On their 1979 seminal album “Fear Of Music,” Talking Heads lamented in the song “Cities” that their search to “… find a city to live in” had “… some good points, some bad points.” So too, if we search the course of this year, we will find that the labor movement and the Democratic Party have engaged in political action that has had some good points and some bad points.
Let’s begin with “some good points.”
This seems to have been the year that internal union member organizing—that effort to inform, recruit, motivate and mobilize the existing union membership on a continuing basis—seems to have finally moved to the front of many union leaders’ consciousness. Such organizing is critical if the labor movement is to have any hope of stemming its decline and regenerating its significance in guiding our political leaders to policies that benefit the working class.
I have advocated for and written about the need for ongoing, well-funded internal organizing programs for years. But action always speaks louder than words. So earlier this year rank-and-file teachers in the very Republican states of West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona showed the way by taking job actions that resulted in new contracts with significant improvements to wages, benefits and work conditions. These achievements showed labor’s leaders that a motivated membership is indeed the key to unions’ institutional success.
Two Major Successes
And the leaders seem to have listened and acted. Labor achieved some success in two crucial areas of concern—stemming the loss of members as a result of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in June, and mobilizing union members to support Democratic candidates in Congressional and state races in November’s midterm elections.
Public-employee union membership has not declined as catastrophically as many unions expected. That would seem to be at least partly attributable to internal organizing efforts by many public-sector unions that began in anticipation of the Janus decision, and has continued to this point.
As for the November election results, the rewards of internal organizing were displayed when labor’s support of Democratic candidates resulted in their winning the Governor’s offices in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin…and Kansas! Labor played a part in those efforts by mobilizing the members, and they succeeded.
Now unfortunately, there are also “some bad points.” For that we turn to our own city and state.
Lost in all the sturm und drang of the recent Amazon fiasco here in our city is a most important issue for organized labor. For decades our political leaders have capitulated to corporations that threaten to leave the city or state, or in Amazon’s case threaten not to come, unless they are showered with many millions or billions of dollars in “incentives.” Over and over again, this city- and state-taxpayer-funded largesse has not resulted in anything close to what the corporate entity receiving the benefit claims will occur.
Huge increases in the tax base and massive numbers of potential new jobs are promised, but never materialize. But the biggest mystery is why the one condition that would actually result in at least some positive benefit for the working class is almost never required by the public entities that “negotiate” these deals. That condition is that the commercial entity receiving these “incentives” agrees to be neutral in any union-organizing campaign involving their project.
This type of labor-organizing condition is used in other kinds of projects all around the State and City. They frequently take the form of “project labor agreements,” or PLA’s, which spell out in minute detail that “… the parties wish to ensure that employees in the below described bargaining unit (italics added)…have the opportunity to express their desire whether or not to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining in an atmosphere free from intimidation, restraint, coercion or discrimination…”
A Kingsbridge Half-Loaf
It would thus seem obvious that anytime taxpayer dollars are involved in such a commercial project, there could and should be some form of neutrality invoked as a condition of bestowing that support. Uh, but this is New York and the obvious is never obvious. So over the years we have been confronted with the inconsistencies of the Bronx Kingsbridge Armory redevelopment project of a few years ago having a PLA for its construction, but no neutrality process for the much longer-term retail jobs.
But then we have the current St. George Staten Island retail outlets project that does have neutrality for both types of jobs. And now, once again with Amazon, we return to not having a neutrality clause for that project; notwithstanding that our city and state plan to give billions of taxpayer dollars to one of the biggest corporations in the world as an incentive to have them locate here.
Seriously folks, these inconsistencies and omissions are corrosive for the labor movement. They are corrosive because they essentially tell political leaders (in this case Democrats) that they need not fear our wrath. If Labor does not demand that all projects that accept public money to build, relocate, or expand, must allow all workers on those projects to assert their right to organize “… free from intimidation, restraint, coercion or discrimination,” then we are giving those political leaders a free pass to ignore us as they choose.
And as for Talking Heads, it would seem that they were prescient in their dystopian concern for how one can “find a city to live in.” The Amazon project is bad for so many reasons, not the least of which is what it will do to any pretense of affordable housing in the working-class neighborhoods of Queens. But adding the abandonment of neutrality for union organizing makes the bad even worse. The only governmental entity not culpable in this fiasco is our City Council. Council Members may not have the power to solve this; but may they have the resolve to show all the other players how this should be done. Workers’ freedom to organize must be a part of any major public investment.
Editor’s note: Mr. Montalbano is a retired labor lobbyist and former political action director for District Council 37.
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