About 18 months ago, on his way out the door, then-Gov. David Paterson bowed to lobbying pressure from Con Edison and business groups and vetoed a bill that would have required gas and electric companies to pay prevailing wages to contractors who perform janitorial and security services.
Many of the 2,000 workers at issue made around $7.75 an hour, 50 cents above minimum wage. The bill would have upped them to the regional prevailing wage for those jobs — as low as $8.55 upstate plus benefits. The Legislature said yes — that workers at monopoly utilities should earn a regionally appropriate wage and help grow the economy; the lobbyists and the governor said no.
Now, Con Ed is at it again, this time locking out 8,500 workers and replacing them with 5,000 managers or retired supervisors — in the summertime, when demand for electricity is sky-high.
This is the same company that grossed $1 billion in net income last year — after increasing its rates by 9.6% in 2010. It has paid its CEO, Kevin Burke, nearly $25 million over the past five years. More than 40 company executives reportedly make over $300,000.
Yet, according to the union, the company now wants to make it harder for rank-and-file workers to retire and to double the cost of health insurance.
It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that at the very same time, Con Ed is playing the money game with powerful politicians. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the utility has given $250,000 to the Committee to Save New York, one of Gov. Cuomo’s most powerful allies.
With negotiations between the union and the company proceeding, hopefully this most recent attempt to steamroll workers may soon be over.
But the lessons should stick with us. When will we learn that workers don’t have to keep paying the price while those at the top slide by?
This could be the moment. Over the last few months, low-wage workers in various industries — from car washes in East Harlem and The Bronx, to supermarkets in Brooklyn, to airport workers in Queens and domestic workers across the city — have been fighting back against bosses who pay them less than the minimum wage, deny them overtime and provide little or no benefits. While some of these struggles have had success, most have gone under the radar screens of the mainstream press.
That is about to change.
On July 24, workers from 10 separate campaigns — led by such groups as Make The Road New York, Domestic Workers United, New York Communities for Change, SEIU 32BJ and more — are planning to come together for the first time to launch a massive union organizing campaign. They’ll be joined by about three dozen members of the clergy.
It is no coincidence that as union membership has fallen — from about a third of all American workers in the 1950s to fewer than only about 7% of private sector workers today — the clout of individual employees has eroded along with their wages and benefits. Only when we reverse this trend can we begin to turn the broader economic tide.
While the focus of this unprecedented push is men and women at the bottom of the economic ladder, bad or illegal working conditions, health insurance and pension issues affect everyone, like the locked out Con Ed employees.
Better wages bring more money into all households, which then can afford to buy more food, clothes and other necessities to help grow the economy.
Hardworking New Yorkers need a raise, decent wages, respect on the job and good and safe working conditions. And it’s clear we won’t get them unless we stand up and demand them.
Rivera is the executive director of UnitedNY.
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