Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Divide and Conquer Challenge

The Village Voice's Tom Robbins does a good analysis of the Kingsbridge Armory defeat-and points to how a divide and conquer stategy is a danger for labor: "In the early days of the coalition that organized to win better-paying jobs at the new armory, all of the big unions were happily onboard. Gary LaBarbera, the ex-Teamster who heads the city's Building and Construction Trades Council, signed on to the goals of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. So did the building service workers of Local 32BJ, who are playing a steadily more influential role in city politics. But as the vote grew closer and Bloomberg refused to budge, the construction and building service unions peeled off from the coalition to cut their own deals with Related."

But, even without the trades and 32BJ, the KRA coalition and its political allies proved to be too formidable for the mayor and Related: "It's just our luck that the first time the City Council actually musters the courage to face down Mike Bloomberg, it's to kill a plan that—whatever its flaws—would have put hard-pressed New Yorkers back to work. Not that it wasn't a huge thrill watching it happen."

Indeed it was-and it also exposed the unseemly relationship between Related and the "above politics" mayor-something that Robbins is happy to point out: "It was a thrill, too, because Related's top people are personal friends of the richest New Yorker: Steve Ross is one of those who whispered in Bloomberg's ear last year, urging him to grab that third term. Ross was once a business partner of Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg's old top deputy. Doctoroff is now back in the private sector running something called Bloomberg LP. When Related partner Jeff Blau recently needed references to help him land a lush pad in an exclusive Fifth Avenue co-op, the mayor wrote a nice letter and called people on the board on Blau's behalf (he was still rejected). Among the rich, this is called networking. It could also be called a conflict of interest, but the city board charged with examining such things is too busy scrutinizing school teachers and sanitation workers to notice."

And Robbins exposes the mayoral hypocrisy when it comes to an unbridled support for the fee market: "Even as his advisers told him that the Council would vote down the project without a wage deal, Bloomberg thundered against it, offended by the very notion. The Friday before the vote, the wealthiest New Yorker appeared on his regular radio show, hosted by his ever-agreeable pal, John Gambling. "It is not the city's business—it is not government's business—to tell companies that they should pay more," he sputtered. He brought himself up short when he realized he had just denounced the basis of all government wage legislation since the Great Depression. "There are federal minimum-wage laws," he quickly added, "and those are fine."

But, of course, there is no fee market when Related comes to feed at the public trough-and those businesses in the way can be excused if they don't quite see things the way that Mike Bloomberg does: "In fact, the marketplace being what it is, the minute that a gleaming-new, tax-subsidized food store opens at the armory, the longtime merchants across the street are likely to start going out of business. These are firms employing hundreds of local residents, many at union wages, with benefits—merchants who held on through the worst of the "Bronx Is Burning" years."

What made the entire campaign conclude with just the right level of euphoria was the spectacle of the city council acting, well, like an independent legislature: "The result, on December 14, was a City Council almost giddy at the prospect of finally defying the mayor. The same council that had largely rolled over for Bloomberg on some 200 previous zoning issues, the same council that cravenly conspired to let him overturn term limits last year, was aboil at the thrill of saying, at long last, "No." You could see it in the smiling, whispered asides as members popped up from their chairs and raced across the aisle to consult with friends and allies."

But whither labor on all of this? Robbins remains concerned: "This is how such coalitions often bust apart. At the end of the day, unions are responsible to their own members to make sure they have jobs, and the construction trades have never met a project they didn't like. The joke goes that they would build their own gallows if you let them do it union. As long as there is work to be had, there is nothing better: wages go to $50 an hour, along with deep benefits. On the other hand, for most of the residents in the north Bronx, such union cards are just a dream. Their career paths are more likely to deposit them in one of those part-time, minimum-wage jobs at one of those big stores that Related wanted to create than one pouring the cement used to build it."

In our view, the trades need to recognize that the other workers are in dire straits-and that it would be easier if all labor could coalesce in a common strategy. It will, however, not be easy to achieve, as race and class separate the factions: "It was the dream of Stu Appelbaum, the tough head of the retail workers union who helped lead the fight to win better wages at the armory, that the Kingsbridge battle might become a bridge to start healing that divide."

Coalition is still possible, but when the wealthy start to divide and conquer, it generally degenerates into a Three Stooges moment: "All for one, One for all-Every man for himself." Seriously, though, crafting a labor coalition in the middle of the worst recession in sixty years is daunting indeed. With all sectors of the work force really hurting, magnanimity-an essential ingredient in coalition building-is a scarce commodity.

Still, if common ground is to be reached, it must be based on the recognition of shared pain and shared gain. Where that location is on the policy map, however, is real hard to discern at this juncture.