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Juneteenth Holiday Remains a Mere Promise From Mayor to City Workers

Mayor Bill de Blasio signs an executive order making Juneteenth a city holiday, June 19, 2020.
Mayor Bill de Blasio signs an executive order making Juneteenth a city holiday, June 19, 2020.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

At the peak of the anti-racism protests last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that Juneteenth would become “an official city holiday,” commemorating June 19, 1865, a date marking the liberation of enslaved Black people in Texas.

“Every city worker, every student will have an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of our history — and the truth — and to think about the work that we have to do ahead,” de Blasio announced at his press briefing on June 19.

A slide accompanying the mayor’s announcement noted that the work included “engaging” unions on a rollout plan.

Nearly seven months later, leaders of key unions say they’ve heard nothing since — even though the mayor’s executive order last June made the day a “public holiday.”

Local Black historians contacted by THE CITY also questioned why de Blasio seized on another state’s historical moment, instead of celebrating the anniversary of New York’s abolition of slavery on July 4, 1827.

De Blasio is not alone in elevating June 19 in New York: In October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation designating Juneteenth a public holiday in the state.

The mayor and the unions have yet to hammer out the details of a plan — and Juneteenth still has yet to be made an official paid holiday, a City Hall spokesperson acknowledged to THE CITY.

“Juneteenth deserves to be honored as a paid holiday and the city will continue to pursue making it a paid holiday for city workers,” the spokesperson, Bill Neidhardt, said in a statement. “This entails negotiations with unions over pay schedules, which are detailed in multiple contracts. That’s a lot of work, but it’s certainly worth it to give Juneteenth the status it is owed.”

Pay to Play

A reader alerted THE CITY to the omission of Juneteenth from the payroll schedule of holidays that municipal workers recently received. This year, June 19 lands on a Saturday, so public school students and many city workers, such as teachers, will already have the day off.

Next year, Juneteenth falls on a Sunday. But June 19 will land on a Monday in 2023. Even if de Blasio does reach agreements with multiple unions before his term finishes at the end of this year, implementing the deals will largely fall to his successor.

A Black Lives Matter march on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, May 31, 2020.
Black Lives Matter protesters march along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, May 31, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city’s Office of Labor Relations still hasn’t contacted some of the largest unions about the holiday, some labor officials said.

“I hate when they do these announcements by press conferences,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the city’s largest public employee union, which represents some 150,000 members.

“We are open to negotiate, but that negotiation hasn’t taken place,” he added. Garrido contends that unions should not have to sacrifice any pay or benefits in order to secure the additional day off.

The president of the union representing sanitation workers also said city labor officials have “not talked to me” about getting the day off.

In 2007, the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association became the city’s first uniformed union to negotiate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a paid day off, more than two decades after it became a federal holiday.

“I didn’t get it for nothing,” recalled USA President Harry Nespoli, noting the union “took less money” from the city to cover the added benefit.

As for Juneteenth, unions seeking to get that day as a paid holiday will also likely need to make some kind of concession, said Nespoli, who also chairs the Municipal Labor Committee, a union umbrella group.

Last year, CUNY faculty and staff received a paid day off on Juneteenth. A spokesperson for the Professional Staff Congress, which represents CUNY faculty and staff, wasn’t immediately able to comment.

A representative for the United Federation of Teachers said the union was looking into THE CITY’s inquiry, but did not immediately respond.

The Police Benevolent Association, the union representing members of the NYPD, did not respond to requests for comment.

In one glimmer of progress, the city Department of Transportation has added Juneteenth to its 2021 alternate-side-of-the-street parking suspension calendar.

New York’s Neglected Milestone

William Seraile, professor emeritus of Africana studies at Lehman College, has advocated for observing the abolition of slavery in New York on July 4 — marking the anniversary of the decisive date in 1827.

Seraile and others have been encouraging Cuomo and Albany lawmakers to turn the second Monday of July into a day of observance, given that July 4 is already a national holiday. The Assembly passed a bill last summer that would honor Abolition Commemoration Day as well as Juneteenth in New York State.

Protesters took to the streets around the Barclays Center shutting down traffic.
Hundreds of protesters marched along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn during another day of major demonstrations after the police-involved killing of George Floyd.
Ben Fractenberg

Still, he said he supports June 19 becoming a paid holiday for city workers. Seraile noted that slavery wasn’t abolished officially until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865 — months after the date honored as Juneteenth.

“Juneteenth only applies to slavery in Texas because the people of Texas weren’t told about the Emanicipation Proclamation, which goes back to January 1, 1863,” he said.

Madge Allen of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History said she’s been advocating more than a decade for the state to honor the day that slavery ended in New York.

Allen said she doesn’t believe Juneteenth should be a paid holiday in New York, citing the celebration’s historical significance in Texas.

“Can you think of a reason why it should be a holiday for New York?” said Allen, former president of the association’s Manhattan branch. She noted she was sharing her personal opinions and not speaking on behalf of the association.

She said she believes politicians were just trying to appease people when, amid last spring’s anti-racism protests, the movement to make Juneteenth a holiday spread.

“A lot of people — I don’t think — had heard about Juneteenth until” recently, she said.

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