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The hard work begins

George Gresham | 1/2/2014, 1:42 p.m.
There is now a consensus among New York political observers that Bill de Blasio was elected mayor in a blow-out ...
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

There is now a consensus among New York political observers that Bill de Blasio was elected mayor in a blow-out largely because his campaign theme of “A Tale of Two Cities” spoke to voters’ concerns about the growing inequality and the struggle of working families to live in the city.

Two years ago, the Occupy movement changed the national conversation about the economy from “deficits” and cuts in social programs to one of income inequality and “the 1 percent and the 99 percent.” De Blasio’s campaign particularly resonated given the “1 percent” priorities of his predecessor, the richest man in the city.

New York City’s homeless population is the largest in at least a generation. Forty-six percent of New Yorkers are classified as poor or near-poor. We now have a two-tier education system with wealthy schools soaking up funding that would better go to those schools without means. Affordable housing for working- and middle-class New Yorkers is scarcer than ever, while high-rise condos for billionaires from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (and of course, the United States) continue to be built at a record pace.

Meanwhile, in a city with 390,000 millionaires and 70 billionaires (a billion is one thousand million), the corporate media and the corporate politicians regularly assault schoolteachers, other public workers, health care workers and their unions. We are told the economy cannot sustain good jobs with pensions and health care benefits for the people who produce the goods and provide the services that make our society work. Working folks’ demands for decent jobs with retirement security are called “class warfare” and “redistribution” as if those who rule over our economy haven’t conducted a one-sided class war against working people for years, and as if working folks’ tax dollars have not been redistributed upward in the form of subsidies and other tax breaks—including the failure to pay taxes at all—for the largest corporations and richest Americans.

The multibillionaire David Koch and his brother, Charles, have virtually underwritten the tea party and other movements that attempt to drive us back to the 19th century. But New York City is hardly tea party territory, so here Koch attempts to buy legitimacy—even among liberals—by opening up his considerable bankbook. He now has a theater in Lincoln Center under his name, while a hall at the Museum of Modern Art and the dinosaur room at the Museum of Natural History are named for him. He’s starting to trump Donald Trump for name identification on New York City buildings.

Koch, one of the fiercest opponents of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid, is now on the board of trustees of New York Presbyterian Hospital. His recent $100 million gift will buy a new pavilion named for him on the Upper East Side—the last place in New York City that needs another hospital. Presbyterian is one of the country’s wealthiest hospitals, with huge profits last year and several top executives having multimillion-dollar salaries. But don’t be surprised if they begin to attack hard-working frontline caregivers who want to hold onto their health benefits.

During the past holiday season, the images of Scrooge and the Grinch came to mind. Think, for example, of Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, whose ownership family includes several billionaires but whose workers are paid starvation wages and have no health or retirement benefits. This is the dream scenario of the David Kochs of our country but a nightmare for the rest of us. It is a portrait of our society that the de Blasio campaign spoke to so eloquently.

The old spiritual holds that “Freedom is a constant struggle.” So is justice. Pointing out disparities and even winning election campaigns, difficult as they may be, are the easy part. De Blasio became Mayor de Blasio on Jan. 1. The new administration now faces some of the most powerful forces in the world. For the campaign promises to become reality, working New Yorkers will be required to stay involved and active. I know that the members of 1199 are ready to move. We hope you are too.