NYC mass rallies reveal labor's latent power

by Andy Piascik

More than 40,000 union construction workers sacrificed a day's pay on June 30 to march through midtown Manhattan in one of the most militant labor demonstrations the city has seen in years. The Transit Authority, which is building a new command center nonunion, was the immediate target of the rally; but the size of the demonstration and the anger it expressed were more a protest against the alarming spread of nonunion construction work.

Even construction union officials were caught unaware. They had planned a modest rally where they would make the standard expected speeches and then send everyone home. But a large contingent of workers seized the initiative and headed off, without a permit, on an impromptu unauthorized march to the TA construction site.

Then things got exciting. The media played up sporadic conflicts between a few marchers and police; and the representatives of authority were scandalized, not really by these few minor clashes but because marchers took matters into their own hands and defied the police. Some union officials tried unsuccessfully to dissuade their members from joining the march. The next day, one high-ranking union officer apologized to the mayor.

The rally came just one month after a solid strike by the city's taxi drivers. In that event, thousands of unorganized drivers answered the call of a tiny cabby group. Here, too, the movement was triggered by a specific grievance but actually expressed a simmering resentment against oppressive working conditions. Taken together, these events reveal a level of discontent and a latent power that remain untapped by the labor movement.


The following letter to the Times, sent on July 3, was not published:

Twenty-five years ago, when I worked for the Painters union in New York, then under the leadership of reformer Frank Schonfeld, and before it was taken back by organized crime, we tried to get the New York Housing Authority to consider our charges that the Authority was permitting shady contractors to do its work. Firms that were under the influence of racketeers were paying less than prevailing scale, cheating on welfare benefits, and paying off the books. But the Authority remained unconcerned. It ran a series of whitewash hearings that refused to accept evidence or witnesses on these issues but, instead, permitted trivial discussion of the technical quality of paint and brushstrokes.

We could rally only a few dozen to a protest at City Hall so that no one, not even the New York Times, was interested. But this time, 40,000 good construction workers make the city sit up and take notice. Citizens in action get results. That's the important news. They deserve credit and praise. Let's not forget that in the complaints against the few who were carried away in their anger.


Herman Benson, Association for Union Democracy

Democracy in the Musicians union

The American Federation of Musicians is one union that is comfortable with its history of robust internal union democracy and is not shy about reminding its members of that tradition. Senza Sordino, the official publication of the AFM International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, provides its account in excellent stories by Marsha Schweitzer, its editor, and James Clute, a Minnesota Orchestra bassist.
Earlier, New York Local 802's Allegro and the AFM's International Musician ran installments of an extensive historical account by Murray Rothstein, a talented reform leader who led a Local 802 insurgent movement in the 1960's. The Recording Musicians Association, now an official AFM conference, sponsored a book-length history of its own successful battle for democracy within the AFM: "For the Record" by Jon Burlingame.
Now, the May issue of Senza Sordino keeps the story alive. "Some union officials," writes Schweitzer, "having learned from management the techniques of intimidation, threats, abuse of power, and propaganda, find it too easy to turn those tactics against their own union members, if necessary, to get them to accept an unpalatable contract or to impede rank-and-file attempts to democratize the union."
The two writers remind readers that symphony orchestra musicians and recording musicians had to organize and fight inside the union for their rights. Two insurgencies led to splits from the union, only one of which was healed. Two international union presidents were forced out of office by opposition movements. The presidents of large locals were defeated by organized oppositions.
All this provides a fitting background to the announcement of the August 19-23 "Unity Conference" in Las Vegas, sponsored by five orchestra conferences, called to discuss "possible changes in the AFM to make it a better union."
The Las Vegas gathering will deal with AFM problems from the standpoint of the professional orchestra musicians. In the April issue of Local 802's Allegro, under the heading "Assuring Democracy in the AFM," Local President Bill Moriarity writes about these issues from the standpoint of the large locals of working musicians like 802 in New York and 47 in Los Angeles.

September 98