Labor Day in New York City

This past weekend saw the annual end of summer weekend that culminates on Labor Day. For the city of New York this weekend has in recent times become known for the massive West Indian culture festival that takes place in central Brooklyn, which in spite of some ongoing gentrification remains a settling place for Jamaican and Haitian immigrants. However grand this festival is, it draws millions of participants, it isn’t the only such cultural festival in the city this weekend. Sunday was also the 23rd annual Brazilian Day festival held nearby the Brazilian embassy in Manhattan. While on a smaller scale than it West Indian counterpart, this festival also managed to draw about a million people to enjoy its ethnic food and pulsating music. Only blocks from there an interested tourist could have strolled over to the Museum of Modern Art that was rebuilt and expanded only a few years ago. Indeed by all mainstream accounts these are magical times for the world’s most diverse city. Both the current and previous mayor of New York have been mentioned as presidential material (the former being Rudy Giuliani a current Republican frontrunner), real estate remains white hot despite a national downturn, tourists keep flocking, crime is low, and the debate rages about who or what actually “saved” the Big Apple.

Largely lost in all the excitement was the actual holiday of Labor Day. In fact, and quite tellingly, Labor Day is one of the few national holidays in New York without its own parade down 5th avenue, and this in a city that features such a parade for Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving, Gay Pride, and Puerto Rican Day (the largest parade of all) among many others. Flipping through the local city newspapers in the preceding days, one wouldn’t have come across a news story involving Labor Day (or labor period) and yet would have seen the words “Labor Day Sale” printed on countless full page corporate advertisements.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Labor Day was able to bring crowds to the streets, and walking by a yuppie filled Union Square this past weekend it would have been difficult to imagine that it was once the site of large May Day demonstrations. So the question begs itself: are the media boosters, real estate moguls, and cultural elites correct in painting New York City has a rescued neoliberal paradise where issues of labor and class are outdated notions dug up by bitter radicals?

Ignored, or perhaps tacitly approved of, by the galaxy of cheerleaders is that New York City is one of the most unequal cities in the world and owns a poverty rate more than twice the national average (with many others living in near poverty) and well above its own poverty rate from two decades ago. The public school system is still woeful, its public transportation system has been crippled twice this summer by inches of rain, and a recent study by the Bookings Institute classifies only 16% of the city’s neighborhoods as middle-class- the lowest percentage in the country.

A new book by Kim Moody titled From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974-to the Present describes how the city’s powerful business elite used the economic downturn of 1974-75 to seize control and establish one of first neoliberal regimes in the world (years before Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” regime in Britain). The targets of this regime, which has remained in power through the Giuliani and Bloomburg years, included the CUNY university system (where tuition was newly charged and hiked ever since), welfare roles, the homeless, business taxes, and worker wages. In the process a virtual who’s who list of billionaires and tough guy politicians has taken center stage to national acclaim: Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, William Bratton, Bruce Ratner, and Michael Bloomburg (a perfect teleological blend of the two). However the results were not beneficial to all New Yorkers. Moody describes the economy of the late 1990s:

The real wages of the city’s low-income workers remained stuck where they were in 1992. The number of working poor had grown by 80 percent from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, compared to about 25 percent for the countryBy the late 1990s, the average income of those in New York’s top fifth of families was 20 times that of the lowest fifth

Combined with neoliberalism were more aggressive police methods (despite the fact that the starting salary for police officers has dipped to a paltry $25,000 a year). A glaring footnote to the pomp and circumstance of Giuliani’s crime fighter persona, on which he has collected millions since reluctantly leaving office, is that as the crack epidemic of the 198s burned itself out, violent crime in the city was already dropping before Giuliani became mayor. As Moody documents the number of arrests for violent crime, and other felonies, dropped consistently in the 1990s while the number of misdemeanor arrests (mostly for petty drug offenses) skyrocketed by almost 70,000 a year from 1993-1999. In addition the number of people detained on these arrests, rather than just given court dates as was the standard practice before, rose from 48% in 1995 to 85% in 1998. It goes without saying that most of these arrests targeted minority communities, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, who were also subject to several high profile police shootings and other incidents of brutality.

As New York City has joined the nation-wide shift over the last quarter-century from an industrial center to a service economy, it has become a city of financial, legal, and real estate elites funding large-scale cultural and high rise projects while living on an underpaid pool of service labor terrorized by intrusive policing. During the Bloomburg years these trends have accelerated and plans are works to reshape some of the few historically working class neighborhoods. While most attention has focused on Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards that would knock down many housing units and bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn (further signaling the “arrival” of the old borough), other projects will redesign the waterfronts of Brooklyn and Manhattan with luxury high-rises and transform whatever is left of the city’s industrial centers. Local community resistance has been able to get some of the money earmarked for affordable housing, though the definition of “affordable” remains quite blurry.

While it looks bleak all hope should not be lost. New York still has about a million union members, some of whom have showed signs of a resurgence after years of retreat and accommodation with the neoliberal regime. In December 2005, at the height of the Christmas shopping boom, subway and bus workers went on a three day strike, over fierce opposition of the mayor and awful attacks from the city’s conservative media, in protest of a proposed creation of a two tiered pension and changes in their healthcare benefits. In April 2006 thousands of New Yorkers joined the immigrant rights protests that swept the country. During that same month the city was also threatened with a strike of 28,000 doormen. Even some of the old, staler unions such as DC 37 (the union this librarian belongs to) have won decent contracts for their members as of late, and this very week features talk of a strike by taxi drivers over a plan to install Global Positioning System devices in yellow cabs.

This possible resurgence is in its initial phase and still largely defensive in scope. However even if this year’s Labor Day passed rather quietly, the potential and necessity exists for a new era of labor militancy in New York City. The time may yet come when the elites wearing a mask of shallow liberalism will discover that the battle is not yet over as the beautiful cultural mosaic of labor makes it clear to them that they have had it all their way for far too long.

JOSEPH GROSSO is a librarian and writer living in New York City. He can be reached at:



Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).