Bill de Blasio’s overwhelming election victory was achieved by campaigning on a progressive platform, with the promise to lead a city government that will be responsive to the needs of all of New Yorkers. As the mayor-elect starts planning his new administration, an alliance of civic-minded organizations have organized “Talking Transition,” a 15-day series of public discussions about New York City’s future.
“Typically…between Election Day and inauguration, the whole conversation about policy goes quiet, it goes inside, it becomes the domain of a very few people and the energy evaporates after Election Day. And we’re trying very much to change that,” Andrea Batista Schlesinger of the Open Society Foundations told NY1. The aim is to invite New Yorkers to say what they want from the city’s first new mayor in a dozen years, she explained.
Talking Transition was launched on November 9, and its nerve center was a tent-like complex set up at the corner of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue in Lower Manhattan. The space included a 500-seat meeting room plus a smaller breakout room for conversations about everything from affordable housing to food justice to post-Sandy recovery.
Beyond its Lower Manhattan staging ground, Talking Transition aimed to be a project for the whole city. More than 100 canvassers, speak 19 languages, gathered comments at venues like libraries and transit stops. Three passenger vans equipped with mobile kiosks also traveled the city, and the website is offering New Yorkers a place to share their thoughts online.
“Democracy doesn’t end at the election booth,” a Talking Transition organizer told The New York Times.
On the first weekend of Talking Transition, hundreds of low-wage workers gathered at the Canal Street location in a community assembly to discuss how city government can help improve their pay and working conditions. The event, titled “Building an Economy That Works for Us All,” was organized by Make the Road New York. It saw a largely immigrant crowd consider policy ideas the new mayor and City Council could adopt to transform New York’s unequal economy into one with more broadly shared prosperity.
Workers shared their stories and discussed presentations by policy experts from Make the Road, the Center for Popular Democracy, and the National Employment Law Project. Proposals included seeking to enact a higher municipal minimum wage for New York City and creating a new city agency to protect NYC’s workers against wage theft.
Make the Road has played a prominent role in local union organizing campaigns by low-wage fast-food and car-wash workers (which the PSC has supported). It has a long track record of mobilizing its largely working-class and immigrant membership to fight back against wage theft. The group estimates that New York City employers stole more than $1 billion in wages from workers in 2010 through refusal to pay minimum wage, to pay time and a half for work over 40 hours in a week, and through outright denial of wages.
A Wage Theft Prevention Act approved in Albany in 2010 increased penalties against employers who don’t pay workers what they are owed, but activists on the ground say enforcement has been lacking and the problem is still out of control. In one study released this spring, 84% out of of 500 fast-food workers surveyed reported that their employer had committed some form of wage theft in the previous year.
Make the Road is calling for increased funding for the New York State Department of Labor, the state agency charged with enforcing wage and hour laws, to get rid of its huge backlog of unprocessed claims, which stood at 14,000 at the end of July. The proposal for a new city agency to fight wage theft has the same goal. But the organization is not waiting for politicians to act.
In conjunction with the assembly at Talking Transition, Make the Road led a contingent of more than 200 community members and grocery workers in the East Village who came out in support for Eudocio Alvarado, a worker at Village Farm Grocer on Second Avenue who was fired for urging his co-workers to demand their back wages.
“Only when we stand together can we stop injustice and abuses against workers at the hand of employers who try to take advantage of us,” Alvarado told the crowd.
Organizers of Talking Transition say they hope that this kind of combined mobilization, on policy and through street activism, will continue and expand with a new city government in office.