Where Was George?


All of the energy that the Carl McCall campaign never managed to muster was on display last week at a rally in the streets outside Governor Pataki’s midtown office.

It wasn’t a huge rally. About 500 protesters were present, brought there by a half-dozen organizations, all of them focused on jobs and the lack of them and all equally frustrated that their issues—unemployment relief, a higher minimum wage, workers’ compensation reforms—never managed to make their way to the forefront of the agenda for any of the three major gubernatorial candidates, including the Democrat who had only to summon such troops to make them come running.

The unions were largely absent from this demonstration, as most had endorsed Pataki. The incumbent governor doled out favors selectively to organized labor and capitalized on the bitter disenchantment felt by many after the Democrats’ fiasco in last year’s mayoral race.

Instead, the organizers came from the new groups that have sprung up in the city to take on the job that unions used to do. There was the wonderfully named Make the Road by Walking, which fights for the immigrant workers who comprise so much of the city’s low-wage workforce. Also, Community Voices Heard, whose voices are mostly those of women trying to safely maneuver their families through the mazes of welfare and work. The Jobs With Justice organization was there as well, along with the New York Immigration Coalition and Spotlight on the Poor.

Most of the protesters were young, and most were black, Latino, or Asian. They stood in the cold on Third Avenue, hemmed in by wooden police barricades. They beat drums and shouted slogans. In a symbolic gesture, a handful tried to bring their résumés across the street to Pataki’s people, but of course they were barred at the door. Among them was Jose Rodriguez, 21, a graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx. “I had a Parks Department job,” he explained. “I was cleaning Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. They told me it was going to be a real job, but I was there 11 months and then I was laid off. I don’t know what happens when unemployment runs out.”

Marvin Everett, 37, of Queens Village, also tried to hand in his résumé. He hasn’t been able to find a full-time job in more than a year. “I go to all the employment agencies, looking, looking,” he said.

One of the rally’s organizers was Jonathan Rosen, who started the New York Unemployment Project last year to draw attention to the escalating crisis in New York. So far this year, more than 150,000 New Yorkers have seen their unemployment benefits run out before they were able to find a new job. It is a number that will reach 200,000 by the end of the year. New York’s unemployment fund plummeted after Pataki cut payroll taxes in his first administration. Unlike New Jersey, which immediately was able to extend benefits when the economic downturn hit last year, New York did nothing.

Organized labor grumbled about this treatment of workers whose only mistake was to have their jobs run out on them. But most went right ahead and staged joyous sign-waving rallies for the governor whose policies created the situation.

Rosen is just 24 and filled with energy and ideas on how to dramatize these issues. Earlier this year he went to Albany to push for an extension to unemployment benefits. When the policy makers for Pataki and State Senator Joe Bruno told him that wasn’t going to happen, he spent $30,000—raised from foundations—to buy airtime on upstate radios to blast them for inaction. He bought blocks of minutes from Verizon and sent organizers with cell phones to job fairs and training centers and asked people looking for jobs to make calls to state legislators and the governor’s office. More than 8000 called. He hectored The New York Times so much, trying to get them to write about this topic, that it published a “Public Lives” column about him.

This summer Rosen went to McCall’s people and suggested he could raise money for TV ads focusing on the governor’s failure to respond to the unemployment crisis. The idea was for the ads to feature former employees of Windows on the World, the luxury restaurant atop the World Trade Center obliterated in the September 11 attack. Several of the former restaurant employees are being forced to apply for welfare because they can’t find work. One is about to lose his home, according to the former employees. The ads would have been in Spanish, aimed at the Latino voters Pataki has carefully cultivated. The caption on the TV picture was to have read: “Where’s George?” But the McCall campaign, which had at least 75 people listed as on the payroll in its campaign filings last week, never responded.

After protesting for an hour in front of Pataki’s office, the demonstrators marched north to a branch of American Express at Park Avenue and 53rd Street. This spring, American Express received $25 million in state subsidies aimed at encouraging businesses to return to Lower Manhattan after 9-11. The award was made six months after the company announced it was going back downtown anyway. A spokesman for the firm told Charles Bagli of the Times that the decision had nothing to do with cash grants, but with the pledge by the city and state to rebuild. The $25 million represents only slightly less than what AmEx CEO Kenneth Chenault was paid last year. At the rally on Tuesday, the protesters chanted, “Give back the money.”

Some of those chanting were workers from a new group called Restaurant Opportunities Center, made up of former restaurant workers, including some of those who lost jobs at Windows. The name of the group is mostly wishful thinking, because as yet, as one member explained, there are few opportunities. “We are trying to do training, whatever we can do,” said Victor Severino, who started at the banquet department at Windows in 1996. He was on his way to the job when the towers went down with 73 of his co-workers. “The owner started a new restaurant, but he said he didn’t need us,” said Severino. “We protested, and then he hired a few and that was it.”

Several of those at the rally had been at an earlier demonstration against Pataki last month in Albany. That event got very ugly, with cops on horses marching into the assembled protesters. But little was heard about it south of the capital. The event was organized by a coalition headed by a group called National Mobilization Against Sweat Shops, which has been challenging the Pataki administration for several years to address its broken workers’ compensation programs. Pataki passed a law that reduced costs for employers after he took office. The result has been that the state now offers the lowest compensation in the nation to injured workers, and thousands of applicants wait months and, in some instances, years for their cases to be adjudicated.

On October 15, the mobilization took some 400 people from Brooklyn and Manhattan in buses to protest in front of the governor’s Albany mansion. Michael Lalan, an organizer of the protest, said they had obtained a permit allowing them to march in the street. But as they neared the mansion, mounted state police charged into the crowd. One woman, an injured former garment worker, was knocked out of her wheelchair. Several people were injured and hospitalized. Four were arrested.

“Apparently they just didn’t want us in front of the governor’s mansion,” said Lalan.

The mobilization group issued a flyer with a photograph of a thick-set state cop pinning a young woman against the ground and pulling her arms behind her. This too might have made an interesting campaign ad. But the only time McCall raised workers’ comp issue loudly enough to be heard was at a rally last month held by one of the few unions to endorse him, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.

“McCall seems to be campaigning like he is asleep,” said Rosen as he stood with the demonstrators outside the American Express office.

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