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 union labor. And while the classic image of unions is a construction worker or a teacher, New York City’s labor movement is the most diverse and varied in the world. We are ironworkers, transit workers, operating engineers, as well as zoologists, stagehands, and of course musicians. Since the inception of the labor movement, it has been understood that a union job is a career that leads to the promise of stability, higher family sustaining wages and benefits, and protection against unscrupulous employers. And while that still rings true, the labor movement is now having to work harder than ever before to maintain these valuable tools for working people.
It has been said that the music industry is the original gig economy. Musicians are able to use their talent, creativity, and passion to help set the tone for events, and create soundtracks that build lifelong memories. Your talent can bring listeners to tears, help them recall a special moment, and literally cause them to drop everything and dance right where they are. While it is exciting to be able to make a living by doing something you love, for many musicians, playing a gig means reporting to the party booking the gig, reporting to a band leader, and reporting to whoever is in charge at the venue. For musicians and members of other entertainment unions, a 9 to 5, or even an 11 to 6 shift simply isn’t an option. A finger injury or bronchitis can prove disastrous for a trumpet player, while a broken wrist can sideline a drummer for months. Not having a single employer is complicated, and can mean an interruption in health insurance and other vital benefits that help keep families up and on their feet. This reality is why the work of unions like Local 802, and of the labor movement in general, is so important.
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 and 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 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, collective bargaining rights, benefits, and workplace protections. In fact, New York City is leading a labor resurgence. Previously unorganized industries like digital media and even bike-shares 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 together 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 workers are empowered with the tools, wages, and peace of mind needed to not just do our jobs effectively, 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.
NEW YORK CITY IS A UNION TOWN: Workers stand strong together in the fight for a fair contract at Verizon and demonstrate for a living wage. For more, see www.nycclc.org. Photos: www.nycclc.org/news/media-galleries