By VINCENT ALVAREZ
New York City is a union town. It’s a chant heard at labor rallies all over the city, and it’s true – New York City was built and is continuing to be supported by unionized labor.
While the classic image of a union member is a construction worker or a teacher, New York City’s labor movement is the most diverse and varied in the world. We are musicians, doctors, operating engineers, ironworkers, and of course dedicated public employees. Since the inception of the labor movement, it has been understood that a union job is a career that leads to the promise of economic stability, family-sustaining wages and benefits, and protection against unscrupulous employers.
This still rings true, but the labor movement must work harder than ever to maintain these valuable tools for working people.
The last 35 years have been challenging for the national labor movement. The American Dream is still a reality, but attacks on working men and women are making it unattainable for far too many of us.
From the relocation of so many factories overseas to governmental attacks on public employees’ pensions and collective bargaining rights like those in Wisconsin, Michigan, and closer to home in New Jersey, workers’ rights have been under attack like never before. Declining wages are forcing Americans to work harder for less. Anti-union lawsuits like Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association have threatened to reduce the power and influence of unions, and dangerous private sector non-union construction projects lacking the necessary worker safety protections and training are being built at alarming rates. In the last year, 16 workers on non-union construction sites in New York City have paid the ultimate price.
Sounds like a lot of doom and gloom, doesn’t it? What these attacks have done, however, is led labor to focus on ensuring that workers understand the importance of unions in growing and protecting wages, benefits, and workplace protections, and ensuring that workers have a voice on the job.
In fact, New York City is leading labor’s resurgence. Previously unorganized industries like digital media and bikeshare have overwhelmingly been voting to join unions because workers understand that they are stronger together.
All over the city, we are seeing adjunct professors and graduate assistants stand up for union representation and recognition, and demand the wages, benefits, and treatment they deserve.
Over the last year, nail salon workers have been lifting their voices for better pay, scheduling, and worker protections. In fact, these workers were recently awarded $2 million in unpaid wages and damages.
The labor movement is growing, and workers are benefitting. According to a recent Gallup poll, roughly six in ten workers believe that unions benefit workers. The highest percentage of these workers is between the ages of 18 and 34, or young workers.
We are standing and growing together, and this unity is what will continue to see workers through these attacks from moneyed special interest groups that seek to strip workers of our power.
The beauty of our collective movement is that workers can draw strength from the victories of their brothers and sisters in other industries. When we remain united and workers are empowered with the tools, wages and peace of mind needed to not just do our jobs but excel, we all win.
Vincent Alvarez is the president of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest regional labor federation, representing 300 unions and 1.3 million workers in the New York City metro area. This editorial originally appeared in the July-August issue of Public Employee Press.