New York Daily News

Labor Movement Reborn, and Strong



Why are so many people shocked that 30,000 or 40,000 construction workers shut down midtown Manhattan this week with a raucous protest?

Hasn't anyone noticed what's been building for the past year in this city and all around the country with American workers?

The signs are everywhere.

A growing number of workers are fed up with having their jobs downsized, cut back, contracted out, shipped overseas or otherwise redefined - almost always for less pay.

They are tired of hearing news reports about the greatest economic boom and lowest unemployment in decades, when the fact is a third of American workers have been reduced to part-timers, many with no health insurance.

They are fed up enough to fight back, and the low unemployment rate has made them secure enough to stand up to their bosses.

From the United Parcel Service strike last summer to the auto strike against General Motors to the telephone strike in Puerto Rico, more militant labor conflicts have erupted.

Just look at the pace of protest in this town.

Since the beginning of the year, we've had two one-day strikes by yellow-cab drivers, a march and one-day strike by pushcart vendors, 20,000 hospital workers marching for a new contract, an ongoing strike by cemetery workers and now a construction protest that shut every building site in Manhattan for a day.

"There's something in the air," said Jeff Grabelsky, an expert on the construction industry at Cornell University's School of Labor Relations.

What's behind all this?

"Enough is enough," said Brian McLaughlin, who as president of the Central Labor Council is the city's top union leader. "No matter the industry, we're facing a race to the lowest possible standard for labor."

That's why even the Building & Construction Trades Council, the best-paid and most conservative section of organized labor, took to the streets this week.

"Until a couple of years ago, the building trades were a prehistoric, dinosauric movement," admitted Mike Hellstrom, a key leader of Tuesday's protest.

Hellstrom is an organizer for Local 79 of the Laborers International. He's only 32 but has already spent 15 years as a union member. His local represents the lower-paid workers in the construction industry - asbestos removers, demolition workers, the hod carriers who supply the mud for bricklayers.

Many of his 7,000 members are Polish and Latino immigrants and new to the union movement. But they are rapidly changing the face of an industry that used to be almost exclusively second and third-generation Italian and Irish.

"I don't care what race or nationality you are, as long as you have that Laborers union card," Hellstrom said.

"I use Local 79 as a model of the new labor movement everywhere I go," McLaughlin said.

And that model, according to Hellstrom and others who have followed Local 79, is to challenge the status quo.

"My members believe we can change things in the streets, not just meeting behind closed doors," Hellstrom said. "You can only arrest so many people, then you have to deal with our issues."

All this amazing action comes from a labor movement that has been declared dead so often it should have a cemetery named after it.

Yet here is McLaughlin, a tall, good-looking, articulate labor leader. He is the opposite of those dour neanderthals who once ran things.

McLaughlin is presiding over a resurgence of labor in this town. He is organizing thousands of limousine drivers, building coalitions with community organizations.

"We have a big push for affordable day care, we're helping out the yellow-cab drivers so they can get a union back," McLaughlin said. "We're becoming more sophisticated - and more aggressive."

So Hellstrom and his group raise hell in the streets while McLaughlin employs a high-powered public-relations firm. The

carrot and the stick. This reborn labor movement has learned a lot from the bosses who tried to bury it.

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