By BERNARD STAMLER
June 7, 1998, Sunday
It is a season of discontent, at least among
those who make their living on the city's streets. And many have
taken to those very streets to protest: taxi drivers, disgruntled sidewalk artists and, most recently, food
cart vendors, all complaining of new municipal regulations that
they say will hamper their business.
But these are battles between individual
workers and their city. Where are the labor unions, whose collective
organizing traditionally took place on the streets and sidewalks of New York?
"Don't worry, we're out there,"
said Mike Hellstrom, an organizer for Local 79 of the Construction
and Building Laborers Union. "And these days we're taking
a relentless approach that works."
Indeed, after many years of decline, grass-roots
organizing is back in New York, as local labor leaders make it
a priority again. And there is probably no better example than
Mr. Hellstrom's union.
"Until a few years ago, there was a
very complacent attitude," said Mr. Hellstrom, who has taken
organizing courses at the A.F.L.-C.I.O. George Meany Center outside
Washington, and at Cornell University. "Now you're seeing
a much more aggressive attitude," one that he says has succeeded
in winning union recognition at many construction sites across
For about two years, his union has been sending
its members to nonunion projects to demonstrate in the street.
They whistle, chant and yell and, usually, they take along a 20-foot inflated rat to make their point.
"He represents nonunion contractors," Mr. Hellstrom
said of his whiskered companion.
Local 79's most recent protest took place
on Thursday morning at a Metropolitan Transportation Authority
project on Ninth Avenue and 54th Street. (Many government employers
use contractors who pay the prevailing wage, but who are not required
to hire union members.) Beginning about 6 A.M., hundreds of whistle-blowing
union members blocked the street and tied up traffic. They also
brought four of the towering rodents with them, for emphasis.
This return to "in your face" demonstrations,
as Mr. Hellstrom calls them, is part of a national trend, said
Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at Queens College. A few years
ago, he explained, big labor realized "that standing still
just wouldn't work" in the midst of politicians' consistent
attacks on unions and growing antilabor sentiment. Still, it has
taken New Yorkers longer to join the fray than it has others,
precisely because New York is historically a union town.
Despite some erosion in its union membership,
"New York was less hard hit by the general decline of labor
than the rest of the country," Professor Freeman said. Organizing
never petered out totally, but a bad local economy in the early
1990's, coupled with "less of a sense of emergency,"
made New York "slower to re-embrace it," he said. "But
it's happening now."
Local labor officials agree. "Unions
were acting like their only job was to take care of their existing
members," said Bill Henning, vice president of Local 1180
of the Communications Workers of America, who added that labor
used to "wait for the phone to ring" before organizing
new members. That attitude has disappeared, he said; he and other
union executives took a labor organizing course in March, and
about 70 members of the local went on a retreat a few weeks ago
to learn about organizing.
Similarly, Sylvia Grant, executive vice president
of Local 1199 of the National Health and Human Services Employees
Union, said that 20 rank-and-file members had recently taken leaves
of absence from their jobs and were being trained to organize
clinic workers. Already the largest union of health care workers
in the city, the 120,000-member local merged early this year with
the 1.2 million-member Service Employees International Union,
based in Washington. The merged union has pledged to increase
Of course union organizing never disappeared
entirely from New York. But much of it was "waged silently,"
with the unions negotiating behind the scenes with employers,
according to Brooks Bitterman, research director for Local 100
of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. But he
said that his union had always believed in "taking street action."
"We've done lots of civil disobedience,"
Mr. Bitterman said. "Lots of leafleting, sit-down strikes
Local 100 is the union that targeted the
Box Tree, the elegant restaurant on East 49th Street that serves
$86 prix-fixe dinners. The organizing effort dragged on for more
than four years, until the workers were unionized
The Box Tree campaign was "a real community
battle," Mr. Bitterman said. The union enlisted local politicians
in the cause and also publicized possible code violations by the
restaurant, which the union claimed was running a hotel illegally.
Box Tree denied the claims, but merely raising
them helped the organizers. "One of the things we have found
is that there is a lot of potential support among elected officials
and neighborhood groups if you know how to mobilize it,"
Mr. Bitterman said.
Of course there was constant picketing, too,
and a coordinated effort by Local 100 to get prospective diners
to choose other restaurants for their luxury meals. "If a
restaurant worker engages customers in conversation, and explains
what's going on, we find that they are generally supportive,"
Mr. Bitterman said. "It's so easy for them to avoid the aggravation
of crossing a picket line and to go somewhere else, especially
with so many restaurants in New York."
But are the tactics of confrontation effective
generally? Mr. Hellstrom thinks so, and plans to continue them,
he said. Among other successes, he cited 25 weeks worth of demonstrations
that resulted in a union contract for workers renovating a 24-story
office building on John Street. He said there had been an increase
of 5,000 members in his local in the two years since the on-the-street,
rat-accompanied protests began.
Mr. Bitterman will also persist in such tactics,
like the picketing since early spring at Angelo and Maxie's Steakhouse
on Park Avenue South and 19th Street, a spot frequented by professional
He also pointed to the recent unionization
of cafeteria workers at the headquarters of Salomon Smith Barney
on Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan. The strategy there, he
said, included sit-ins (complete with arrests last November),
picketing and even an alliance with women's groups to publicize
reported acts of sexual harassment and discrimination by various
Salomon Smith Barney tried to emphasize that the cafeteria was technically run by Aramark, an outside contractor. But although Salomon denies it, Mr. Bitterman believes it was the confrontational pressure on the firm that got the matter resolved last month, after nearly a year of demonstrations.
"These are high-profile tactics,"
he said, "and they work."