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The State of the Unions: Pandemic Brings Chance for Expansion Along With Financial Threats

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Members of various city unions gathered at the Essential Workers Union Rally in Foley Square on Sept 3, 2020

Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

The labor movement in New York City has a historic opportunity to expand its ranks during the coronavirus crisis — even as the dire budget situation threatens a sharp municipal workforce downsizing and some unions face financial catastrophe.

That’s the pandemic paradox laid out by labor leaders and analysts as the CUNY Center for Labor and Urban Studies’ newly released annual report on labor finds that one in five New York City workers belongs to a union. 

The share of government employees who are members increased slightly, to more than 70%, as local public-sector unions have largely turned back a national effort to break their power.

Union leaders say that workers’ COVID-driven safety concerns will give them a strong incentive to join.

“Unions have advocated for safe workplaces for hundreds of years and now that is more important than ever because of the pandemic,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council.

Worked rallied against layoffs and furloughs.

Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio is threatening to lay off 22,000 workers if the city doesn’t receive billions of dollars in federal aid or get Albany’s OK to borrow money. With projected budget deficits totalling at least $10 billion in the next four years, any job cuts this year could be followed by many more in the future.

And unions representing workers in key areas face massive declines in dues.

“The recession will be very tough for the private-sector unions,” said Joshua Freeman, a history professor at Queens College. “Hospitality has been just devastated and the vast majority of Broadway stagehands are out of work.”

A Union State

New York State is the second most heavily unionized state in the nation, trailing only Hawaii. While no similar comparisons exist for large cities, the CUNY study’s estimate that 20.6% of workers are organized likely means New York City is No. 1.

The CUNY report shows a decline in union penetration in the private sector, falling to 13.1% from 17% three years ago. Much of the pre-pandemic growth in the economy came in sectors like tech and financial services with relatively few union members. 

From the “State of the Unions 2020” report by Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce for the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

The CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

Union jobs in wired communication are being eliminated by technology and some hotels built in recent years are operating non-union, noted Stephanie Luce, one of the report’s authors.

Safety concerns have also propelled organizing efforts targeting Amazon’s warehouse workers and its Whole Foods unit in New York by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, winning lots of publicity but no votes on whether workers want a union.

The continued strength of public-sector unions in New York comes as a surprise to some. 

From the “State of the Unions 2020” report by Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce for the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

The CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

After years of legal challenges from conservative groups, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that states could no longer require public workers who refused to join the union to pay dues. 

When a similar rule went into effect in Wisconsin, unions lost large chunks of their members. But in New York, workers stuck with their locals.  

“The unions saw this decision coming and they organized a massive campaign to make the case for the value of membership,” said Daniel DiSalvo, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written extensively on the high court’s Janus decision. “They had five years to work on this and they have invested a lot.”

DiSalvo also notes that local politicians helped as well by enacting new laws. In New York, all new employees can meet with union members on work time for an hour and their contact information is shared with unions. Other states have made it harder to opt out once joining by allowing such an action only once a year.

Hotel Workers Slammed

No union has been harder hit by the pandemic than the powerful New York Hotel Trades Council, with an estimated 15% of its 40,000 members still working.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the union negotiated safety protocols for its members that have been updated several times as health officials added recommendations such as face masks and social distancing.

More important, through arbitration the union was able to extend no-cost health insurance, paid by the hotels, for its out-of-work members through the end of September. Labor leaders are seeking to negotiate an extension.

The union, which has averaged $35 million a year in dues and other revenues in recent years, is putting a brave face on its financial difficulties with so few members working.

“While the number of dues-paying members has gone down, I was surprised at how many of the members have chosen to continue paying dues,” said Rich Maroko, president of the union. “It’s amazing.”

He says workers are tightening their belts, but he predicts the union will get through what he concedes is the worst six months in its history.

Electoral Muscle Still Strong

On the public-sector end, de Blasio is under pressure from civic groups like the Citizens Budget Commission to stick to his demand for $1 billion in productivity savings.

The mayor also suggested that he won’t need to seek savings or make layoffs if the federal government provides aid or if Albany gives the city the OK to borrow. 

Fiscal experts oppose borrowing because it supports spending that won’t be sustainable in future years without more borrowing.

How long de Blasio can hold to such a position — and whether his successor in 2022 will be able to do so — is unclear.

Mayor Bill de Blasio

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Unions remain a major force in New York politics. Freeman notes that with the election of five socialists to the Legislature, unions could win an expansion of benefits like paid maternity and sick leave.  

Political analyst Bradley Tusk suggests the aims of public- and private-sector unions may diverge. 

Unions representing government workers do all they can to preserve jobs, including supporting tax hikes. Private-sector unions are more interested in efforts to expand the economy, and will be wary of tax increases that may encourage people and companies to move outside the city.

In any event, Tusk said, “If turnout in the [mayoral] primary next year doesn’t exceed [the very low] 2013 levels, labor — even divided in two — will have a lot of influence over who wins.”

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