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WIN ONE, LOSE ONE: The persistence of Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (left) bore fruit for farmworkers with the passage of a bill giving them the right to organize—using  the card-check method that doesn’t require a formal representation election—and collectively bargain. But another seasoned  Albany hand, Governor Cuomo, late in the legislative session diminished the gains under a climate-change bill, Mr. Montalbano writes, by removing a section from it devoted to jobs and workers.

This year’s NYS legislative session was truly a wonder to behold. With a tip of my hat to our great troubadour, Bob Dylan, the truly significant legislation promoted by and passed with the energetic advocacy of the new progressive members showed that, even in the hide-bound and cautious environment that is the hallmark of so many legislatures past, it seems that “The Times They Are A’Changin” … Somewhat.

Given the intense and misplaced fear with which these new legislators were greeted by Democratic establishment veterans (many of whom were once rebellious insurgents themselves!), it is indeed a marvel that anything got done, let alone the amazing array of actual laws passed in this session.

Decontrol Victory

Perhaps the most unexpected accomplishment was in the area of tenant protection, with the repeal of vacancy decontrol. Real estate is the coin of the realm in New York City. So, to see the holders of that currency, the real estate and residential landlord titans, not able to prevent this from becoming law was truly breathtaking.

There is no way this could have happened without the Senate’s flip to Democratic control. And that flip could not have occurred without the entry into the Legislature of the new progressive members.

Next in significance was climate-change legislation, which provides a commitment to phase out greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. While there will be much more meat to put on that bone over the years, just acknowledging the problem and setting a goal is far more ambitious than anything we have previously seen from our state leaders.

And the list goes on: bail and evidence-disclosure reform; improved voter access; stronger gun-control requirements; repealing the LLC loophole in the campaign-finance realm; updating and protecting a woman’s right to reproductive choice.

Even in the realm of worker rights and protections, there was some significant progress. But, as usual with our beloved labor “movement,” there were also some unfortunate and avoidable stumbles. Let us first note an amazing achievement: the enactment, after so many years, of legislation giving farmworkers in our state the right to organize.

Card-Check Key Gain

Sponsored by Assembly Member Catherine Nolan, this legislation gives farmworkers in New York State labor protections and rights that they never possessed. First and foremost, it gives them the right to organize and collectively bargain. And it gives them the right to organize using “card check!”

Over the two years that I have been writing this column, labor’s failure to secure “card-check” when it was possible has consistently been in the forefront of my criticism of the labor movement’s legislative efforts on both the state and national level. Card-check is existential to labor’s ability to both stop its slide in membership, and also to begin the process of organizing the new-age industries, and reorganizing the traditional ones. So to have it included in any labor rights legislation is hugely important, but not something the labor “movement” has consistently advocated for.

In this particular instance, I maintain that it is no accident that Assembly Member Nolan’s success getting this long-overdue legislation passed with card-check included was due both to her persistence over the years, and also to the commitment of the newest members to social-justice issues, which must always include work and workers. So, in celebrating this and the other legislative accomplishments of this session, it is imperative to acknowledge that these so-called “insurgents” have made a positive contribution and should be accepted as full-fledged partners in the legislative process going forward. The Democratic Party establishment should stop carping about these newcomers and start learning from their commitment and tenaciousness.

Of course, just as the new legislators were successfully applying Dylan’s vision of change to the anachronistic ways of our State Legislature, labor, as is nearly always the case, followed its real achievement with the farm workers bill with a series of self-inflicted failures.

‘Gig’ Workers Shut Out

I have written a few times about the plight of the “gig” workers, so named by the new-age tech industry so as to have them treated as “contractors” instead of employees, thus avoiding any worker protection. Well, a bill that would give “gig” workers in New York State the right to organize and bargain collectively failed to be considered for enactment in the final weeks of the session.

Why? As best as I can determine it failed due to the in-fighting and purposeful lack of communication among labor’s leadership, which has become the routine reason why very little of importance gets done for workers as a class anymore. Apparently, the State AFL-CIO put forward a bill that was not vetted with other leaders who are more intimately involved in organizing the largest segment of gig workers—the ride-sharing giants. So as a result of what seems to be yet another turf conflict among labor’s leaders, nothing got done for those workers most in need of some action.

The other failure is still shrouded in confusion and secrecy. Remember the climate-change bill noted above? Well, apparently our dear “union-loving” Governor put forward a last-minute version of the bill that gutted some significant worker provisions. A June 18 article by Justine Calma on grist.org reported that “The original Climate and Community Protection Act included stipulations intended to provide a safety net for displaced fossil-fuel workers and ensure fair wages for workers building the resulting renewable-energy sector. It also included apprenticeship and workforce development programs and rules that would have required contractors to establish mechanisms for resolving labor disputes. The new bill no longer contains a section on jobs and workers, save for a line stipulating that the state’s prevailing wage law must be followed.”

Gone With the Gov

“The new bill no longer contains a section on jobs and workers…”! That kind of says it all, doesn’t it? The greatest fear of fossil-fuel workers is not having a good job in the new “Green Economy.” The greatest fear of all workers is not making a decent wage. The greatest concern of any labor union should be having new industries open to organizing and fair-labor protections. And yet our “labor” Governor wipes these elements from a historic piece of legislation at the last minute. And the labor “movement” apparently cannot do a thing about it.

So, “the times, they are a’changin’ ” … somewhat. The new young legislators bring big changes to the legislative process. But for the representatives of the working class, not much is a’changin’ at all.


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