Friday, March 5, 2010

Students, Labor Protest Cuts in Service and Student Transit

Several hundred transit workers, students and angry New Yorkers gathered outside the Fashion Institute of Technology on Thursday March 4, to protest proposed cuts to the MTA’s budget. This was the last of three public hearings over the course of the week. Hearings had been held in Brooklyn and the Bronx the previous evenings.
            Facing a $378 million dollar deficit, the MTA has said it needs to make cuts throughout the system. The cost cutting measures will include layoffs, service reductions and the phasing out of free Metrocards for students and reduced fare cards for seniors and the disabled. The student Metrocards would but cut in half in 2011 and phased out completely in 2012.
            The student Metrocard issue has been especially contentious considering the recession. Educators, parents groups, civil rights organizations and city politicians including Mayor Bloomberg have all come out against the provision.
            In a planned rally spanning from 26th to 27th street along 7th avenue speakers from the TWU Local 100, the union representing MTA employees as well as other labor and community groups addressed the crowd. Police set up barricades, making three pens for the demonstrators.
“It’s all our fight,” said Brian Clark from TWU Local 100, the union representing transit workers “this is a fight for the whole city, not just us.”
AFL-CIO president Dennis Hughes called the proposed lay offs of up to 1,000 transit workers along with service cuts “an outrage.” He promised the crowd that this wouldn’t be the last time they would come together to protest the cuts. “This is the beginning of a very long fight” he said to roaring applause.
Workers and union officials were quick to point out station agents are “the first line of defense” against crime and terrorism. “In a post 9/11 world – how dare we?” asked TWU Secretary Treasurer Israel Rivera. A majority of the anger amongst labor and students was directed towards MTA chief Jay Walder. Rivera’s message to Walder was simple: “What you’re doing, it’s incomprehensible!”
Station agents used to sell tokens, which were phased out with the advent of the Metrocard in 1993. Electronic kiosks have since replaced many station agents. Another phase out, the workers argue, would leave stations completely unsupervised and less safe. “Remember the 70s? It wasn’t a trip, it was an adventure!” said Kevin Harrington, a TWU Vice President. “Mr. Walder wants to bring back that experience.”
Workers said that there were plenty of places to cut costs before laying off employees and phasing out the student cards. “It’s wicked. It’s wicked and mad. We see fraud and abuse every day!” Said Stan C., a station agent, who did not want his last name used. “You don’t cut it off at the tail; you don’t get rid of the agents and the maintenance workers.” He was proudly wearing his red station agent jacket over a TWU T-shirt the union had passed out to members and protestors in solidarity.
Angel Giboyeaux, the union’s Administrative VP said school children would be “forced to become criminals” if faced with the decision of hopping a turnstile or not going to school.
There was a large contingent of high school students present. Some were organized in groups and some were even supervised by their teachers. The students carried hand painted signs reading what has become a student mantra: “No Transportation, No Education!”
A group of teenagers wore signs around their necks which gave different hypothetical situations students would face if they have to pay for their own transportation. One read “It took me so long to walk to school I got picked up for truancy.”
Many high schoolers said their entire education was on the line. “With no Metrocard, [I’m] not going to stay…” said sixteen year old Donald Jean-Pierre, a student from Queens. “I’m going to drop out.”
Approximately 50 students from Hunter College - where there had just been a student walk out in protest of tuition and fee hikes for higher education marched into the demonstration and joined their younger counterparts.
Many of the transit workers present had children in public schools. “I’ll definitely be affected by these cuts,” said Richard Jasmine, a bus driver from Flatbush. “It would be terrible as a parent and a driver.”
The venue for the hearing inside quickly reached capacity. At the scene, police approximated 700 people in attendance. A group of students, activists and civil society were turned away. Police guarded the doors.
A spokesperson for the MTA told the crowd that they were abiding by “school rules” and that “full is full,” before retreating into the building and locking the door behind him.
One voice from the crowd yelled back at him “why should I pay for a Metrocard to for an inadequate education?”
Inside, the crowd was angry and unsympathetic to Walder’s explanations for the cuts. “If you ask me now, do I know how to close that new $378 million gap - the frank answer is, ‘No, I don’t,’ ”
City Council member Ydonis Rodriguez (D – Washington Heights) told the student demonstrators stuck outside “Gotta keep fighting!” as he walked out of the hearing.
Students again began chanting “No Transportation, No Education!” The crowd was angry but dissipated over the next half hour.
There were tense moments between police and demonstrators, such as an incident where they broke out of a metal pen police had set up around them. Otherwise, the demonstration was loud but peaceful. Police refused to comment on whether there were any arrests. At a hearing in Brooklyn the previous night, four protestors were arrested.

For the majority of the citizens who came to the hearing, the cuts were mind boggling. “When I was a youngster, we had a bus pass. We just showed it to the driver.” Said Louis Maione, a transit worker from Queens. He brought his son along, a high school student. “Now it’s a big dollar issue? You’re just moving weight.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Metro Card Debacle: How the breakdown of public transit hurts working families and our planet

Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer stood in front of the MTA board on Wednesday, December 16th, as it prepared to vote on a “doomsday budget” to fix a $400 million deficit. The cuts will eliminate the W and Z lines along with two dozen bus routes, mostly in the outer boroughs.

Service will be scaled back on off peek hours and weekends, meaning longer waits and more crowded trains. Most contentiously of all – free and reduced fare Metro Cards for school children, seniors, and people with disabilities.

“The fact that you would jeopardize free Metro Cards for children to go to school, and put their parents in harm’s way,” he said, “is something so inexcusable, I had to come here today and tell you, just stop,”

The panel voted unanimously to cut service. The draconian cut backs were blamed on the recession, lost revenue from capitol expenditures and Albany’s refusal to bail them out.

They were also quick to blame a recent arbitration between the agency and the Transit Workers Union.

In the past eight years the subway fare his risen twice. With each increase, service only got worse. This new round of cuts is different, though.

Though the fare itself will not increase, the fact that people who historically have had reduced fare or free transit are losing it at the very moment where they are hurting most. Working families are facing an extra $2,000 per child per year in transportation costs just to go to school.

"Those Metro Cards not only pay to go back and forth to school,” said councilwoman Gail Brewer addressing protestors against the new budget, “but they pay for the tutoring, they pay for the karate, they pay for the soccer. They actually enhance that students' education," When a majority of public school children in the city qualify for free lunch programs, its unthinkable that they should be forced to pay for their way to and from school.

At the meeting, city councilman Charles Barron asked the board about the kids who can’t afford the costs of getting to school without student cards. “What do you want them to do? Jump the turnstiles and turn them into criminals?”

The breakdown of public transportation in New York isn’t just a social justice issue, it’s a climate issue.

On the MTA’s website, the agency boasts that “the energy consumption and CO2 output of New Yorkers is approximately a quarter of the national average. By improving, and expanding these efficiencies, the MTA can serve as a national model and regional platform for sustainable growth in the 21st century.” If they cut service and access that means more New Yorkers will be forced to use cars, meaning more emissions and a larger carbon footprint.

It’s ironic that while the agency voted to reduce service and limit access to public transit, across the Atlantic world leaders are debating a climate change treaty in Copenhagen. The outlook of the talks are just as grim as the MTA’s future. December was a bad month for climate justice.

The cuts in student Metro Cards will be incremental. The value of student cards will be halved in 2010 and all together phased out in 2011. Observers suggest that this is to buy time for Albany or the federal government to throw out a lifeline. “This is the start of a process, not the end of the process,” said MTA chairman Jay Wilder.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggested the federal government may step in, “we're willing to work with the State of New York,” he said in an interview on NY1, “with the governor, with the mayor and others, the Legislature to make sure that New York has a first-rate transit system and transportation system

Right now, little is certain, but what we do know is that the days of New York’s first class mass transit system seem to be ending.

Monday, December 7, 2009

12/31 Gaza Freedom March

I'm trying to figure out what (if anything) is going on in NYC in coordination with the march.
This should be the largest coordinated demonstration against the illegal occupation of Gaza yet.
For more information on the demo:
Gaza Freedom March

Thursday, December 3, 2009

THEOCRACY WATCH: The Catholic Church and Social Issues

For all of its existence, the Catholic Church has stood in the way of scientific progress and social tolerance.
2009 saw Catholic clergy step into two of the major social issues of our day: marriage equality and reproductive rights. NPR’s All Things Considered reported today on this disturbing trend today.

It’s been reported that on the eve of the House’s historic healthcare vote, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) brought two representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to Nancy Pelosi’s office. They let her know they wouldn’t support any healthcare bill without an amendment restricting reproductive rights.
The next day, the “Stupak Amendment” was passed 240 – 194. 64 Democrats joined 176 Republicans in eliminating abortion coverage from all plans in the proposed “Insurance Exchange” and the proposed Public Health Insurance Option. The George Washington School of Medicine and Public Health recently released a study stating that the amendment will eventually go reach beyond the Exchange.

the treatment exclusions required under the Stupak/Pitts Amendment will have an industry-wide effect, eliminating coverage of medically indicated abortions over time for all women, not only those whose coverage is derived through a health insurance exchange.

The progressive blog Firedog Lake has launched the campaign One Voice for Choice to fight the Stupak Amendment and its ugly twin sibling in the senate, sponsored by Senator Ben Nelson (R – NE).

The Catholic Church has been progressively getting more involved in Congress and in state legislatures. Last month, Rep Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) was asked not to receive communion due to his pro choice stance by Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin.
The congressman’s uncle, President John F Kennedy set the precedent nearly 50 years ago when he made it clear that he was accountable to his citizens, not the Vatican.

It seems as if this precedent is being thrown to the wolves. 2009 saw the Catholic Church take a far more aggressive stance in actively lobbying against progressive legislation.
As has been argued previously in the Fugue State, tax exempt religious groups are restricted from lobbying congress or politicizing the pulpit.
If the Vatican demands it be allowed to spread hate and intolerance in the public sector, it should pay taxes.

The Bhopal Disaster, 25 Years Later

Today marked the 25th anniversary of the disaster in Bhopal, India.
Watch Satinath Sarangi, a Bhopal activist speak with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now! about the situation today.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Shame on the New York State Senate!

The New York State senate dealt a huge blow to marriage equality on Dec 2, 2009 when it voted down a gay marriage bill which had already been passed in the Assembly.
Marriage equality was defeated 38-24. The majority vote was bi-partisan with all thirty Republicans and eight Democrats voting no. The outlook was dubious leading up to the vote. “There is never a good time for civil rights,” said Senator Tom Duane (D – Manhattan), the sponsor of the bill and an openly gay man, “But the paradox is it’s always a good time to be on the right side of history.”
New York State has on of the largest LGBT populations in the country and is considered by most to be a bastion of plurality and tolerance. It is embarrassing that this bill - which would have changed the legal definition of marriage to accommodate same sex couples, did not pass.
“History has time and time again proven” said Senator Jose Serrano (D-Bronx), “that extending civil rights further make our nation more complete,” Albany has denied countless New Yorkers their civil rights.
Senator Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn) compared the legislation to when interracial marriage was legalized and rightfully stated that he was not considering any religious dogma when it came time to vote. “When I walk through these doors,” he said on the senate floor, “my Bible stays out."
Religious groups have been at the forefront of the fight against marriage equality, both in the courts and in ballot referenda. The Mormons financed a large portion of the anti-marriage Proposition 8 in California. The religious right was mobilized in Maine when it too struck down a gay marriage bill.
In Albany, just as elsewhere, churches themselves – not just their advocacy groups, were actively lobbying against the bill. The IRS would do well to look into whether this violates their tax exempt statuses.
One of the leaders against the bill in the Senate was Ruben Diaz Sr. (D - Bronx), a Pentecostal Minister. “Not only the evangelicals, not only the Jews, not only the Muslims, not only the Catholics, but also the people oppose it,” he said in his hateful speech.
Senator Adams countered the sentiment perfectly when he said: “because the numerical majority is one place doesn’t mean they’re in the right place.”
Cathy Marino-Thomas, president of Marriage Equality New York, put it best when she said about Sen. Diaz that: “If he wants to be a reverend, then let him go back to the church. If you want to be a senator, then you stand up for the rights and laws of this country!"
At the moment, New York does not even offer civil unions to same sex couples. This means that the thousands of gay couples in New York State have no tax or health benefits which a straight couple enjoys. In this state, according to Marriage Equality NY ( “Gay and lesbian partners are treated as legal strangers, often having to fight through the court to see their partner in the hospital.”
It is due time that all people are guaranteed their civil rights, regardless of their sexual orientations. Its due time that, as our nation’s constitution dictates – we keep Church and State at a healthy distance. It’s about time that we take that step forward and finally acknowledge full civil rights for all.
This fight is far from over.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mike Bloomberg: the Oligarch Mayor

Mike Bloomberg should have never been elected to a third term. In fact, he never should have been able to run.

Though the mayor’s never been fond of democracy – just look at the Republican National Convention protests where thousands of demonstrators were rounded up and held illegally – the term limit debacle takes the cake.

Yes, term limits were initially hoisted upon New Yorkers by another city billionaire, Ron Lauder in 1993; the voters did uphold the limits in a second city-wide referendum.

Bloomberg and Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and his absolute ally, did everything they could to steam roll the legislation through the council. Only a few brave council members like Charles Barron and Bill de Blasio, who has since been elected public advocate, dared speak up. De Blasio said that the term limits move was “more reminiscent of a banana republic," than a major American city.

After the term limits extension, Bloomberg spent a record $102 million dollars ($112 per vote) on an ambitious shock-and-awe electoral campaign. Just like in a banana republic, no one was safe from the constant bombardment of Bloomberg propaganda. The oligarch mayor’s face was as prominent as Big Brother’s.

That exorbitant war chest also went to buying his way onto ballot lines and purchasing endorsements. The New York Times reported that the Independence Party ballot line cost him, “a vow to take a second look at nonpartisan elections and a $250,000 contribution.”

After Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ publically endorsed the mayor that, “Mr. Bloomberg’s longtime accountant contributed $26,000 — the maximum allowed — to Mr. Booker’s re-election committee.” The Times also reported.

Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice said that he once hoped the mayor’s “money had bought us a leader that was finally free of the circle of donors, lobbyists, and powerbrokers that consumed earlier mayors and confounded the public good.” Instead, the mayor has simply bought the city and will do with it as he pleases.

The mayor’s argument that as a CEO, his financial expertise makes him the best equipped to steer us out of the great recession. It has been noted that New York is lagging behind the rest of the country in growth. Only time will tell if his third term will be a disaster like other third term mayors. More New Yorkers are on food stamps than ever before. In August, the last month with data available the number of New Yorkers collecting benefits has shot up. The New York Times reported that the figure has “surged” to 1970s levels.

The narrow margin Bloomberg took in the recent election proves he is not invincible. This time around he may finally realize he’s not only accountable to real estate and business interests but also to the people of this city. They might have elected him, but it was with little confidence.

Bloomberg didn’t just defeat Bill Thompson. He defeated the voters of New York City.