organics by e-bike and process them locally as a fossil fuel-free alternative. The compost is distributed to local farms for growing food. We hire local youth at fair wages in an effort to combat the high unemployment rates in Bushwick and East New York.

From the start, we strived to be a socially-just operation. Our model was simple: good, green jobs that value workers and keep resources flowing within the community. The service fees covered our operations staff (workers ages 17-24) and leveraged our non-profit status for funding for public educational programing. We went from one worker, who started at 16 and is now 24, to a team of six. In 2013 we processed 300 pounds of food waste a month, in 2018 we did 73 tons, and in 2020 we are on track to capture 250 tons.

When New York City initiated reforms to the commercial hauling industry through the Commercial Waste Zone (CWZ) system, we saw an opportunity to integrate micro-hauling into one of the largest private sanitation systems in the world. As a humble grassroots hauling operation, we knew it would be an uphill battle.

From the jump, it felt overly ambitious to demand that our environmentally-conscious hauling service, powered by teenagers on e-bikes, be included in the city’s massive overhaul. Could we find our stride alongside the likes of multi-million-dollar companies, in an industry historically run by the mob?

We struggled to fit our grassroots solution into policy discussions alongside deeply vested interests. As a new type of hauler, policy-makers were puzzled by our innovative model and not sold on our viability. Mid-way through our advocacy, BK ROT ran out of land to process material because we only had 1,000 square feet of space and a growing list of businesses wanting our services. Our collection rates stagnated as we demanded that the draft CWZ legislation allow us to collect more food waste annually.

Demanding a higher annual collection rate would give us the room to scale up as we worked to overcome barriers such as large capital required for new technology and developing compost distribution networks. Instead of partnering with the bad actors in the carting industry just to grow our collection numbers, we doubled down on our commitment to workers, communities, and the planet.

And, we organized.

We connected with Transform, Don’t Trash, a coalition of environmental justice and labor groups who spent years exposing the private carting industry’s abhorrent practices. BK ROT also gained power by forming alliances with emerging micro-haulers, mostly led by women and people of color. Our new bonds helped forge a stronger voice.

We spent nearly devised a tiered system that defined annual hauling capacities (tonnage) for human powered e-bikes and zero emissions vehicles. We codified micro-hauling within the CWZ framework and successfully secured the ability to haul 2,600 tons of food waste per year.

The CWZ is the most progressive waste management reform in decades. The benefits will be felt citywide, but most acutely in communities of color that have suffered through environmental injustices and labor exploitation.

Our inclusion guarantees further emissions reductions in New York City, while diversifying an industry dominated by white men, as New York City’s micro-haulers are minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs).

I am incredibly proud of BK ROT, and the win for local micro-haulers. I stand with and remain deeply inspired by the Transform, Don’t Trash coalition that played a leading role in demanding sustainability and accountability in our private waste system.

The existential threat of climate change necessitates taking risks and going big on even the most unassuming ideas. Policy-makers must challenge the boundaries of what is seen as possible. Large scale climate mitigation means recognizing the power of grassroots groups and bringing them directly to the policy table.

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Sandy Nurse is the Founder and Former Executive Director of BK ROT and a candidate for State Assembly in Brooklyn’s District 54. On Twitter @NurseForNY & @BKROT.

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A Well-Meaning But Misguided Housing Proposal


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Council Member Salamanca (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


A year ago, a homeless woman confronted Mayor de Blasio during his gym workout in Park Slope to ask why the city doesn’t set aside more apartments for homeless people. The incident and a video of it in which the mayor refused to talk with the woman, Nathylin Flowers Adesegun, were widely reported. A few weeks later, City Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx introduced legislation that would require any rental housing project receiving taxpayer subsidies such as tax abatements, loans, tax credits or reduced-cost land to set aside 15% of its units for people living in the city’s shelters. 

The mayor’s comments about the proposed legislation were on target. He said:

“I think that the [current] affordable housing plan works for the people of the city because it is for everyone. It is meant to reach working-class people, middle-class people, low-income people,” and, “I don’t want to send a message that the only folks who can get affordable housing are folks who end up in shelter. I think that’s wrong for everyone.” 

Now, almost exactly a year later, Salamanca has re-introduced the same bill but the mayor’s response has been quite different -- he says he is sure he can reach a deal with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

The mayor was right a year ago and there is no reason to change positions now. His apparent disinterest in or distaste for conflict with the Council cannot be allowed to lead to bad policy that will impede what has been a successful program to build and preserve affordable housing for needy New Yorkers at a variety of income levels.

In 2014 the de Blasio administration issued Housing NY, a ten-year plan to build and preserve a total of 200,000 units of housing in the five boroughs. An important principle of the plan was that the apartments developed would be affordable to families at an array of income levels, from those of extremely low-income, defined as below $25,000 a year for a family of four, to those of middle-income, families of four earning $100,000-138,000 a year, and others in between. The plan projected the distribution of units developed at 20% (40,000) for extremely low- and very low-income households, 58% (116,000) for low-income households, and 22% for moderate- and middle-income households (44,000).

In 2017 Housing NY 2.0 modified the administration’s already-ambitious goals by accelerating its plan, extending it two years, and adding an additional 100,000 units to be preserved or created by 2026. The new targets increased the number of extremely low- and low-income households to be housed to 25% of the total.

Providing affordable housing to New Yorkers at all low- to middle-income levels is important to maintaining a thriving economy and a diverse, vibrant city. As a recent report from the Department of City Planning shows, the city’s supply of jobs far exceeds its supply of housing and we need to generate more places for workers to live.

It is very expensive to build and maintain units for extremely low-income households (approximately $150,000- $200,000 in city capital subsidy per unit for construction, plus ongoing rental assistance) so the rents at higher income levels are necessary to make developments economically viable.  The situation is not helped by the fact that the City Council keeps piling on requirements -- like the just-added prevailing wage requirement -- that are not only costly, but deter developers (both for- and non-profit) from wanting to even do deals with the city. It also must be acknowledged that many families in the shelter system need a variety of on-site services in addition to housing, services that private-sector buildings do not provide.   

Reasonable people can debate the shortcomings and details of Housing NY,  for example, the inclusion of thousands of units in Stuyvesant Town as “preserved” but there is no denying that it has been an ambitious effort that has thus far leveraged over $14 billion in city capital commitments and generated 135,000 units of urgently needed housing.

City officials need the flexibility to design each project based on its overall size, location, and cost; they should not be constrained by arbitrary apartment allocation requirements to particular income levels or types of tenants. 

Mayor de Blasio needs no prodding to devote priority and resources to homeless individuals and families. His annual budget provides more than $3 billion a year for shelters, rent assistance, legal assistance, and other homelessness prevention programs, re-housing efforts, and related social services.

So far, about 11% of the units generated by Housing NY have gone to homeless households. Moreover, in 2016 NYCHA started giving preference to homeless families and over the past three years, nearly half of all tenants placed in NYCHA units -- 6,400 -- have been formerly homeless. Another 4,400 homeless families have received Section 8 rental assistance through NYCHA in the same time period.

The City Council should not create a one-size-fits-all set-aside that would tie the hands of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor for Housing, and other city officials who are trying to spur as much housing construction as possible and who are already motivated to create units for homeless families without compulsion.

If the 15% homeless requirement is in addition to the 25% proportion of units Housing NY 2.0 already requires for extremely low-income units, it will make some projects so costly that they will not be built. If the homeless allocation is instead made part of the total number of project units allocated to low-income families, it will take much-needed units out of the pool available to the thousands of other families earning less than $25,000 a year who also need decent and affordable places to live in New York City. Neither is acceptable.

The Council’s focus should be on streamlining the process for project approval and creating more new affordable housing across the income spectrum, not counterproductive requirements and virtue posturing.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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From the 'Third Party' Front Lines, How to Address Fusion Voting, Party Qualifications, and New York Democracy


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Howie Hawkins, the author (photo: Green Party)


“The Democrats’ Secret Plan to Kill Third Parties in New York,” as reported by The New York Times (Oct. 29), brings to mind how the Democratic Party establishment manipulated the 2016 primary process to favor the corporate candidate, Hillary Clinton, over her progressive challenger, Bernie Sanders.

Now the New York Democratic Party establishment, led by the Governor Andrew Cuomo-appointed chair of that party, Jay Jacobs, proposes to silence bothersome third parties by increasing by five times (from 50,000 to 250,000) the number of votes needed by a party’s gubernatorial ticket to qualify the party for the ballot.

It is no secret that Cuomo, Jacobs, and other establishment Democrats are irritated by public criticisms and primary challenges from the Working Families Party, which functions as a progressive faction of the Democratic Party. The WFP uses its ballot line as political leverage in the Democratic Party by threatening and sometimes mounting primary challenges to establishment Democrats, although it almost always runs the Democratic primary winner on its ballot line in the general election.

A much bigger issue is at stake here than this internal Democratic squabble: the people’s right to have the full diversity of their voices and choices participating in elections. Election law reforms should promote multi-party democracy, not cement in place the two-party system of corporate rule where both major parties are financed by wealthy special interests.

As the Green Party candidate for governor three times between between 2010 and 2018, I came in third each time among five to seven candidates. I received between 60,000 and 184,000 votes, the latter total accounting for 4.8 percent of the total vote. Our vote was always above the longstanding 50,000 vote standard but well below the 250,000 votes that Jacobs proposes. Jacobs is targeting the Green Party’s very right to participate in elections.

Jacobs justifies his proposal by saying New York needs to eliminate the corruption of “sham” parties that trade their ballot line for political favors. The Green Party is by no definition a “sham” party. The Green Party runs its own candidates against both establishment parties. It doesn’t accept donations from corporate interests. It doesn’t trade its ballot nominations for favors from the major parties. It is not a faction of the Democratic Party, like the WFP, nor a faction of the Republican Party, like the Conservative Party. It is not for sale to the highest bidder between the two major parties, like the misnamed Independence Party.

Jacobs also said he wants to reduce voter confusion. Here I agree. In the 2018 election I faced four Cuomos and three Molinaros on the ballot in this order:

Democratic Andrew Cuomo
Republican Marc Molinaro
Conservative Marc Molinaro
Green Howie Hawkins
Working Families Andrew Cuomo
Independence Andrew Cuomo
Women’s Equality Andrew Cuomo
Reform Marc Molinaro
SAM Stephanie Miner
Libertarian Larry Sharpe

The ballot should have had five ballot lines for the five candidates instead of ten ballot lines for each party making a nomination. New York’s “disaggregated fusion,” where every party nomination creates another ballot line, does indeed make for confusing ballots.

Future ballots should be simplified by putting all the party nominations a candidate receives under their name instead of giving them a separate ballot line for each party nomination. Most states that permit multiple party nominations use this “aggregated fusion” of one ballot line per candidate, including Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, Oregon, and Vermont. Aggregated fusion was used by New York City on its ballots when it had ranked-choice voting for proportional representation on the City Council from 1936 to 1947.

Aggregated fusion ballots for New York would require a different standard for ballot qualification than the current 50,000 votes for the party’s gubernatorial ticket. New York is unique among the states in having a fixed number of votes for governor on a party’s separate ballot line as the sole standard for ballot qualification. Most other states use the more reasonable standards of a minimum party enrollment and/or a minimum percentage of the vote. In New York, we should allow parties to qualify for the ballot by either having a minimum number of party enrollees – 20,000 would be reasonable – or by receiving 1 percent of the vote for any statewide office.

It would also serve fair elections to have the candidates listed in random order, with a separate page for each office and random ordering of candidates on each page. Political scientists have found a ballot name-order effect of 1 percent to 10 percent, with the effect increasing on down-ballot, low-information contests. We don’t have to cram every office and ballot proposition onto one page. We don’t use lever machines to record votes anymore.

Ballot access in the United States is more difficult than almost every other electoral democracy in the world. To qualify independent candidates for the ballot for national legislatures, it takes two signatures in New Zealand, 10 signatures in the UK and India, 50 signatures in Australia, 100 signatures in Canada, and 200 signatures in Germany. In New York, it takes 3,500 signatures for independents to get on the ballot for Congress. Many states’ signature requirements for independent congressional candidates are more restrictive. Illinois, for example, requires 5 percent of the district total vote in the previous election, which comes to over 15,000 signatures.

Party suppression in America is part of the broader problem of voter suppression. Many voters stay home because they believe that the Democrats and the Republicans do not represent their concerns. Instead of restricting the voices and choices in our elections, we should expand them by instituting proportional representation in legislative bodies, as do most electoral democracies around the world.

Under proportional representation, each party gets representatives in the legislative party in proportion to the votes its candidates receive. No vote is wasted. Every vote counts toward getting your party its fair share of representation. When New York City had proportional representation, the number of parties represented in the City Council increased from two to between five and seven for each two-year cycle.

Third parties are attacked by major party partisans for “splitting the vote” in our single-member-district, winner-take-all system. Many voters feel compelled to vote for a “lesser evil” major party candidate instead of the third party candidate they really prefer in hopes of preventing a victory by the other major party candidate they fear more. Proportional representation ends the vote-splitting problem for legislative races. 

For single-seat executive offices, the answer to vote-splitting is ranked-choice voting. Voters rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority in the first count, the last place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ ballots are transferred to their second choices. That process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes. Ireland, Malta, and Sri Lanka elect their presidents by ranked-choice voting. Maine will award its electoral votes in 2020 by ranked-choice voting. New York City voters just approved ranked-choice voting, but it will only apply to city-level offices and only in party primaries or special elections, not general elections.

Many prominent Democrats blame Green Party candidates like Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 for their own losses to Republican presidential candidates, as Hillary Clinton did again last month. The last two Republican presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, were first elected despite losing the popular vote. The Green Party didn’t do that. The Electoral College did. Instead of picking on the Greens, the Democrats should join the Greens in fighting to end this problem by replacing the archaic anti-democratic Electoral College with a national popular vote for president using ranked-choice voting.

The Democrats’ plan to eliminate third parties in New York is a plan to reduce democracy. Let’s support reforms that expand democracy, including fair ballot access, fair ballots, proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, and public campaign financing

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Howie Hawkins, a three-time New York gubernatorial nominee of the Green Party, is currently a candidate for the Green nomination for president. On Twitter @HowieHawkins.

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A Small Business Plea to the City Council and Public Advocate


mmv sbs gregg

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


As the owner of a small retail shop it is stomach-churning to publicly state that I do not support a piece of city legislation that would mandate 10 days of annual paid leave for all working New Yorkers at businesses of five or more employees and comes in addition to the mandated five paid sick days assured under the 2014 Paid Safe & Sick Leave law.

I believe paid time off is a just right and I am a fierce defender of my staff. Contrary to the words used by Mayor Bill de Blasio in stumping for this bill, I do not see my employees as mere “cogs in the machine.” But while rents, real estate taxes, and regulatory compliance costs remain so high, small businesses simply can’t afford increased payroll.

We must call on the City Council and the Public Advocate to help lift up what is actually working in our communities instead of mandating higher costs to doing business. The plea is simple:

First, understand the economic impact of 15 paid days off on the operational costs of small retailers, restaurants, bars, grocery shops, hair salons, and other service providers that cannot delay or pass off projects when an employee is out.

In my retail shop of 10 mostly full-time staff, paid leave time ranges between five and 13 days, including the mandated five paid sick days (which staff use for sick or vacation time). If the paid vacation time bill (Int. No. 800-A) is to pass, my annual payroll costs would increase 2.9 to 4.1%. If you don’t know that this is a meaningful increase, you do not run a small business.

Unlike an office, retailers only make money when we are open and staffed. When an employee takes paid time we fill the shift with another employee. This means paying two people for the same shift and often paying one shift at overtime rates. I have accepted that as part of the cost of doing business, but the payroll jump that this bill contemplates may eliminate our annual bonus pool and/or cause wage stagnation.

We simply cannot pass on these costs to our customers because it is their limited ability to afford the goods, meals, or services sold that matters most to our success.

Second, understand the data being used to decide this critical legislation and who is actually at risk.

When businesses raise concerns about this bill, the mayor and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who has been its lead sponsor since he was a City Council member, typically pivot to two data points. First, they claim that the impact on business is overblown. They cite a study conducted by the Center for Economic Policy & Research at CUNY on the impact of paid sick leave, which concluded that the law has been “no big deal” for the 382 businesses interviewed. Only a minority of respondents in this study fit the category of small retailer, restaurant, bar, or grocer, however. This is borne out by the study’s finding that 84% of respondents relied heavily on two means by which to handle paid sick days: put the work on hold or temporarily assign work to other employees; two options that retailers and hospitality businesses simply don’t have.

In 2019 the NYC Hospitality Alliance did its own study, interviewing several times more hospitality and retail businesses about the impact of paid sick leave. It showed 49.6% of these businesses said that paid sick leave has cost their business significant additional money, and 81.1% claimed that they pay another employee when one takes a paid day off. Perhaps most tellingly for the future of small business growth, 58.7% stated that these costs have prevented them from reinvesting in their business.

The second key point is real stories from working New Yorkers who talk of being fearful to ask for just one paid day off. These are sad stories but they involve employers who are not even abiding by the paid sick leave law. Let’s not lose sight of what most small businesses do to support the well-being of their staff.

Third, recognize that this bill would weaken the competitive edge of small retailers in the most expensive city in the country.

I am not aware of any city in the world that mandates paid vacation time without it being a federal mandate. To face increased payroll costs at a time of disruption from online retailers is untenable.

Recent reports from the Department of City Planning and Comptroller Scott Stringer demonstrate a rise in vacancy rates and cite retail rents, property taxes, and regulatory burdens as significant drivers of this reality. The Comptroller links vacant storefronts to lost job opportunities and income for New Yorkers. At the same time, a recent New Yorker article depicts poor working conditions for employees of Amazon and a recent New York Times article highlights incredible congestion and pollution resulting from the city’s growing reliance on quick deliveries.

What do we want our city to be? There have got to be better models than that of Amazon and the answer is to help incubate local ones.

Fourth, fund paid leave by means other than a mandate on small employers.

It is imperative that we look at other means by which to fund paid leave. First, consider that total income (profits) is a better determinant than employee number for gauging which businesses can afford mandated leave. Second, look at established models like New York state’s paid family leave law. All New York City employees could contribute a tiny percentage of each paycheck to fund a paid vacation benefit.

Using total income as a determinant, small businesses could receive an annual reimbursement calculated at some percentage of total payroll costs incurred. Yes, this would take time and no, this would not be simple. But this is exactly what we expect of our elected officials - to never be afraid to do what is hard.

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Natasha Amott is the owner of Whisk, in downtown Brooklyn. On Twitter @Natasha_Amott. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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