At a Manhattan rally in solidarity with Wisconsin workers, Cary Lane stood on top of a fence in City Hall Park. Surrounded by several thousand union members, he held up a sign with foot-high letters: “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?!”
“Re-establishing respect for educators and other civil servants is a national priority and it’s why I’m here,” said Lane, who teaches basic skills at Queensborough Community College. “This is a larger fight about what the priorities of our country should be. The assault on our budgets and ability to collectively negotiate has crossed the line – and as you can see, we’re pushing back.”
Other signs said “Cut Bonuses, Not Teachers,” “We Are All Wisconsin,” and “If You Like Weekends, Thank a Union.”
The February 26 rally was the largest of many New York actions in support of Wisconsin unions in their battle to defend their rights. The Reuters wire-service report on the protest featured Queensborough’s PSC chapter chair, Judith Barbanel. “We all support the people in Wisconsin and all over the country where labor is being threatened,” Barbanel told Reuters. “The real agenda of the [Wisconsin] governor and many others is just to destroy unions.”
Dozens of unions and community groups turned out for the demonstration, part of a “50-State Mobilization for the American Dream.” The nationwide protest was initiated by MoveOn.org, and supported by a range of groups: Jobs With Justice, Citizen Action, SEIU, Working Families Party, National People’s Action and a dozen more.
A high point was the speech by Jim Perlstein, chair of the PSC Retirees Chapter. “You have got it wrong” about budget deficits, Perlstein told the crowd, with a straight face and his tongue in his cheek. “It’s not trillions for misbegotten wars. It’s not tax cuts for business. It’s not subsidies for real estate speculators....No, I’m the 75-year-old son-of-a-bitch responsible for all your problems,” Perlstein declared, as the crowd roared with laughter. “Get the likes of me under control, and we’ll have heaven on earth!”
He concluded on a more serious note, which drew sustained applause: “We need the public sector. We need the labor movement. We need them in Wisconsin, we need them in New York, [and] we’re ready to fight for them.”
Just a few days after Gov. Walker’s introduced his anti-union bill, the PSC Delegate Assembly passed a resolution supporting Wisconsin labor’s fight against it. On CUNY campuses, union activists distributed hundreds of stickers that read, “We Are All Wisconsin,” and found ways to spread the word. The PSC chapter at Bronx Community College, for example, sparked interest and discussion with lunchtime tabling, showing videos of the Wisconsin struggle and distributing an informational leaflet.
Four days before the rally at City Hall, a crowd of more than 500 people demonstrated outside Fox News’s Midtown headquarters, in support of Wisconsin unions and condemning the network’s anti-union bias.
“Public-sector workers are not the enemy,” declared Hector Figueroa, secretary-treasurer of SEIU 32BJ, which represents 120,000 property service workers across the Northeast. Instead, Figueroa said, “we need to use this opportunity to organize” to improve health care and benefits for all.
Many participants linked the struggle in the Midwest with popular uprisings in the Middle East, saying they were inspired by the “people power” mobilized against Walker’s anti-union measure. “We’re all standing in Tahrir Square in some sense,” said Hanna Lessinger, an adjunct at John Jay College.
Wisconsin unionists “have done what we should have done years ago,” added Lessinger’s friend Nadine Fishelson, a public school teacher in Brooklyn. “If we don’t do something now, this is going to happen to us here in New York.”
The theme of a common struggle ran throughout New York support actions for Wisconsin’s embattled unions. On February 24, several locals of the biggest union of New York City employees, AFSCME District Council 37, rallied at City Hall against service and benefit cuts proposed by Mayor Bloomberg – and in support of the Wisconsin labor movement. Speakers noted that like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Gov. Cuomo is seeking both tax cuts for the corporate elite and cuts in public services used by the working class.
A second “American Dream” rally, organized March 15 in Union Square, voiced support for economic justice from coast to coast. “We demand an end to the attacks on workers’ rights. We demand needed public investment,” said the protest’s organizers, mainly non-labor groups. “In New York State, that means keeping the tax on millionaires that Cuomo refuses to renew,” they declared.