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Unions can repair voter cynicism


There is a deep pessimism about the government's ability to address the many existential challenges facing working families in the city. Challenges such as the intensifying climate crisis, the continuing unaffordability of daily life that leaves families one crisis away from poverty, the erosion of basic rights, and a pervasive loneliness that grows from a culture that is supercharged with individualism and materialism. 

All this feeds — especially among our youth — a hopelessness about the future and the ability to live and enjoy a meaningful life. It should not be a surprise that a significant portion of people continue to be drawn to the false promise of demagogues and authoritarians in response to government leaders' unwillingness to address the challenges we face.

2024 is shaping up to be a pivotal electoral year, both for the future of the city and for the entire country. President Trump's defeat in 2020 didn’t prove a decisive rejection of the far right’s ideology, and its threat looms large in the upcoming elections. While many Americans will be motivated to turn out to vote to defend our democracy, that alone will not be enough. Although 2020’s voter turnout was the highest in a century, a third of eligible voters stayed away from the polls. New York City is not exempt from these trends. Barely half of voters showed up to the polls in 2020 while a disappointing 20 percent voted in last year’s city elections. 

Too many New Yorkers believe that voting doesn’t make a difference. They're wrong. A direct connection can be made between low voter turnout and the inability to enact policies that would have a positive impact on the lives of working New Yorkers. Because of this deep cynicism about politics and politicians, convincing people to take action requires a messenger with a credible voice. Unions, which are embedded in the daily struggles of working people across political lines, with a wave of successful strikes and labor actions under their belt and a record approval rating of 70 percent among Americans, can be that voice. 

The message is simple: the roadblock to a New York that works for working people is corporate power. Whether in the form of powerful real estate interests, Wall Street, or the Business Council, we need elected officials who are willing to confront that power when it puts its interests ahead of everyday New Yorkers. Working together with community and religious groups, tenants organizations, and student and senior groups, unions can bring millions of new voters to the polls this year and significantly shift the balance of power towards working people. 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to labor leading such a movement is itself. Too often, our unions are disconnected from each other, confuse the industry interests their members work in with their own, and fail to bring to the forefront the priorities of working people as a whole. This is understandable given the forces at work that keep working people divided. But meeting the challenges that working families in our city face requires overcoming those obstacles. 

Voters' cynicism about politics can be overcome, opening the door to tangible improvements for working families today and in the future. Unions can be the key to unlocking that door.

David Mirtz is a union ironworker and a Bronx chapter leader of the New York Working Families Party.

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