In the labor movement, nothing can happen for days. Or weeks. Or months. In New York City on Oct. 29, two big events were worth noting and point to a possible renewal in labor insurgencies. One was a boisterous protest by mass transit workers fired up over management’s exhorbitant take-back demands and incremental bargaining pace; the other a sobering and well-attended investigation of the plight of a new class of unpaid workers, commonly labeled “interns.”
New York subway and bus workers marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, and something from which the city and the tri-state are are still recovering from, with a massive late afternoon contract-protest rally.
Targeting the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s two years of stalling negotiations and what field technician Abdul Awan told Talking Union “were their grotesque demands,” a
sea of green-hatted Transport Workers Union Local 100 protestors stretched five blocks from MTA headquarters on lower Broadway to the Staten Island Ferry.
Members—whom the union estimated at some six thousand, though that seemed low-ball to this observer— wore buttons reading “No Contract, No Peace,” and waved signs warning of “A New Storm Coming” as they slammed the agency for balking on retroactive pay going back to Jan. 2012, for offering zero raises going forward for three years, for privatizing platform maintenance, reducing bus drivers to part-time work and renewing its demand for penny-wise but potentially dangerous one-person-train operations.
At the same time the agency boasts a $1.9 billion surplus and plans to increase subway and bus fares.
Referring to the dislocation caused by the hurricane the year earlier, Local 100 President John Samuelsen noted that “While most of the city was still in a state of confusion, we had the situation under control. We saved the city’s economy. We restored order out of chaos. The editorial writers called your effort ‘miraculous.’ It was miraculous. You are miraculous.”
Samuelsen blasted both MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast and the state’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, saying “you are out of excuses. Stop stalling; Stop disrespecting workers and riders.”
Newly elected TWU International President Harry Lombardo chided both Gov. Cuomo and likely future mayor Bill de Blasio for passing on invitations to attend the rally, and for the relatively small turnout from local elected officials. Lombardo said candidates were always quick to look for labor support, but absent when needed. He labeled both Cuomo and de Blasio—the latter ironically a frequent supporter of public workers but AWOL this day—as “business lite,” all this among frequent cries from the ranks to “shut it down.”
Later that evening in Soho’s Housing Works Bookstore Café, at a panel discussion on “Will Work for Free: Breaking Down the Intern Economy,” the overwhelmingly young audience heard from a lawyers and activists about work done to combat the exploitation of interns by for-profit and non-profit organizations alike.
A recent federal court ruling that unpaid interns were employees due back pay has sparked interest in ending the practice., The ruling followed what event sponsor Intern Labor Rights called “the rising tide of lawsuits regarding internships, and alongside an expanding international movement against un/underpaid, precarious labor performed under the guise of internships.”
Despite the glamour attached to one’s resume from interning, these young people are not covered by federal or state workplace protections, including sexual harassment and racial discrimination, and panelists agreed that the practice is a footprint that degrades even paid work.
The system also functions at the expense of working class students whose families cannot afford to subsidize their grown children who could otherwise work gratis at a task that could and often does offer an “in” to elite professional positions. Hence internships as presently constituted are one more vehicle for elites to reproduce themselves.
Among the speakers was Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (Verso, 2012); Rachel Bien, an attorney with employment law firm Outten and Golden, Ima Rodriguez , executive director of Queens Community House, a multi-service settlement house with sites throughout the borough of Queens, and Dedunu Suraweera, an organizer with Intern Labor Rights.
(For more information on the TWU contract fight, go HERE. More on Intern Labor Rights is HERE )
Michael Hirsch is a longtime labor and political writer and a frequent contributor to Talking Union.
You can read other Talking Union posts by Michael Hirsch here.