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.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Class war in NYC transit

In a pre-spring offensive against 38,000 transit workers and a riding public of millions, Jay Walder, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the city's subways, buses and commuter rail, has announced 1,000 layoffs. He vowed "an aggressive overhaul of MTA operations." Workers likely to be axed by Walder include 450 station agents. The MTA also targeted school children, who for generations have gotten subsidized transit bus passes.

Two days later, transit workers, teachers, riders, communities and their allies fired the first shot in the counteroffensive - on the issue of student Metrocards. Transport Workers Local 100 President John Samuelsen joined Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, in denouncing the government's "upside down" priorities - where Wall Street bankers are given bailouts that turn into bonuses and school children are told they can't have passes to ride to school.

Samuelsen declared, "Along with our jobs, student Metrocards are in the MTA's crosshairs. If the cards were discontinued, public education in New York City would cease to be free, devastating hundreds of thousands of families with extra costs of as much as $2,600 per year. Defending student Metrocards is part of our multi-pronged fight against cuts in mass transit."

Recession is not the only cause of the MTA deficit. No layer of New York State's government has acted responsibly on MTA finances. In 1994-1995 Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Pataki, obsessed with cutting taxes for the rich and services for working people, slashed subsidies to the MTA. To fill the gap, the MTA went to Wall Street and borrowed billions at high interest rates. The bills have come due. The MTA must allocate a huge part of its current operating revenue to service its debt. This puts pressure on other big components of the operating budget: service levels and workers' wages and benefits. Also, with a severe recession, the taxes that help finance the MTA - besides the farebox - are underperforming. Finally, the bailout of the MTA last spring by the state government - paid for by a modest payroll tax - has come partly unraveled. Legislators and finance officials in the outer counties of the MTA region are fighting the new payroll tax.

The way the MTA aims to solve the crisis deserves to be called class war, with winners and losers. The main winner is Wall Street, which gets billions from the swollen debt-service. Next, real estate and construction moguls who feed off a $5 billion a year MTA capital (construction and repair) budget. Losers? The workers won't get the wages and benefits they are legally and morally entitled to. Riders, mostly working people, will lose in service cuts and higher fares. The MTA financing system will grow more regressive. Already, it is one of the most farebox-dependent in the country.

The mass transit crisis is a national crisis. Transit labor is under siege in cities across the country. State and national governments need to be pushed. In New York State, some are calling for a greater tax on the rich, and an expansion of the Fair Share Tax reform that was passed about a year ago. Unfortunately, Gov. David Paterson is in favor of allowing the whole law to sunset.

Emergency funding for operating subsidies also has to come from the federal government. Leaders from the Amalgamated Transit Union, TWU, the International Association of Machinists and the Service Employees International Union are putting together a political strategy. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is already arguing for the more generous use of stimulus money and "jobs bill" money to keep transit systems afloat. The MTA, reflecting big banking, construction, real estate and engineering interests, will oppose any federal aid that doesn't go to those interests.

It's class war in transit. The skirmishing has begun.

By Thomas Kenny

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A good day for health care reform

By Gabe Falsetta

It was a beautiful day Feb. 20 for New Yorkers and for health care reform.

The sun was shining while the temperature hovered around 40 degrees and New Yorkers-over 4,000 strong - sent a clear message to lawmakers: pass health care reform with a strong public option.

Coming from all five boroughs, people assembled on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge for the march. The rally was held on the Manhattan side not far from City Hall.

David Braun, a member of MoveOn, spoke at the rally and pointed out that while Dick Cheney was bringing up terror - again and again - 45,000 people die every year in this country simply because they lack access to affordable health insurance. Several other speakers took the stand in front of the offices of the health care giant, Wellpoint to tell their stories of being denied needed care due to insurance companies trying to cut costs to keep profits up.

Frank Stearns, president of Veterans for Peace Chapter 34 NYC said, "The burden of health care nearly crippled the auto industry, if America had a national health care system there would be many more workers in the industry today."

As we marched across the bridge we held our signs high so the cars passing below could see, lots of cars honked for health care, not the traffic! The pedestrians, many of whom were tourists, took pictures and asked questions. One marcher commented in jest to a group of tourists that they should wait to get sick when they return to their respective country.

The New York march was one 40 actions in 32 states that took place over the last week as part of Health Care for America Now's national week of action.

Monday, February 22, 2010

City threatens to evict public schools in favor of charter

By Elena Mora

Two weeks ago, parents of children at the Manhattan East School for Arts and Academics, a public middle school in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood, received an alarming letter from the PTA president.

It seems that the PTA and the school's leadership had just heard, quite by accident, that discussions were underway at the city's Department of Education to evict and relocate Manhattan East to provide space for a charter school, the Harlem Success Academy.

While the DOE has an official - and very controversial - policy of moving "underperforming" schools to make way for "smaller, better and more efficient" charter schools," more is at play in the case of Manhattan East.

Manhattan East is a successful school. So what could the reason for the move be, asked parents at the emergency meeting held in the school's auditorium on February 8? Harlem Success Academy's interest in Manhattan East's space may have to do with the many improvements that have been made in the 15 years the school has been there, including a fully equipped science lab, sound-proof music room, rooftop garden and gym.

One parent said, "ME is not an under-performing school in any sense of the words ... it is the pride of its community, and beyond. It's shocking that such a decision could be made about its future by the DOE with no involvement of its administrators, families, students or community."

Rose Jimenez, PTA president of the Mosaic Preparatory Academy, a nearby public K-8 school, described what happened when the Harlem Success Academy moved in to their school.

"First they took over half of one floor, and then the whole floor. Then they installed playground equipment and put a fence around it to separate it from the area where the children from Mosaic have recess."

After a big fight, the fence was taken down. The story is emblematic of the elitism that parents and educators charge characterizes the charter schools. State Senator Bill Perkins points to the concentration of charter schools in Harlem (24 of 29 in Manhattan are located north of 96 Street, traditionally the dividing line), and says that this creates a system that is "separate and unequal."

Manhattan East families are being urged to send letters and make phone calls to the city's 311 help line, the education department, elected officials and the media, and to participate in a demonstration called by the Coalition for Educational Justice on Tuesday, February 23. The theme of the rally is, "Make all schools good schools - No more pitting of schools against schools and parents against parents."

While the eviction of Manhattan East may be averted, the bigger picture of encroachment on the public schools by charter schools is a sobering one. Last month, the DOE decided to close 19 schools, despite protests and a demonstration of 2,000 people outside the meeting. Opponents charge that the closings are part of the city's attempt to abandon the neediest and most at risk students and open the door for more charters.

Coming soon: On charter schools, what exactly does it mean to be "privately run and publicly funded?'

Friday, February 19, 2010

City comptroller takes aim at developer abuse

Newly elected city Comptroller John Liu is taking action to help protect communities from big developers and corruption.

Liu, the first Asian American elected to a top New York City office, has announced that he will set up a task force to establish more oversight over so-called Community Benefit Agreements between developers and community groups.

CBAs are generally supposed to ensure that a developer provides services agreed upon by both sides in exchange for community support for a particular project. Residents are in theory able to win such things as a certain percentage of affordable housing, jobs, parks and so on. Developers can receive zoning changes, no-bid contracting, tax subsidies - even the right to invoke eminent domain and seize private property for their project.

While such agreements are in use worldwide, New York City CBAs have drawn scrutiny.

Questions have arisen as to who represents a community and how enforceable an agreement is. Developers here have used CBAs to gain an upper hand in many communities and, in some cases, as a way to divide and even radically alter neighborhoods against the wishes of local residents.

Echoing concerned New Yorkers, Liu said, "In the absence of standards ... these agreements will become more problematic and ultimately irrelevant."

In Brooklyn, a CBA was signed in 2005 between Forest City Ratner, a multi-billion-dollar private developer which had already been guaranteed huge subsidies from the city, and a number of groups purporting to represent the community. The agreement was for Ratner's proposed Atlantic Yards project, which will, through eminent domain, throw people out of their homes and businesses and radically alter downtown Brooklyn.

Critics of the project note that it will displace thousands of local residents and replace decent existing housing with luxury condos in a neighborhood where the current median income is less than $30,000.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the agreement in a flurry of press releases,. However, neither Bloomberg nor any city agency were signatories. Only Forest City Ratner and eight civic groups that don't directly represent the area were signers. Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, a coalition that came together to oppose Atlantic Yards, and others charged that the mayor had tried to hoodwink the community by making it appear that there was an agreement between the city and the developer.

Many felt that even the stipulations spelled out in the CBA were not enough to protect the neighborhood. The Develop Don't Destroy coalition charged that "misleading statements appeared in the mayor's press release, including the claim that the FCR proposal ‘will create 8,500 permanent new jobs, 4,500 mixed-income apartments. FCR themselves only claim 6,000 jobs and have admitted at a City Council hearing that they cannot guarantee that any new permanent jobs would be created or that local residents would get the jobs. FCR said at the same Council hearing that they now plan on building 6,000 or even 7,300 housing units, with no commitment to make those additional units affordable.'"

Astonishingly, Forest City Ratner official Mary Anne Gilmartin admitted in a July 2009 meeting that "Forest City has funding obligations and commitments to each of the organizations [that signed the CBA], and they're reviewed on an annual basis." In other words, though the mayor and FCR attempted to give the agreement a veneer of grassroots involvement, all the singers had received funding from the developer.

Further, the agreement, while technically binding, has no actual enforcement mechanism.

Atlantic Yards may be considered the most egregious case of abuse, but, Liu said, "the public has seen a string of broken promises to communities and questionable involvement by some government officials." He added that studies have singled out the city's community benefit agreements "as examples of what not to do."

Saying that it is "time for the embarrassment to end," Liu announced that his office would form a task force that includes business, labor and grassroots organizations, to examine the issue and propose proper procedures.

Findings and regulations would have to be approved by the City Council.

According to Liu, "It is simply common sense to have clear standards that ensure benefits for the public when private developers receive benefits from the public."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

NY progressives begin to line up behind Gillibrand

Despite the early date on the political calendar, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., appointed to fill the seat vacated by now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has already picked up a spate of endorsements from labor, progressives, leaders of the African American and Latino communities, Democratic Party leaders and others.

Former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who with a campaign budget of less than $10 million was able to come within five points of beating out billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, was the latest to offer his seal of approval. Gillibrand, according to Thompson, has been "putting more New Yorkers back to work and fighting for justice, fairness and equality for every single New Yorker."

Many are saying that, for a Democrat holding a statewide federal office, Gillibrand has strong progressive credentials. Indeed, a campaign has been organized by health care activists to call Gillibrand's office to thank her for taking a lead in the fight for health care reform. Gillibrand recently signed a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to, despite the recent defeat in Massachusetts that took the Democrats' filibuster proof majority, ensure that real health care reform-with a public option-is passed. The letter advocates using the budget reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes.

While 119 House Democrats have signed the letter, as have 300,000 grassroots activists, only a few Senators have added their names.

The early endorsements are necessary, many argue, because Gillibrand will likely face a stiff Republican Party challenger in November, and she's also likely to be targeted by African American conservative Democrat Harold Ford, a former member of Congress from Tennessee and current and vice chairman of Merrill Lynch.

While Ford's policies favor Wall Street over Main Street, Gillibrand has "worked every day to pass health-care reform that protects New York workers, covers the uninsured and makes health care affordable for working families," Raglan George, leader of AFSCME District Council 1707, the first citywide union to endorse Gillibrand, said. "And she's been working hard since day one to make sure every worker receives the fair and equal pay they deserve."

Ford, a leader of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council has sought to portray himself as a moderate, but his past has put progressive organizations on edge.

On national security he's said, "We've got to get tough on ‘illegals.'"

While a member of Congress, Ford voted for restrictive measures sought by anti-choice advocates: parental notification laws banning late term abortions.

NARAL Pro-Choice New York's Kelli Conlin, after meeting with Ford for forty minutes, said that while he can't be classified as "pro-life," he also can't be classified as pro-choice. Consequently, NARAL's national and local organizations endorsed Gillibrand, who has established herself as a pro-choice candidate. Even back in 2006, while campaigning for Congress, Gillibrand told the national conference of the National Organization for Women that the extreme right was undermining democracy and women's rights to choice in particular.

Many have argued that they will support Gillibrand because she has a proven ability to beat Republicans, even on their home turf. In 2006, Gillibrand was able to win the seat representing New York's 20th Congressional district, an area with a much larger number of registered Republicans than Democrats.

A number of commentators have openly wondered why Ford is running: Is he backed by Republicans, they ask, in order to weaken Gillibrand in the general election?

Others who have endorsed Gillibrand make up a broad cross-section of New Yorkers: the vast majority of Democratic Party county chairs, Rep. Nydia Velzques and a number of other members of New York's Congressional delegation, Emily's list, the pro-GLBT rights Human Rights Campaign, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York State United Teachers, the Public Employees Federation, as well as numerous other leaders and groups. Also, the White House has made clear that it supports Gillibrand.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Trying 9/11 cases here not hatred for city

By Dan Margolis
for the New York State Communist Party

Reading New York City's tabloid press, one could easily get the impression that President Obama hates our city. This is not exaggeration; in fact, the sensational headline on the January 14 issue of the New York Post actually asked, "Why does Obama hate us?" The issue that has created such perceived animosity (and real animosity towards Obama from those on the right) is the plan by the Department of Justice to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan.

While there are some legitimate concerns, the vast majority of the controversy has been spearheaded by the extreme right wing, which is doing all that it can to try to weaken Obama, this time by attempting to make him look "soft" on terrorism.

The announcement of the plan ignited a firestorm of demands that the DOJ change venues to somewhere outside the city, perhaps even somewhere outside the state-or civilian law. Those calls now span the political spectrum, as more and more elected officials have been changing their minds about supporting the Manhattan trial since the tabloids and our few Republicans began a campaign against it.

According to those on the right, trying Mohammed in the city would be an insult to the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 mass murder. Further, it would place a huge target on downtown Manhattan and would cost the city billions of dollars for security measures.

But this is all nonsense.

Let's start with the simple stuff. Virtually everyone now knows that Washington will pay the billion or so dollars necessary for security, creating something of a downtown Manhattan stimulus program. As for increased risk for Manhattan, if the trial actually does attract homicidal maniacs, can't the same be said for anywhere else in the country? As a New Yorker, I love my city and don't want to see anyone attack it. On a more personal note, I don't want to be murdered by terrorists. But I'm not prepared to say, "Well, why don't they hold the trial in Des Moines? Better a terrorist attack there." Still, what could be more ridiculous than the idea that this will make Manhattan a target? As the cultural and financial center of the United States, Manhattan is, unfortunately, always going to be at the top of the list for any crazed terrorists.

The most pernicious of the claims made by the right wing, and those it has influenced, is that holding the trial here is somehow a "slap in the face" to those who perished on 9/11. This is just wrong; in fact, the opposite is true. By trying Mohammed in Manhattan, in a civilian court, Obama and his administration are upholding long-standing American traditions.

It is an old tradition that, in federal courts, people are tried in the same jurisdiction where they committed their crimes. The reason is that whatever local circumstances there are may have some sort of influence. Residents know more about the case in the area: if you're guilty, the knowledge will help the defense; if you're innocent, you're more likely to go free.

People like Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who represents parts of Long Island in Congress, have called for Mohammed to be tried in some secret military tribunal, "where he belongs." The New York Post openly talks about the upcoming trial as "just for show" and says that we should not "pretend innocence until proven guilty."

Is the American system of justice not good enough for people like King and his cohorts?

Mohammed is portrayed as a demon in the mass media, and this is all very likely true, even by his own admission, but do we want to allow monsters like this to be used as a pretext for subverting the notion of a fair trial, something for which generations of patriots, going back to the Revolution and even before, have fought?

That would be a real slap in the face.

There are, as in all things, pros and cons to trying Mohammed in Manhattan, and it may very well be a good idea to change the location for logistical or other reasons. In fact, the trial will most likely not be held here; the administration is currently looking at other locations across, and even outside, the state. However, condemning Obama's Department of Justice for trying to uphold cherished democratic legal traditions (and campaign promises) is misguided at best, and anti-democratic in essence.

Respect for our legal system is not "softness" on terror.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

CVS risking consumer, worker s' health for profits, laborers claim

Members of Laborers Local 78 are connecting poor treatment of consumers to poor working conditions for contractors, and are urging consumers to pressure CVS, the corporation responsible, to change its practices.

Local 78 members distributed leaflets outside of a CVS on Manhattan's Columbus Avenue, near Lincoln Center, explaining that the corporation has hired Panzner Brothers Demolition, a sub-standard non-union company, to remove asbestos from their buildings.

"When asbestos isn't properly removed," said one of the union activists, "the fibers go into the air. They're so small you can't see them, but, when inhaled, they can remain in someone's lungs forever."

According to a flier issued by Local 78, "Ultimately, asbestos fibers cause fatal diseases that currently have no cure."

The union activists charge that CVS has hired a non-union company to save money. While they are fighting this as an anti-union move, they are also concerned that this will ultimately endanger both people in the area and the unorganized workers themselves.

Local 78 members are connecting this lack of oversight to shocking abuses of consumers, including the sale of counterfeit drugs in Deer Park, N.Y., and a case in East Pointe, Georgia, where the company, known for understaffing its pharmacies, gave the wrong medication to a truck driver, resulting in post traumatic stress disorder.

The picketing unionists made clear that they are not asking for a boycott or a strike; the simply want members of the public to contact CVS and demand that responsible contractors be hired.

The suggest calling CEO Tom Ryan at 401-765-1500 and Bill Jacobs at 516-729-1018.

By Dan Margolis

Monday, February 1, 2010

This 'fracking' sucks, Ithaca residents say

ITHACA, N.Y. - Residents in this western New York college town, known for its picturesque waterfalls, have joined with others across Tomkins County and the state to protest a plan to extract gas from the ground by a process known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking has residents in upstate and western New York worried about their towns, and people in other areas, such as New York City, worried about possible contamination of their drinking water.

The procedure aims at extracting methane from an underground layer called the Marcellus formation, composed of sediments and organic material millions of years ago. In some areas, such as the town of Marcellus, the formation is near the surface, but in most places it is one to two miles below ground.

To bring the methane up from so far down, the gas company must drill far below the earth's surface, and then extend a pipe out horizontally for up to a mile. At the tip of the drill bore, explosives are detonated while two to six million gallons of water mixed with harsh chemicals are forced in at incredibly high pressure. The explosion creates fracturing in the rock, and the water forces the methane back towards the well to be harvested. Afterwards, the original drill area is sealed. The process is repeated every four to seven years in another portion of the horizontal well, over and over for up to 40 years. Each time, millions of gallons of fresh water is used-and contaminated.

The process is riddled with problems, say local residents, who have formed a coalition of organizations aiming to stop the fracking process before it starts in the state.

Andrew Byers, of Shaleshock, the anti-fracking coalition, says that even if the gas industry is right in saying that the procedure is safe - which seems not to be the case - there will be a massive disruption in the local lifestyle.

"You have 7,000 to 10,000 five-acre [wells] being drilled into the woods, with access roads to each one," Byers told the People's World. "Then you have diesel engines that are moving up and down every single one of those access roads. And every time a single well needs to be fractured, you have 200 tanker trucks that drive to it, and then 200 trucks that drive away, carrying the water. You have small country roads that are about to be inundated by chains of semi-trucks carrying fresh water from our local streams in, and toxic water out."

In order to be able to do this, gas companies need permission from landowners. Currently, in Tomkins County, where Ithaca sits, they have succeeded in getting 33 percent of the land leased to them. Under state Department of Environmental Conservation rules, once a certain amount of land is leased, the rest of the neighbors in the area must also lease the land, in return for monetary compensation.

According to Byers, the gas companies have been using tricky tactics to convince people to buy land in the area.

"No one in their right mind is going to purchase a piece of land with a lease on it that allows this type of activity," one disgruntled Ithaca resident told the People's World. "Why would someone choose to live next to something like that?"

In addition, there is the possibility of contamination of the water supply. In Pennsylvania, where fracking has already started, a recent small spill has had tremendous consequences: 37 miles of dead stream.

Water from the ground is normally clean because it is purified by aquifers, areas of dirt and rocks that purify the water as it moves towards the surface. But the drilling that is being done will cut through aquifers, many activists point out. The drills will introduce industrial-strength, highly poisonous lubricants into the aquifers. Further, the millions of gallons of water that are injected into the earth are full of chemicals, some of which cause such things as reproductive dysfunction in humans at one part per trillion. Activists claim that there has not been any proof that the water injected can't seep into other areas and mix with drinking water.

The waste water from fracking, after being brought to the surface, must also be dealt with. Municipal plants in New York can't handle it, so it must be brought to Pennsylvania and Ohio, both places that are nearly at capacity. Consequently, the energy companies plan to inject it deep into the ground and seal it off for future generations to deal with.

"God forbid there's an earthquake in this area," remarked Byers. He added that if one stream or lake in the area becomes contaminated, it would be nearly impossible to prevent rapid contamination of water across much larger areas of the state.

The DEC has only 17 field inspectors to oversee the entire operation of thousands of wells.

On January 25, concerned residents took their complaints to the state capital, Albany, calling for the state to put a halt to fracking. They are also pushing for passage of the "Frack Act" in Congress, which would remove a 2005 law that exempts oil and gas companies from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund Act.

By Dan Margolis