On the eve of his victory, with camera lights glaring, the media’s microphones strategically placed and an enthusiastic crowd in full view, New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams, in a reference to the first Black mayor of this city, David Dinkins, whose inauguration speech famously spoke about New York’s “gorgeous mosaic” said: “We are so divided right now that we are missing the beauty of our diversity.” He then went on to declare: “Today we take off our intramural jersey and put on one jersey: Team New York.”
Another elected official known for his graceful speaking style that brought thought-provoking meaning to his words, was Gov. Mario Cuomo, one of whose often-quoted remarks was: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Cynics have come to interpret this as justification for making campaign promises just to get elected, but as the former governor himself explained, it means that there is an idealism and enthusiasm felt in a successful campaign that is often difficult to reproduce in its purest, fullest form. In other words: Although politics and governance are intertwined and have a symbiotic relationship, institutionalizing and codifying the two into policy or law that benefits the people they serve, and meets the public’s expectations, presents tremendous challenge.
But the concept of being on a team that delivers its promises is certainly not new, unfamiliar or objectionable to most union members. We get it. We know that unions bring voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. America’s labor movement history is rich with “before” and “after” examples of how our advocacy and perseverance improved working conditions––thereby substantively enhancing the lives of working families. The 40-hour work week, health and vacation benefits, safety requirements and the “fight for $15” are just a few of the countless campaigns that labor leaders, throughout decades of hard work, have fought and won. More recently, unions’ response to COVID-19 and its variants, have resulted in yet another line in labor’s resume. By and large, labor unions were at the helm where other leadership was lacking. We provided help and hope to our members––many of whom were victims of the disease. Clearly, among many of labor’s leaders, the standard rule is to try and avoid poetry and prose, and substitute them with Spike Lee’s advice to just “Do the right thing!”
With this in mind, labor unions and their members might find themselves in the unique position of having the best fit for that team jersey the New York City Mayor-elect mentioned, and so many other newly elected leaders echoed, on election night. Nearly every victory speech contained calls for unity among all New Yorkers as well as a public acknowledgement that labor played a large role in helping them achieve the office sought. The two are intertwined; they are, in fact, inseparable. New government leaders need labor leaders and their membership not just to wear symbolic apparel, but as significant participants sitting at the key issues table, talking and being heard. No poetry, no prose. Just straight talk from those in the know.
Gregory Floyd is president, Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters