News, commentary and analysis by leaders of the Communist Party USA in New York State. We discuss State politics and issues in New York City, covering developments in labor, civil rights education, housing and more.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bronx community takes on the real estate industry

Who said you can't beat City Hall? In the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, a predominantly Hispanic working-class neighborhood, people are feeling good these days about what they accomplished when they organized against powerful business interests allied with City Hall's current occupant, billionaire media mogul Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg and the Related Companies, a real estate corporation with nationwide investments, were planning to retrofit the landmark Kingsbridge Armory, no longer in use, with a mammoth shopping mall in one of New York's most densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods.

The community needed decent jobs at living wages, not the part-time, minimum wage, no-benefit version of employment for which shopping malls, housing national chain stores, are notorious and which Related, the Bloomberg administration and its defenders insisted was better than nothing at all. In fact, nothing is better, the community reasoned, because the race-to-the-bottom model meant working more than one job just to be able to pay the rent, and because the volume of trade the developers were hoping to generate would inevitably mean more traffic, more congestion, and more pollution. If the jobs produced paid only the minimum wage, then instead of prosperity all around, the community agreed, the future would bring more poverty as well. And as everyone knows, the Bronx has more than enough of that.

But first, some of the history. The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), a coalition of community residents, churches, and labor unions, led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), was formed in 2005, after the Bloomberg administration launched the latest in a series of redevelopment plans for the armory. KARA struggled for the better part of this year just to get the developer to meet with it to negotiate a binding settlement involving jobs at living wages, preferential hiring for Bronx residents, non-interference in unionization, recreation space for families and other community benefits, under what has come to be known among grassroots organizers as a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA).

The demand by KARA for a living wage of $10 per hour with benefits and $11.50 per hour without benefits for all workers hired by the developer or any of its retail tenants became the centerpiece of its proposed CBA. As community residents see it, a living wage agreement means escaping poverty without having to work multiple jobs and without having to double up in order to keep a roof over their heads. For Related, the living wage was a non-starter. The developer, in lockstep with the Bloomberg administration, stubbornly refused to discuss the subject.

Related, confident that it had the backing of City Hall, arrogantly refused to talk directly with the community regarding the living wage or any other subject. So KARA lobbied its elected representatives in the City Council to vote down the proposal, hoping that the threat of a red light would bring Related to the table. Related hardly budged. In the end, with the very vocal and steadfast support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx delegation led by the Working Family Party's Anibal Palma, and the rest of the City Council sided with the community in rejecting the armory redevelopment 45 to 1 during a highly publicized City Hall vote on Dec. 14. It sided with the community again on Dec. 21 when it voted, this time by 48 to 1, to override Bloomberg's veto.

"We applaud all our elected officials for taking a stand against powerful developers who want to take public subsidies without giving anything in return," was the reaction of Ava Farkas, lead organizer for KARA, to the original vote. "The council vote was a victory for community organizing, for democracy, and for the dignity of the people of the Bronx," she added.

The vote was, to many observers, a truly game-changing development. Never before, in the eight years of the corporate-friendly and seemingly invincible Bloomberg administration, had the New York City Council dared to vote "no" to a redevelopment proposal bearing Mayor Bloomberg's seal of approval. It was a major defeat not only for the administration, but also for the lopsided, unsustainable economic development that makes millions for corporations with access to public subsidies and tax abatements, but does nothing good for the communities it claims to serve. Helping to change the balance of power in favor of the City Council that made the reversal possible was the very narrow margin by which Bloomberg was reelected in November despite his having outspent his Democratic/Working Family Party rival, Bill Thompson, by 14 to 1.

"It is no longer an acceptable business model to allow billionaire companies to take major tax breaks to do business in our borough while they create little more than part-time, low wage jobs without benefits or much chance for advancement," said Diaz regarding the significance of the City Council vote. "What we wanted all along was to have the armory developed in such a way that not only the developer and the tenants benefit, but also the people of the Bronx. What today's vote confirms is that we can no longer support any project that only ensures profits for the developer while leaving the people of the Bronx in poverty."

"This is a bittersweet victory," said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, KARA leader and community resident. "We want the armory developed. Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration chose to kill the project rather than require the developer to sign a binding Community Benefits Agreement that guaranteed living wages and other benefits for the community. Our billionaire mayor pulled the plug on the redevelopment to prevent a publically subsidized development from including living wage jobs, the right to join a union, community and recreation space and the exclusion of a big box grocery store. He believes government has no role in setting mandatory wage requirements. According to him, there should be no minimum wage law, no child labor law, and no protections for working people. He is on the wrong side of history."

KARA's forceful advocacy of the living wage during City Council hearings produced even more dividends. The arguments garnered such widespread and partisan support for the living wage among the progressive, predominantly Hispanic and African American City Council members that they rushed to introduce living wage legislation during the same week as the Dec. 14 vote. The bill's sponsors, with KARA's enthusiastic support, hope to make New York one of over 200 cities across the countries that have now adopted living wage ordinances.

KARA and the working families it represents have put New York's real estate developers on notice: our communities reject one-sided, unsustainable economic development by corporate fiat. Redevelopment projects paid for with our tax dollars must make life better for working families, not worse, for our communities will unite in opposition to them. RWDSU president and KARA co-convener Stuart Appelbaum summed it up, "It's time for developers to live up to their responsibilities to the community. New York needs a development strategy that puts people first, and that begins with the developers guaranteeing the rights of workers to a living wage."

By Frank Farkas

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NYC transit cuts byproducts of giveaways to the rich

Once again, city straphangers are being threatened by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which claims that it is out of money and has to cut service on the city's bus and subway lines-again. But the MTA is giving hundreds of millions of dollars to big developers, say critics; still others see the cuts as a political ploy.

This morning the authority's board approved sweeping cuts, aimed at filling a deficit of nearly $400 million, affecting just about every rider in the city. All services are set to be scaled back, with less trains and buses, especially during non-peak hours. In addition, two entire subway lines-the W and the Z-are to be eliminated, as well as numerous bus lines.

Most controversial, however, is a plan to eliminate reduced price and free fares for city students. While in most cities across the country, students rely on big yellow buses to pick them up and drop them off at school, local students often have to take a train or bus to a school in a far-off area. Consequently, many students will be left without transportation to or from school

At a hearing before the MTA's board voted this morning, City Council member Charles Barron asked, "You sit here and bring anxieties to young children. What do you want them to do? Jump the turnstiles and turn them into criminals?"

Bill Thompson, the city's comptroller said in a statement before the vote that the board's move would unfairly harm students. "The MTA has a duty to exhaust all possible options before these cuts are considered," he said. "I urge all the members of the MTA Board to vote ‘No' at tomorrow's meeting."

The MTA leadership argued that it needs to save money after Albany cut $143 million in funding, and payroll taxes earmarked for transit were to bring in $100 million less than expected. They also blamed the workers who operate the system themselves, arguing that money awarded to employees would add to the debt.

But it's not overly generous benefits for the workers that is putting the MTA into the red, said Council Member Letitia James, D-Brooklyn, but giveaways to rich developers.

Forest City Ratner, a multi-billion dollar developer that has found hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to finance a private for-profit project called Atlantic Yards has also benefited greatly from the MTA-they are selling the Vanderbilt Yards, in Brooklyn, to Ratner for $100 million, but accepting a down payment of only $20 million and allowing the developer to pay the rest over more than two decades.

"Forest City Ratner should pay the $100 million owed now for the purchase of the Vanderbilt Yards," James said.

James further explained that "for unclear reasons" the MTA, when it decided to sell the property, worked exclusively with Ratner and sold the property well under value. "unclear" seems to be code for "shady," as many believe that the whole project is a shady deal between developers and the city. The MTA board itself is dominated by big developers and their representatives.

In fact, another company, Extell, actually offered the MTA a full $50 million per year more than Ratner, and offered to pay up front.

"Had the MTA accepted a higher bidder," James said, "they would have received their funds upfront and their current budgetary gap could have been cut almost in half."

"Cancel the deal," she continued, noting that the property has actually been valued at $271.5 million.

"Something simply doesn't sit right with the community about the preferential treatment that Forest City Chairman Bruce Ratner has received from the MTA. Now it appears as though MTA customers and specifically our youth - the future of the City-may pay dearly to support the project of a multi million dollar developer that the community doesn't want to begin with," said Council Member James.

New Yorkers are clearly enraged by these cuts, which are on top of cuts earlier in the year, and a fare increase, and another fare increase, of 7.5 percent, is scheduled for 2011. While the board has voted on the newest round of cuts, none are scheduled to take place until June. In that time, New Yorkers, including elected officials and transit workers themselves, are likely to rally support to undo the recent round of cuts.

By Dan Margolis

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Health care's human face highlighted

Eric de la Cruz wasn't poor. In many ways, his future was bright: He had a girlfriend, Noelle, whom he planned to marry. He was in college and worked part time at a small graphic design company-a company not large enough to afford to offer health insurance to its workers.

The Obama administration, along with countless others, including health care activists and the labor movement, have done a great deal to highlight the plight of middle class Americans who are working but still have no health insurance-people like Eric.

Just over five years ago, after visiting several doctors, Eric was told that he had a serious heart ailment that was curable-by a transplant.

"He wanted to do things that all 22-year-olds were doing," his sister, Veronica de la Cruz, a well-known news journalist who worked as a CNN anchor for five years, told a rally for health care reform organized by MoveOn and others. "He wanted to hang out with his friends. Instead, my brother was stuck worrying about how he was going to get help, because his life depended on it."

Eric began calling insurance company after insurance company-and was denied by each one, because of his "pre-existing condition." But Eric was lucky enough to have a sister who loved him and who was a public presence. She began talking about Eric's condition-online, on Twitter, everywhere-and others took note. Many people, who became "Eric's Twitter Army," sent money. Celebrities, his sister said, took notice. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sold high-price backstage passes to concerts to raise money for Eric.

They raised $1 million, enough to cover the cost of a heart transplant.

Even with a million dollars in hand, UCLA still refused Eric. They said he needed supplemental insurance. "That's the joke," Veronica de la Cruz said. "You can't get supplemental medical insurance if you have a pre-existing medical condition."

After calling numerous transplant centers, de la Cruz was able to find a single facility to take her brother on, but to no avail.

Through tears, de la Cruz told the group, "They said, ‘You got here two years too late. We're basically working against the clock. Eric is basically already in the grave, and we're going to have to dig him out.'"

It was too late. After five years, and after raising more than $1 million, and rallying hundreds of people or more, Eric succumbed to his illness. "Despite all those miracles that were happening, it wasn't enough to outweigh the damage that time waiting for insurance had done," his sister told the rally.

De la Cruz founded an organization, Eric's Law, aimed at health reform. She wants to stop what happened to Eric from happening to others. That's why, she said, she was at the rally, and that's why she supports a health reform with a strong public option.

In an ironic twist, Eric died on July 4, 2009, the same day that Americans celebrate love of country.

"We also know that in this country that we love," Tim Foley, of NYC for Change, told the rally, "122 deaths happen each day that simply wouldn't happen in any other industrialized nation in the world. 122 Americans die each day, and that is unacceptable."

New York's senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, sent representatives to the rally, which took place in neon glow Times Square. Both vowed to continue the fight for health care reform with a not-for-profit option, and implored others to keep fighting. Gillibrand vowed to ensure that the anti-woman Stupak language in the House bill would be defeated.

The rally was part of a larger mobilization to demand that the Senate enact health care reform with a strong. In the four outer boroughs rallies took place, as well in as in hundreds of cities and towns across the United States.

The rally in Times Square was somber, but optimistic as well.

"I went into medicine because I believe that healthcare is a right, not a privilege," said Manisha A. Sharma, MD, of the National Physicians Alliance. "We have never been closer to health insurance reform as a basic civil human right. We are at the home stretch. We have already made change. Call your member of Congress, call your Senator. After 100 years, we can make history."

Monday, December 7, 2009

"If you had a child who was gay, would you deny him or her of following their heart?" -- Letter to a state senator

Friends and comrades,

Communist Party USA member Gabe Falsetta sent the letter below to State Sen. Joe Addabbo, a Democrat who voted the wrong way when the State Senate made the reprehensible mistake of killing a bill that would have allowed gay marriage.

Dear Senator Addabbo,

I’m writing to you today to express my deep disappointment in you vote against the gay marriage bill.

Let me say from the outset that I helped in your election campaign for the 15th senate district. I did so with enthusiasm in hope of flipping the State Senate to the Democrats. After more than forty years it happened! I’m proud that I was a part of the movement.

On Friday the 4th of December, I listened to your interview on the Brian Lehrer Show, I listened carefully to your answers to Brian’s questions, In all honesty, I was unconvinced of your reasoning. I believe Diane Savino hit the nail on the head!

True, you represent your constituents (had I known you did not commit to a yes vote, I would have contacted you) but, you should also be a catalyst for higher understanding of these issues, and make no mistake this a civil rights issue, and should be judged on the basis of separation of church and state. And I dare say, it is just a matter of time; the right of human beings to choose their partners in this society will come to pass.

Lastly Joe, I would want to know if you had a child who was gay, would you deny him or her of following their heart?


Gabriel Falsetta