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.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Comptroller: City paying slumlords millions to house homeless

At a time when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson are putting forward budgets that slash programs proven to alleviate homelessness, the Department of Homeless Services is wasting millions of dollars on services that lack oversight, some of which are overtly illegal, according to recent audit of the DHS.

As the homelessness crisis gets worse, the DHS is paying slumlords as much as $4,836 per month, or $58,032 per year, in unregulated housing that likely wouldn't even be considered safe were it to be inspected.

According to City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, D-Manhattan, the DHS "must shape up if it is to provide real and valuable services to those who are being hit hardest by the recession."

Currently, the homeless rate in the city is at a record high, with 39,000 people in shelters. At the same time, the annual State of the Homeless report, issued by the Coalition for the Homeless, Governor Paterson's state budget will slash a record $104 million from the city's adult shelters, homelessness prevention services and permanent housing.

"Twenty years ago, when I started working at Coalition for the Homeless, we were bringing hot meals into the notorious welfare hotels," executive director of CFH Mary Brosnahan said at a press conference staged by city Comptroller John Liu, whose office conducted the audit. "There were countless press exposés on the conditions in those hellholes and a resounding cry went out to close those places. New Yorkers across the political spectrum demanded that their tax dollars not be used to subsidize squalor."

But even though most people assume that the city "has gotten out of the business of paying slumlords," she said, it continues "to shelter vulnerable homeless children in horrible conditions-and it's us, the taxpayers, who are footing the bill."

According to the audit, the Department "failed to monitor service providers, leaving individuals and families in hazardous, unsanitary and substandard conditions wrought with open violations."

In 2003, when the local news exposed private landlords raking in huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to house people in squalid apartments, an outraged public demanded that the city stop both endangering families and throwing money at slumlords.

Bloomberg promised to do something. The audit shows he has not.

Instead of signing contracts with service providers, DHS entered into "handshake agreements," and paid providers, in open violation of the city's Administrative Code and the City Charter, from an agency bank account. These payments to non-contracted providers accounted for $152.7 million to 107 providers. Altogether, the agency only used 154 providers. All told, 53 percent of units being used to house homeless families were not contracted.

Further, Liu's audit found that the agency made payments to some providers for no reason at all, and the amount paid per family, even to the same provider, Tilden Hall Family Residence, varied wildly between $810 and $4,836 per family each month. In total, the agency paid $953,635 to this agency, "using duplicate lists of clients and service dates and invented rates as ‘data' to support and justify the payments."

In lieu of contracts, the agency used an "honor system" with its providers. The service provider simply gave the DHS a list of fees and the agency paid it without checking. The audit found duplicate payments amounting to $25,918 and $23,866 in payments for services that were likely never even rendered.

"Who would go into business on an ‘honor system'?" Comptroller Liu asked at the press conference. "How a city cares for its most vulnerable speaks volumes about its people, and we're better than what we show ourselves to be."

After issuing the results of the audit, which began under Liu's predecessor William Thompson, Liu said the DHS should systematize its dealings with service providers, enter into contracts with all of them, and pay for services based upon mutually agreed rates.

In order to ensure that the homeless are not being placed into dangerous dwellings, Liu suggested that the department should "conduct unannounced periodic site inspections and interviews with clients and staff."

Monday, March 22, 2010

May Day reborn!

By Libero Della Piana

International Workers Day - was, of course, born in the U.S.A. But while the Haymarket events occurred in Chicago, the largest and perhaps best known May Day celebrations in the U.S. were historically in New York City. Unions, workers, their families and more traditionally marched together to honor working people.

This year, New York's historic May Day celebrations will be reborn with a mass march and rally organized by the labor and immigrant rights movements. An alliance of over 30 city and regional organizations is calling for "Labor and Immigrant Rights and Jobs for All." The demands are based on the AFL-CIO's five-point jobs program and immigrant rights demands.

A recent panel of labor leaders at the Left Forum discussed May Day historically and the plans for May Day 2010.

Ed Ott, former Executive Director of the New York City Central Labor Council spoke from the panel, saying, "this project will help rebuild the working-class left in the city." He noted that there are several protests on May 1, but argued, "this particular expression is the regrouping of some particular unions to reclaim a presence on May Day."

This emerging alliance is reclaiming May Day from years of neglect. McCarthyism, the decline of the left, and the identification of May Day with sectarian groups (true and not) had whittled New York ‘s May Day celebrations down to a small but spirited gathering by the dawn of the 21st Century.

Then in 2006, something happened.

Immigrant rights movements in the U.S. had for several years used the occasion of May Day to demonstrate for immigrant rights, but in that year millions of immigrant families poured out on May 1 around the U.S. calling urgently for immigrant rights, workers rights and amnesty. New York was no exception. May Day received a new breath of life.

This year perhaps begins a full recovery. Saturday, May 1, the march will assemble in Manhattan's Foley Square on Worth Street between Centre and Lafayette Streets. The March route will pass Wall Street, home to the country and world's largest banking and finance institutions, which many participants see as the source of the current economic and jobs crisis-and end in Battery Park.

Another panelist, Bhairavi Desai of the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance said, "It is really important to see organized labor and the immigrant rights movement come together with our economy in the state it's in." Taxi workers, domestic workers and many other immigrant workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and face particularly difficult challenges at the workplace and elsewhere.

Some of the sponsors of the May day events include, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, District Council 37 AFSCME, Transport Workers Union Local 100, Domestic Workers United, United Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 210, New York City Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (UFCW), Labor Left Project and many more.

In closing the panel presentation, Ed Ott spurred the audience into action, saying, "Every working-class activist should try to build this effort."

For more information or to volunteer, contact Jason Green with the Alliance for Labor & Immigrants Rights & Jobs for All at or 212-239-7323

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bronx town hall promotes wage, health bill

By Elena Mora
Photo By Dave Sanders

The community room at the Amalgamated Houses, a cooperative housing project in the Bronx, was the scene of an important gathering of workers and neighbors Monday night.

A highlight was the remarks of Alba Vasques, a "member political organizer" of SEIU 32BJ. Vasquez raised her children as a single mother, and described the huge change in her life when she finally got a union job, after year of working 18 hours days and still struggling to make ends meet.

"We had health care and sick days, something I'd never had before. And I had vacation time. I could get to know my children."

The "town hall meeting" was called by 32BJ, which represents 70,000 building service workers in New York City, to promote a newly introduced City Council bill (Intro 18-2010) that would "guarantee good wages, health care and other benefits to building service workers at new, city-subsidized developments and newly leased city work sites."

The bill reflects a growing movement in New York City that rejects the idea that people have to accept whatever crumbs are left on the table, and is fueled by anger at Wall Street and the pro-developer Bloomberg administration. Union Vice President Kyle Bragg said, "we shouldn't be subsidizing developments that leave working families in the cold."

Just a few weeks ago a Bronx coalition of churches, community groups and unions defeated a Bloomberg-endorsed development plan, saying the plan would not have created the kinds of jobs and services the neighborhood needs.

On the stage last night with the union leaders were City Council members Oliver Koppell, Fernando Cabrera, and Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who each forcefully declared their support for the bill, which was introduced by East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito and has the support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and South Bronx Councilwoman Anabel Palma.

"We must take concrete steps to eliminate the government's role in promoting poverty," said Cabrera.

Councilman Koppell, in whose district the meeting took place, mentioned that the Amalgamated Houses was a project of the labor movement, based on the same ideas as the bill -- that workers and their families deserve decent wages and living conditions.

Councilwoman Arroyo praised the union for its activism, including its leadership on promoting bilingualism in political life, and said that the bill is "a no-brainer. It is common sense."

Monday, March 8, 2010

MTA public hearing in Brooklyn erupts in a fit of rage

By John Pietaro
Photo by Matthew Weinstein

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's recent public hearing on proposed cuts to the city's transit system was the site of considerable rage, with angry protest by the many students on hand as well as a series of others who offered bristling testimony.

Brooklynites converged on the Brooklyn Museum, where the hearing was held, to speak back to members of the MTA board, positioned on a dais atop the stage. Many in the crowd commented on the bizarre racial make-up of the MTA representatives: an almost entirely white group in this highly diverse borough. Crown Heights, where the museum is located, is populated primarily by African-American and Afro-Caribbean peoples. Of the 15 or so board members was only one African-American man. The imbalance onstage heightened the irritation of many in the audience who see the MTA's plan as "balancing their budget on the backs of the working class."

The Authority plans to make drastic service cuts on a wide variety of bus and train schedules, including the wholesale abolition of certain bus and train lines entirely. Further, there are plans to make cuts in transportation for the elderly and those living with disabilities. Both senior citizens and members of the disabled community were well-represented, with quite a few speakers from both groups offering strong, indeed, intense testimony about the nature of these cuts and their effects on their lives. Several speakers aid that their advocacy organizations were filing suits claiming Americans with Disabilities Act violations..

But the constituency greatest represented in the auditorium were high school students, who came with an array of placards and banners that they waved throughout the rows and draped over the balcony overlooking the hall. The students, sitting throughout the auditorium, were from with a variety organizations. Many came on their own, having seen advertisements for the hearings hanging in the subways or, more commonly, on Facebook. The youth offered brazen responses to the few on the dais who offered any kind of comment, right down to boos and hisses at the board members' introductions.

One of the major irritants of the evening was the MTA's insistence on having elected officials speak first, although every person wishing to voice their opinion had to sign in and were given a slot according to the time of their arrival at the Museum. Most of the comments from politicians were filled with important facts and figures-and this crowd had not the patience to sit through it. A number of the elected officials took note, and made a point of wondering aloud why the students weren't allowed to speak sooner.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's testimony received its share of negative response, mainly due to his support of the controversial Atlantic Yards construction projects..

At one point a young woman appeared suddenly behind the public testimony microphone and attempted to make a plea on behalf of the students'; unfortunately, she had, in frustration, cut into the line in front of another speaker. With raucous support from the amassed youth she spoke of the students' right to an education. However, as she had not registered to speak, the moderator cut her off.

When several police officers approached to remove her from the microphone, many in the crowd erupted; and, as the officers escorted the young woman away, they rushed the area. A phalanx of cops, both in plainclothes and in uniform appeared suddenly, inspiring the students and several others to stand and run to the corner of the hall where the police gathered, offering shouts of fury about the "puppets" on stage and the system governing the entire proceeding. Running from all corners of the auditorium, the police chased down and grabbed the most vocal protestors before physically escorting them out.

By the time the incident was over, the audience was considerably thinned. One of the speakers offering testimony who identified himself as a retired transit worker lambasted the panel for their part in the "abuse" and "brutality" of the young woman.

For the record, this reporter offered the following testimony to the MTA board:

We are living in an era which for most of us is the worst economic crisis of our lives. Looking up at this tailored, racially imbalanced and very comfortable looking MTA Board, I stand before you as one of the thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who are unemployed. I lost my job 6 months ago and have spent every day in this period searching for work. For me, like so many others, reasonable access to the subways and buses to get to the Department of Labor's Unemployment Office, or much more so--to Manhattan to make wider contact with employers--is essential. Your proposed service cuts are a slap in the face to our dignity. This is an insult to the promise of our future.

Now in addition to hurting the jobless of this city and hurting the workers who make New York run, you are proposing to rob transit workers of their jobs. What you are doing is creating a wider unemployed population---and you are pocketing the profits. On behalf of all of these people here today, let me ask you: HOW WILL YOU SLEEP?

Friday, March 5, 2010

The real impediments to good schools

By Elena Mora

A recent article in the New York Daily News by Marcus Winters, from the Manhattan Institute (a right-wing, pro-corporate think tank), sums up in a sentence the "appeal" of charter schools: "Freedom from the often preposterous restrictions imposed by ... collective bargaining agreements allows charters to focus on student learning."

What are those preposterous restrictions contained in the teachers' contracts? Are they the impediments to student learning?

What's needed, according to Winters, is the ability to force teachers to work longer hours and perform whatever tasks the administration asks, and finally, to fire them. (Actually, he mentions the ability to fire teachers first.)

Though I'd like to reject this out of hand (especially in light of what just happened in Rhode Island with the wholesale firing of the teachers in Central Falls High), this notion has some currency.

Let's talk about teachers' hours. The teachers I know work evenings and weekends, preparing lessons and grading student work. With the increase in standardized testing and data collection, I'm sure that has gone up.

At my kids' recent parent teacher conferences, each teacher had pages of printed out data, with separate numerical scores for their homework, class work, tests and projects. I thought about how much time it must have taken them to do all those calculations for the 75 or so children they each teach. Frankly, I was amazed that in addition to the detailed scoring, they were able to also offer insight into my children's thinking, progress and behavior.

I don't doubt that most schools could use more staff, but the solution isn't more hours for existing teachers.

What about making it easier to fire teachers? There are surely bad teachers, just as there are surely bad principals and administrators. But just how many teachers deserve to be fired? New York City's Department of Education has a special team with a million dollar budget and a staff of eight lawyers and eight others whose job is to help principals build cases against teachers. According to The New York Times (which admits that these are unsubstantiated figures), the DOE claims that there are 500 teachers it would like to fire for incompetence - out of 55,000. That's less than 1 percent of the total.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of New York's United Federation of Teachers, said teachers have "no desire to have incompetent or misbehaving colleagues but also insist that the discipline process be fair and objective." Not one of the teachers at the Rhode Island high school had received a negative performance review, and the superintendent and school board made no allegation of incompetence on the part of any individual teacher - nevertheless all were fired.

So what is the answer to the problems in the public schools?

While teacher training, support and development are very important, the biggest problem, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, is the de-funding of public education that has gone on since the 1970s.

More resources are the key. New York's Alliance for Quality Education, which battled to change the state's funding formula that has severely shortchanged urban school districts, commissioned many studies on the impact of funding, and proved something that was probably obvious to parents in poor communities - money matters.

Another NYC advocacy group, Class Size Matters, has focused on the proven success of smaller class sizes on "increasing learning and narrowing the achievement gap." And by the way, because the teachers have class size caps in their contract, they have led the fight against the overcrowding that is still endemic in the city.

And even Diane Ravitch, one of the architects of "No Child Left Behind," no longer argues that "charters, merit pay and accountability" are key to improving schools. Rather, she has concluded that "charter schools are proving to be no better on average than regular schools, [and] in many cities are bleeding resources from the public system."

Blaming the teachers' unions for the "failure" of the public education system is at best a red herring, at worst a cynical way to divide the stakeholders in the schools, teachers from parents and the community. Though the problems are complex and systemic, the solutions are simpler: we need a major increase in funding for public education, all aspects of it, including teacher training and support.

Berrigan urges public to get active on anti-nuke work

Peace activist and analyst Frida Berrigan addressed March 1 Peace Action Manhattan on the need for the public to continue to work on nuclear disarmament. The current generation of students has little knowledge of nuclear weapons and their implications, she said, and the older generations have not continued the disarmament work in large numbers as they did during the Cold War.

Berrigan is senior program associate of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based policy institute.

Despite limited reductions, the United States still maintains thousands of nuclear warheads on alert and ready to be launched within minutes of a command to do so, she said.

President Obama gave encouraging speeches on nuclear disarmament last April in Prague and in September at the UN, and since then, he has been under an intense right-wing media and political attack that has pushed him in the opposite direction, she said. And for that reason, Berrigan told the audience, the public needs to get involved with the events around the United Nations May review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Speaking at length about the upcoming conference, she explained many smaller non-nuclear weapons countries accepted the treaty with the explicit agreement that the nuclear weapons states would abandon these arms. This has still not happened many years after the treaty went into effect, and is causing a dozen or more of these non-nuclear weapons states to consider abandoning the treaty and developing the nuclear weapons for themselves.

She urged the audience to attend the April 30 to May 1 peace conference at Riverside Church in Manhattan and the NYC peace march on May 2.

For more information on the April 30 to May 1 events, go to

Thursday, March 4, 2010

From the Communist Party: Solutions to the MTA crisis

Below is the text of a flier, produced by the People's World, that is being distributed at the MTA hearings:

Solutions to the MTA crisis: United we can win!

The MTA cuts are completely and totally avoidable. They hurt the people of our city, and they also an assault on transit workers, and their jobs: at least 400 station agents are being cut, and the authority is pushing now to reopen the contract with TWU Local 100.

City Council Plan – The right direction!

Our city council has put forward a realistic plan to stop the most egregious of the cuts, the ending of free Metrocards for students:

• Reallocate 10 percent of direct stimulus aid to MTA operating expenses (this should generate about $91.5 million)
• Use budgeted PAYGO capital funds for operating ($50 million)
• Reallocate 10 percent of additional stimulus transit aid via state to operating expenses ($30 million).

This plan is, of course, not perfect. Firstly, it doesn’t solve the problem of stopping all the transit cuts. Secondly, allocating money away from the capital fund, which is used for new projects, such as the Second Avenue subway line, is harmful. It holds up important projects, and would stop the creation of jobs that such projects bring about. This is important, and can't be overlooked. Nonetheless, the situation is extreme.

We can go further: Reverse sweetheart deals with big developers

If the City Council plan is the best we can win for now, it has to be supported. But we should, while supporting that, be fighting for something more as well. Reversing and stopping future giveaways to the big developers (who, unfortunately, control the MTA’s Board of Directors and count Mayor Bloomberg among their friends/partners) would be a huge start.

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 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.

Further, in a shady (the most polite term possible) deal, when it decided to sell the property, worked exclusively with Ratner and sold the property well under value. In fact, another company, Extell, actually offered the MTA a full $50 million per year more than Ratner, and offered to pay up front. (We shouldn’t trust the MTA in general: everyone remembers the scandal in which they were found to be keeping two sets of books: one for the public, one that reflected reality! Also, the recent scandal around services never rendered is surely not atypical.)

The MTA should scrap the deal with Ratner and do one of the following (in worst to best order)

• At the very least, demand $100 million upfront from Ratner, or
• Sell the land to Extell for $150 million upfront, or
• Put the property back on the market for what it is currently valued: $271.5 million (by MTA estimates; according to an independent estimates: $900 million)

There are deals like this across the city. Why should we suffer cutbacks while rich developers take millions of dollars of our money?

Tax the rich

First, we have to keep the Fair Share Tax that was won in a recent struggle. Paterson, who may or may not be governor when this flier is being read, has said he would allow the law that increased taxes a tiny bit on the rich to sunset. That simply isn’t fair.

Also, there is going to be a tax increase no matter what happens. The question is who will pay it, millions of working New Yorkers, who are struggling to make ends meet, or the rich and superrich? Eliminating the student Metrocards means each student must spend an extra $2.50 each way to and from school, five times a week, four weeks or so per month, bringing the total to $100.00. Students are in school for about nine months per year, so the cost for one student is $900.00. A family that has two kids in school would spend an additional $200.00 per month, or $1,800.00 yearly—a huge “tax” increase!

Why not increase the tax those who really can afford it? There are sixty billionaires in New York alone (including, of course, our mayor, one of the top 20 richest people on Earth). Taxing them could bring in enough money each year to stop the cuts and even reduce fares.

Why not a tax on all stock transfers over a certain amount (in order to avoid taxing 401k benefits, etc.)?

Bloomberg’s not-yet-presented budget will almost certainly call for slashing education and other important services—and, consequently, jobs. The same goes for Paterson’s current budget proposal.

All of the budgetary problems of the city and the state could be fixed with a permanent or temporary tax on the super-rich, of whom New York has more than virtually anywhere else.

Unity for victory

But, given the dominance of Wall Street and the big developers over the city, the MTA and the state, none of this can be done without uniting all of the forces—TWU Local 100, the UFT, 1199 and the rest of the labor movement; the big churches; progressive elected officials, who have successfully put both the city council and the state legislature up as road blocks to the most egregious service and job cuts; the students, the Working Families Party and the rest of New York’s working people—in a big struggle, the same kind that was victorious just over a year ago in passing the Fair Share Tax.

If we stay divided, we’ll most likely lose these battles.

United, we’ll surely win.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The bottom line in the debate about public schools

When it comes to New York City's public schools, one thing is not in dispute: there are problems, a lot of them. The city's kids have below average math and reading scores, and very high drop out rates - of 50 large US cities, NY is close to the bottom, at 43rd.

And while there are disagreements about the reasons for these problems, the big dispute these days is about the solutions, and specifically, about the role of charter schools and their relationship to "traditional" public schools.

One skirmish took place recently, in the basement auditorium of the Ralph Bunche Trilingual School on West 123rd Street in Harlem. The room was almost full, as parents and community residents held a tense "town hall meeting" with school Chancellor Joel Klein.

Increasing the number of charter schools has been a major priority of Bloomberg and Klein's Department of Education. Plans are set for fall openings of 24 more, bringing the total to 123, and the mayor is pushing the state legislature to allow him to add another 100. Charter schools would then make up 22% of all schools in the district.

At the meeting, parents' questions focused on the area's charter school explosion (24 of 29 charter schools in Manhattan are located in Harlem). Many expressed anger and frustration with the DOE's policy of placing charter schools in existing school buildings, which most cities do not allow. Existing schools have been forced to cut space usage and programs or move to other less desirable locations.

Even parents who said that they don't oppose charter schools in principle, talked about the "separate and unequal" situation that is developing, the fomenting of divisions within communities, and the negative impact on the children in the regular schools when their learning and recreational space is usurped by a charter school, often without discussion or advance notice.

But some parents were there to support the charters -- the charter school "movement" has relied on the fact that many families are indeed desperate for better schools for their children, and the worst schools are mainly in working-class, especially Black and Latino, communities.

Klein claims that the DOE has only the children's interests at heart, and that charters give parents choices and advance school reform. The idea is that charter schools can do better with less, and can experiment with educational approaches, unfettered by the restrictions (read union rights) within the public school system.

But national research has shown that in fact, many charter schools are falling short, with one study finding that only 17 percent offered students a better education than public schools - and that 37 percent were actually worse.

New York City's charters have had better results, on the other hand. What is different?

One big part of the answer is that they do not, in fact, have "less" resources. Those charter schools that are housed in public school buildings (two-thirds of the total) receive approximately the same amount per pupil as public schools do. And charter schools have access to other resources: high powered (and highly paid) CEOS and governing boards, favored relationships with DOE officials and other connections with Wall Street and the corporate world, and NYC has a lot of that.

Parents are obviously motivated by their children's needs, but Bloomberg and Klein's motivation is another thing entirely.

The Chancellor said at the meeting that the DOE only wants the best for children in neighborhoods like Harlem. But in 2008, the DOE enacted budget cuts that disproportionately hurt the highest poverty schools, and cancelled out the positive effects of increased need-based funding from the state.*

In 2005 and 2006, Bloomberg successfully fought efforts that would have reduced class size, a proven way to enhance learning and reduce the achievement gap. His opposition was undoubtedly due to the proposal to fund this by continuing the city's tax surcharge on personal incomes over $500,000.

And just last month, the mayor's handpicked Panel on Educational Policy voted to close 19 schools despite overwhelming community opposition and expert testimony about available alternatives, including federal funds, for turning these troubled schools around.

The bottom line is that Bloomberg's dream of school reform is a corporate one: weakened union protections for staff and teachers, an expanded role - and profits - for the private sector, and as little public funding and regulation as can be gotten away with. That scenario cannot provide quality education for all children, which is what the growing movement is fighting for, and which like all the issues facing working people, will require unity and mobilization to win.

*"New York City's Contract for Excellent: Closing the Funding Gap or a Funding Shell Game", report by the Alliance for Quality Education and the Fiscal Policy Institute found that the DOE cut more from the schools with the highest poverty rates.