Workers Vanguard No. 1014
7 December 2012
Billionaire Bloomberg Squeezes NYC Workers
Hungry and Homeless in the Shadow of Wall Street
DECEMBER 4—Five weeks ago, a weakening Hurricane Sandy, which had devastated parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. East Coast, combined with a Nor’easter to steamroll much of the coastal areas of New York City. From the east and south shores of Staten Island across the Lower New York Bay into Brooklyn’s Coney Island and Red Hook and the Rockaways in Queens, the densely populated banking center and port metropolis was slammed with killer winds, a record storm surge and massive flooding. Since then, what stands in stark contrast is the extent of recovery for the city’s rich and poor, for the capitalist owners and for the workers who make the city run.
Wall Street was back online within two days of the storm’s landfall. In little more than a week, a grueling, 24-7 deployment of transit, sanitation and utility workers had restored life in most of Manhattan to conditions little changed from the holiday shopping season one year prior. But for the largely black and Latino residents of public housing projects and the homeless, the picture was very different. Many were served their Thanksgiving dinners from volunteer food lines in outdoor parking lots or inside parish halls. More than a month after the storm, thousands of people still lack heat, water, power or working elevators, at best getting intermittent service. The high-traffic emergency room of Bellevue, the 276-year-old free public hospital evacuated in the storm, is still closed and will not resume operation as a Level One trauma center before February.
After Sandy flooded the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, it took the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) two weeks to dispatch workers to knock on tenants’ doors to see if they were alive. When agency workers finally did arrive, they found 127 residents requiring medical care, six of whom needed ambulances. When the NYCHA showed up in the Rockaways, one member of a family of 12 living in a single apartment told the New York Daily News (13 November), “We’re living like animals and all they were worried about was the $1,000-a-month rent.”
Even in fair weather, it is a struggle for the impoverished families who live in the projects to get apartments painted, elevators maintained or broken boilers fixed. But after the storm, even as the NYCHA announced that it would be weeks or months before heat was restored, it initially threatened to evict anyone who didn’t pay rent. No surprise, then, that Red Hook residents lining up for Red Cross blankets were furious when NYCHA chairman John Rhea showed up on November 12 to magnanimously announce that they would get a partial rent credit, calling this “a nice little Christmas present.” Evidently NYCHA bureaucrats view the public housing residents in about the same light as the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bosses and city administrators view their workforces, which is to say, as master to subject.
The disaster brought on by the storm threw into sharp relief the everyday cruelties of life in the financial center of U.S. capitalist society, which is run for the profit of the tiny group of families who own industry and the banks. The number of New Yorkers who are dependent on food pantries or soup kitchens—a number that includes many working poor as well as unemployed—has swelled far beyond the 1.4 million (17 percent of the population) who survived in this way before Sandy hit. Already before the storm, there were 47,000 homeless in shelters across the city, many of them victims of bank foreclosures, others too poor to afford the cost of rent. Sandy increased the number of homeless by tens of thousands, with most of those driven from public housing in low-lying areas. The new homeless have been shuffled chaotically from evacuation centers in public schools to armory floors to hotel rooms without cooking facilities. One Far Rockaway evacuee, roused from his bed for a transfer, declared: “It’s like you were being processed to go to jail.”
The scourge of homelessness, though compounded by natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, is firmly rooted in the normal functioning of the capitalist system. A study early this year by the advocacy group Picture the Homeless estimated that the thousands of properties in New York City that are kept vacant, largely for the purpose of real estate speculation, could house some 200,000 people. The same is true nationally as banks have driven millions from their homes, leaving the properties vacant until real estate prices rebound. According to the 2010 census, almost 19 million homes in this country sit vacant while some 3.5 million people remain homeless.
By the lights of the capitalist profit system, it is entirely just that the bourgeoisie and its high-priced executives possess mansions and vacation homes around the world, with more rooms than they can count, while the poor are consigned to crumbling,
rat- and roach-infested projects. Meanwhile, working people who buy homes are prey to the banking and insurance vultures. As long ago as 1872, Friedrich Engels, who co-founded with Karl Marx the modern communist movement, addressed the problem in his work The Housing Question:
“One thing is certain: there is already a sufficient quantity of houses in the big cities to remedy immediately all real ‘housing shortage,’ provided they are used judiciously. This can naturally only occur through the expropriation of the present owners by quartering in their houses homeless workers or workers overcrowded in their present homes. As soon as the proletariat has won political power, such a measure prompted by concern for the common good will be just as easy to carry out as are other expropriations and billetings by the present-day state.”
“As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist it is folly to hope for an isolated settlement of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the lot of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of subsistence and instruments of labour by the working class itself.”
Picking the Pockets of Heroes
The heroes of the Hurricane Sandy disaster are those unionized workers who were key to saving lives and getting the city back up and running, even as many of their own homes were destroyed. Transit workers have been lauded for rapidly restoring subway and bus service. Sanitation workers, who worked 12-hour shifts for weeks, have been hailed by those in hard-hit neighborhoods for removing mountains of storm debris at great personal risk. But even as NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg and his cronies pat workers on the back with one hand, they’re picking their pockets with the other.
The MTA docked the pay of thousands of transit workers who could not get to work in the first days of the disaster because mass transit was shut down and bridges and tunnels were knocked out of commission. For workers who needed emergency leave because their lives had been upended, the MTA bosses came up with a cynical scheme to allow them time off from work—by having other transit workers “donate” their own vacation days or sick leave! Yet even that plan cannot trump the artifice of Mayor Bloomberg. A capitalist in his own right with a net worth of $25 billion, Bloomberg e-mailed city workers to press them to contribute, through an automatic payroll deduction, to a “Mayor’s Fund” that supports volunteer relief efforts.
This is just a sick twist to the lie of “shared sacrifice” that government agencies and corporations, echoed by the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy, have foisted on workers for years. Throughout the five-year-long economic crisis, both Democratic and Republican state and local governments have cut into wages, pensions and other benefits as part of their war against public employees unions, which are portrayed as public enemies. Even before that, bourgeois politicians invoked budget crises to slash the workforce rolls.
During a blizzard that hit NYC two years ago, the same sanitation workers lauded in the press today were targets of a tabloid hate campaign for a supposed work “slowdown.” In fact, the workers had to deal with the emergency after 400 jobs had been cut in Bloomberg’s austerity budget and in the face of utter negligence by the city administration, which was completely unprepared for that storm. Today, the unions in every single municipal bargaining unit in the city, plus the subway and bus workers in the Transport Workers Union, are working without a contract or with their old contract extended, and some have been doing so for many years. In fact, all the unionized workers who are laboring mightily to provide necessary services in the New York-New Jersey region have been under attack. Last summer Con Edison, backed by Democratic NY governor Andrew Cuomo and rolling in profits, strong-armed the Utility Workers union into making major concessions to end a lockout. This gave the lie to the union tops’ tired refrain that Con Edison bosses and workers are a “family.”
The labor officialdom has played dead in the face of the anti-union assault, bowing to New York State’s Taylor Law, which bans public employee strikes, and the whole gamut of laws and regulations aimed at hog-tying union struggle. To fight for what’s needed, the labor movement must be broken from the program of class collaboration, which has its political expression in the union misleaders’ support to the Democratic Party.
The labor movement should be fighting for a massive program of public works to restore the damage done by Sandy and rebuild the decaying infrastructure that the capitalist rulers have allowed to rot. This would necessarily be combined with a fight to organize the unorganized and for jobs for all through a shorter workweek at full union wages. Struggles for these necessities point to the need to fight for a workers government that would seize the productive wealth that has been squandered by the capitalist rulers and put it toward rebuilding this society. This calls for the forging of a new, class-struggle leadership of the union movement as part of the struggle to build a revolutionary workers party.
Bourgeoisie Appeals to Volunteerism
If one feature has clearly stood out in the aftermath of Sandy, it is the massive volunteer effort that continues into the second month of the disaster. Out of basic human decency, thousands of people have manned food lines and free clinics and assisted with debris removal, or have simply passed out bottles of water. But their efforts can fill no more than a tiny part of the void created by the capitalist rulers’ refusal to mobilize the resources—like massive amounts of money and hired labor—required to address the crisis.
The volunteer effort has been promoted by bourgeois politicians from Barack Obama to Bloomberg and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who are seizing on it to alibi their neglect of the needs of the population. Thus it does not come as a surprise that Bloomberg and the publishers of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have hailed the aid provided by Occupy Sandy, a grouping that harks back to last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement. Chiming in from the left side of the choir, the reformist International Socialist Organization gushed that Occupy Sandy signaled that “a push for a people’s recovery is beginning to emerge” (Socialist Worker, 28 November).
In a brief appearance in the Rockaways on November 29, Bloomberg told Occupy Sandy volunteers, “You really are making a difference.” He then hopped into his SUV to flee the wrath of residents still without heat. Earlier, a reporter for the left-liberal Nation (5 November) observed Occupy Sandy volunteers joining with FEMA personnel and city cops who brutally drove Occupy protesters from Zuccotti Park in Manhattan last year, in chanting, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” The reporter thought this was “a truly bizarre moment.” But in fact the populist Occupy movement from the beginning saw the cops—the racist, strikebreaking enforcers of capitalist rule—as part of the “99 percent,” promoting the lie that the police and those they are paid to suppress have common interests.
As seen today in New York, this country’s ruling class possesses boundless contempt for workers, the poor and everyone they have relegated to the bottom of society. At the same time, they moved with alacrity to get the stock market and other major businesses back in gear after the storm hit.
On a much more massive and deadly scale, the same “priorities” were at play when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and especially New Orleans seven years ago. For the capitalist class, what mattered in New Orleans was the port and the tourist trade. Poor and black residents of the city were left to die or suffer horribly in the sweltering heat. With the National Guard patrolling the streets, black people were criminalized as “looters,” shot at by cops and vigilantes and locked up in “Camp Greyhound.” Those whose homes were flooded were shipped out of state, with the intent that they never return.
In the months and years that followed, the bourgeoisie used every opportunity to reshape the previously majority-black city—it was even blithely argued that a city at or below sea level (a requirement for a port) is by nature uninhabitable. The public school system was largely privatized and the teachers fired, decimating the union and making the city the epicenter for the charter school movement. Intact and scrubbed of damage, Charity Hospital, a public institution, was nonetheless closed down. Large- and small-scale construction speculation abounds to this day. The port has grown, but the International Longshoremen’s Association has lost more ground to scab outfits. Although consisting of solid low-rises that survived the storm well, most public housing was simply razed.
While the devastation wrought by Katrina was on a scale far greater than that of Hurricane Sandy, both crises, in their own way, laid bare the social reality of capitalist America. Why were the 40 nursing homes in flood-prone areas of New York City not evacuated? A report in the New York Times (3 December) showed that it was all about saving money. According to the Times, the evacuation of patients last year in the face of Tropical Storm Irene “led to millions of dollars in health care, transportation, housing and other costs.” Thus “when Hurricane Sandy loomed, the officials were acutely aware that they could come under criticism if they ordered another evacuation that proved unnecessary.” Nor were the highly vulnerable Bellevue and New York University hospitals evacuated until after the storm knocked out power, forcing workers to carry patients down flight after flight of darkened stairways. Bloomberg’s focus was on the NYC marathon money machine—for which dozens of generators had been reserved—until a public outcry forced the cancellation of the race.
There is a fundamental divide in society between the capitalist class and the working class, whose labor is the source of the capitalists’ immense profits. The working class is not just one more victim of austerity within the “99 percent.” It is the only force with the potential social power and historic interest to sweep away the barbarous capitalist system. As we wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (“New Orleans: Racist Atrocity,” WV No. 854, 16 September 2005):
“Despite differences over particular policies, the Republicans and Democrats are united in defending capitalism—an anarchic, irrational profit-driven system that cannot even provide for the safety and welfare of the population. The situation cries out for a socialist planned economy, in which natural resources and the technological and productive forces of society would be marshaled on behalf of human needs, not profit. What is urgently required is to build a workers party that can lead a workers revolution to rip power from the hands of the capitalist class and its political agents, right-wing Republican and liberal Democrat alike.”