New York’s Real Poorest


In the midst of what could have been dubbed Labor Week, as home care attendants, teachers, cops, firefighters, and day care workers rolled their protests into the streets, the New York Post marked the occasion by recycling a favorite Sean Delonas cartoon. That’s the one depicting a pear-shaped man in a “Feather Bedders Local 262” T-shirt going over his pre-rally checklist as half a dozen potbellied members struggle to support a single sign reading, “More Money, Less Wurk,” complete with backward E‘s and R‘s—stupid-style.

“Let’s make sure we have enough people to carry the sign,” he’s saying. “Shop steward . . . check, master mechanic . . . check, diversity rep . . . check . . . ” Well, you get the idea. The Post presumably gets away with this amusingly toxic stuff because it is an otherwise stalwart supporter of New York’s Bravest and Finest in all battles except ones for better contracts.

New York City’s cops rank an astonishing 145th out of the 200 largest police departments in terms of salary; even poverty-stricken Newark manages to pay its police 10 percent more. Those figures, and similar inequities affecting firefighters and teachers, were widely promoted last Tuesday as some 60,000 people rallied on the Broadway side of City Hall Park. Actor Alec Baldwin was there and spoke briefly to the crowd, as did Steve Buscemi, who showed up later, joking about the hole Tony Soprano put in his head two nights before on HBO. A legitimate hero in his own right, Buscemi is a former firefighter who spent days shoveling World Trade Center rubble after 9-11.

The rally’s production values were near perfect. Speakers were projected with HBO clarity by giant video screens that lined Broadway up to Worth Street, broadcasting to the throngs penned in the metal barricades. Wearing their protest caps, police didn’t like those pens any more than anyone else: Off-duty cops were heard grousing, “This is ridiculous” as their on-duty brethren ushered them single file through the metal stanchions in the rigid post-Giuliani choreography employed for all demonstrations. Rallies now routinely have their own V.I.P. sections, located behind the speakers’ platform. These are cordoned off to rank-and-file members and guarded by someone with a clipboard like the one held by the goon in the Post cartoon. The V.I.P. section at the city workers’ rally was crowded with union officials and politicians. With a dozen TV cameras in attendance, several City Council members complained loudly when they were initially denied shout-outs from the stage.

The rationale for keeping the pols at bay was to allow more time for the concluding speeches by the leaders of the three rally sponsors: Teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten, the firefighters’ Steve Cassidy, and the police union’s Patrick Lynch. All rose to the occasion, none more so than Lynch, who eloquently described his members’ daily travails, including answering emergency calls in broken-down RMPs (radio motor patrol vehicles). And then this odd note sounded: Cops might be New York’s finest, he said, but “we’re actually New York’s poorest.”

New York’s poorest?

There is a lot of competition for that title, and as low as cop pay remains, the police don’t come close. On top of the base pay ($36,800), there is ever increasing overtime, a dozen holidays, and an array of fringes. All in all, not an unenviable package. As New York City police officer Edward Conlon writes in his splendid book Blue Blood, “The pay is bad but we get more time off than Frenchmen.”

Lynch, of course, was just trying to stoke his members’ ire. But if the city’s poorest were of real concern, and if labor solidarity were the true goal, then Lynch and the rest of Tuesday’s leadership squandered an opportunity when they skipped the next day’s rally held in the very same spot.

On Wednesday, day care workers and their supervisors marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, 7,000-strong, and rallied at City Hall. Unlike Tuesday’s rally, which didn’t begin until the afternoon shadows had begun to fill the downtown canyons, the day care workers stood under a punishing noonday sun. But then they had nowhere else to go: Unlike the cops, firefighters, and teachers, who are barred by law from walking off the job, the day care workers had voted to conduct a three-day strike.

There was another obvious difference between the back-to-back rallies: While there was a fair sprinkling of minorities on Tuesday along Broadway, Wednesday’s crew, with few exceptions, was solidly black, Latino, and Asian.

And more: With the exception of District Council 37, which came to terms with Mayor Bloomberg earlier this year, the city’s unions are working under long-expired contracts. But none more so than the day care workers. Local 205 of District Council 1707, along with the supervisors, who are in a similar bind, hasn’t had a contract since 2000.

Day care workers, who average $27,000, simply fell off the radar screen. While politically potent teachers were able to garner a 22 percent retroactive deal in 2002 from the administration, day care workers never made it to the table. A year ago, the city stopped meeting with them at all.

The official rhetoric at City Hall is that day care workers are private employees, working for nonprofit groups that contract with the city. But that’s just smoke. The union sits across the table from Jim Hanley, the city’s veteran negotiator. Bloomberg had such strong control over their paychecks that, in an effort to focus media attention, he converted them into $22 per-child vouchers for families to use during the strike. The ruse worked. Most stories led with parents struggling to cope as the centers closed.

But parents largely supported the workers. Unlike public schools, which struggle to attract parent participation, day care centers have long been able to count on a cadre of parent volunteers who understand what every study shows—that early-childhood education is the strongest grounding for good schooling.

“They call us babysitters, but I have a master’s from City College,” said Linda Peterson, 46, a teacher for 18 years at a center in the Bronx’s Highbridge section. “We have the same educational background as teachers but we make a third less. We’re open from 8:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening and we work through the summers. I don’t think we have half the holidays teachers do. I work with three-year-olds and I love doing what I do, but I don’t see what we have to give back, like the mayor’s been saying.”

Julie Dent, director of the Audrey Johnson Center in Bushwick, started as a teacher’s aide and went on to get her master’s degree. “My parents support us completely,” Dent said. “They want their kids in an educational setting. Most are working their way off of welfare, at jobs, or in school. A lot of our kids leave day care being able to read already. They’re the ones who are going to do well on the mayor’s third-grade test. I don’t understand why [Bloomberg] doesn’t value that.”

There were no movie stars at the Wednesday rally. Brian McLaughlin, president of the city’s Central Labor Council, in prominent attendance at Tuesday’s event, was also among the missing outside City Hall the next day. An aide said that McLaughlin, a Queens assemblyman, was in Albany, perhaps yet another argument why New York’s unions need a full-time leader.

Bloomberg’s official stance is a tough one, even harsher than his words for larger, better-off unions. “The mayor has said he doesn’t feel the taxpayers should be responsible for picking up the costs for their failure to reach an agreement in the previous round of contract talks,” said a City Hall spokesman.

But that’s just more pre-election smoke, a sop for those who think the Post‘s twisted cartoons reflect reality. Yet Bloomberg, if not the other unions, finally appears to have personally focused on day care’s value and the inequities to which its workers have been exposed. Talks are scheduled for Wednesday and a settlement is expected.