As negotiations between union reps and management to settle the Con Ed lockout continue far from the public’s view, the workers are making their presence known in the street. Union workers have staged a protest outside Con Ed’s main headquarters on 4 Irving Place in New York City every day this week and will likely continue to do so until an agreement is reached.
The lockout is the most recent attack on organized labor in New York City, though not the only one. Last year, Verizon workers took to the street to demand a better contract, and contract negotiations between the Teachers Union and the city remain at a standstill. The lockout and protests are especially significant coming on the heels of the failed bid in Wisconsin to recall Gov. Scott Walker. As one worker put it, speaking broadly about the war on unions, “management just keeps taking and taking.”
The mood during the day at the protests is boisterous and loud. Cars full of supporters holding signs often drive by – at which point the entire block erupts in cheers. Organizers walk up and down the pens the workers are forced to stand in yelling chants to get the crowd riled up. On Thursday, the crowd swelled to around one thousand people, according to some estimates, and the workers often spill onto either the sidewalk on 14th Street or 15th Street, just north or south of the Con Ed offices.
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The workers this correspondent spoke with all directed their anger primarily at CEO Kevin Burke. None were willing to have their last names used for fear of retribution. When asked about Burke, Bill – a union member for seven
years – said, “He can kiss my ass.” Bill added, “and you can put that in your paper,” something he had clearly been wanting to say for quite some time and, frankly, something this reporter has always wanted to hear.
“We just wanted [our contract] to stay the same,” Bill said, a sentiment echoed by many other workers.
Standing next to him was Rich, a 24-year-old who has been with Con Ed for four years. “They couldn’t raise rates on customers anymore, so they went after us.” Rich then began talking about Con Ed’s high stock price, when Bill broke in to ask, “Hey, how do we know this guy isn’t a plant?” An older man walking behind them said, “You never know. You just never know about them.”
Extreme skepticism of the media is a quality shared by activists and union members alike. Their distrust is justified and should be seen as a damning critique of the establishment media. Several interviews outside the Con Ed building began with workers asking me some variation of how do I know you’re not going to smear us?
Nelson, 56 years old and a 26-year Con Ed veteran, called the lockout a “slap in the face.” He, like Bill, didn’t bear any ill will to the 5,000 managers currently doing the jobs the union normally does. They both blame Burke for the injuries so far. As Bill put it: “He burned four of his men.”
Jeanette, who didn’t give her age, but has been at Con Ed for 31 years, stressed that “we didn’t strike. It was a lockout. They wanted it.” She went on to say that when she first got the job, “Con Ed was the company to work for. They had the best benefits.” She described the health care plan that offered numerous options for gynecologists and that she could bring her kids in to get free shots. After the 1983 strike, things started slowly getting worse, but she said it wasn’t until Burke’s tenure that things got really bad. When asked if this lockout made her more willing to strike in the future, she simply responded, “Yes.”
On Saturday, with temperatures nearing 100 degrees, a section of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) arrived at 4 Irving to show their solidarity. The Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) is the social justice caucus within the UFT. Mike, a teacher in Brooklyn, expressed his dissatisfaction with the lack of support the UFT has given to other workers, saying, “They don’t do enough actions in solidarity with other unions.” He repeatedly said that the Teachers Union leadership didn’t call for solidarity actions and that MORE took it upon themselves to show up on Saturday.
“The rank and file has to lead the UFT,” said Kristine Taylor, a teacher for seven years. “It’s gotta be bottom up.” Taylor, who teaches in Washington Heights, went on to describe how she taught her kindergarteners and first graders about the Egyptian revolution using role playing. She tells her young students about labor struggles, too. “People say, ‘Can you really teach 5 year olds about unions?’ And the answer is yes, of course you can. Nobody understands fairness better than children.”
She, like everyone I spoke with, sees the lockout and the subsequent protests as part of a larger picture. “People are realizing that organizing has gotta be across the board, not just a bunch of independent struggles.” That sentiment has found its clearest expression in the United States with Occupy Wall Street. David Bliven, who writes for the Socialist Worker, said that even if Con Ed workers weren’t consciously affected by Occupy, the struggles from Madison to Tahrir Square are “all part of an organic whole.”
For Mike, the teacher from Brooklyn, the interconnectedness is more local. “The children of Con Ed workers, you know, they’re our students. So we have to be out here.”