Op-Ed: A fight for all working people: New Yorkers stand with unions
By Vincent Alvarez, President, New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO
New Yorkers are no strangers to the echoing chants of a picket line, or the appearance of a looming inflatable rat on a corner. But even the most jaded urban dwellers can’t help feeling that there’s something happening with our city’s labor movement today.
Much has already been written about the ongoing strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA. Screenwriters and actors want what every worker wants: stability for their families and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Their bosses have responded by stripping them of the residuals that pay the rent between jobs, and insisting on the use of AI that takes away ownership of their words and likenesses.
Rapid, unregulated technological changes aren’t just impacting entertainment workers. Across our economy, workers are being treated like robots, driven to meet arbitrary quotas at the risk of their own health and safety, with shift schedules set by algorithms that don’t understand how human beings function. Too often, automation is being deployed to eliminate workers instead of being used to make work better.
SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher nailed it when she said “What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor, […] when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run.”
It’s been called the summer of strikes, but this current wave of worker actions didn’t just start heating up with the temperatures. For decades, the playing field shifted, taking power out of workers’ hands and giving it to those whose primary motivation is not to produce but to devour. As inequality grew, and taxes on corporations and the 1% were cut, workers were told that bosses knew what was best for us and our families.
When our communities faced the ravages of COVID, many workers risked their own safety to keep the machine running. They took on those burdens, getting us through the crisis only to watch in dismay as corporations pocketed their historic profits and then ravenously demanded more.
Approval for unions is at a nearly 60 year high, and 60 million workers would join a union today if they could. But workers aren’t operating on an even playing field — years of attacks and neglect have decimated the laws meant to protect workers’ rights. A recent NLRB decision could compel employers to recognize unions if they commit labor violations during union elections, a major step forward after decades in which the fines incurred through harassment and retaliation were simply the cost of doing business.
But in New York City, workers from our coffee shops to our legal services providers have successfully unionized only to find themselves mired in first contract negotiations that drag on for years because there’s little incentive for bosses to come to the table in good faith.
Today, workers are taking matters into their own hands. New Yorkers have seen at least a dozen job actions this year, directly impacting more than 50,000 workers. Health care, media, retail, legal, cultural and other workers have all stood up to say that enough is enough. And there’s more coming — right now 20,000 building service workers who made it possible for offices to reopen safely are ready to fight for a contract that reflects the value of their work and defends the labor standards they’ve already achieved.
Tying these fights together is an unprecedented wave of solidarity across unions and class divisions. When the writers put up picket lines, their entertainment union siblings refused to cross. When Alphabet workers rallied outside Google’s NYC headquarters, unionized musicians provided the soundtrack. When 7,000 Montefiore and Mount Sinai nurses fought for a fair contract in the cold of winter, interns and residents were out there with them, and when physicians at Elmhurst Hospital were forced to strike this spring the nurses returned the favor.
Workers are done waiting for the wealth to trickle down, for bosses to stop rigging the game in their own favor. They’re watching each other, learning from each other, and showing up for each other. They’re showing the bosses that when you take one of us on, you take all of us on.
You don’t have to be part of a union to be part of the struggle. This Labor Day, striking workers will take a break and enjoy a well-deserved day of rest with family and loved ones. But when the morning comes, they’ll be back out on our City’s sidewalks.
They’re fighting on behalf of all working people. Let’s help them hold the line.
This op-ed appeared in the New York Daily News on September 4, 2023.