NEW YORK–Europa Hair Design is just one of dozens of small businesses on busy Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. But it was the center of attention last Saturday when a crowd gathered in front to rally for Democratic State Senator Joseph P. Addabbo, who is running for reelection in the 15th District. He boasted about his dedication to the neighborhood’s entrepreneurs and says he now counts on their votes.
Addabbo also welcomed the support of labor unions, including 32BJ, a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents around 70,000 building service workers in the city. Two of the union’s members and political organizers, Donna Klimas, 53, and Anna Dziubek, 32, were standing right behind him during the event. “We could certainly use your help,” Addabbo told them as they were chit chatting and posing for a photo. “It’s for us as well. It’s not only for you,” Anna responded laughing. “I hear you, I hear you,” the state senator nodded.
Labor unions, whose main focus is to obtain fair wages, health benefits and decent working conditions for their members, are also heavily involved in politics. With their membership estimated in New York State to be around 2 million workers, unions are able to apply pressure on politicians and elected officials on issues important to them. Hector Figueroa, the secretary-treasurer of 32BJ, divides union political involvement into three areas:
“We deliver votes for the candidates that we support, we deliver activism and grass roots get-out-the-vote operations so we can put the message in our communities of who are the candidates that stand for working families, and (…) we are very active on policy and what kind of legislation candidates that we support should be in favor of.”
In New York, just as certain job sectors are dominated by immigrants, so are the unions representing them, like the Asbestos, Lead & Hazardous Waste Laborers Local 78, which is primarily Latino and Polish, and 1199SEIU, a diverse health care workers union with many Filipino and Polish members. A full two-thirds of the membership of 32BJ was born outside of the U.S., they come from 60 different countries and speak 24 different languages. For this reason many unions support immigrant rights and the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
After the rally, Anna and Donna – both Polish immigrants and office cleaners in Manhattan buildings – were to go canvassing for Addabbo in the nearby Polish neighborhood of Maspeth, Queens. They had some doughnuts and hot coffee at the senator’s campaign office, and then they picked up brochures and the map of their turf and hit the road.
Watch a video of Anna and Donna canvassing in the Polish neighborhood of Maspeth, Queens:
Many of the volunteers doing political canvassing for 32BJ are foreign born, and that’s not a coincidence. “The immigrant members are more likely to volunteer and vote – those that became citizens – because they’ve just gone through the process of citizenship education,” said Norman Adler, a faculty member at the New School and a consultant to several labor unions, including 32BJ.
This time Anna and Donna volunteered directly for Addabbo and were campaigning among “regular” voters. On other occasions they’ve campaigned specifically within the union membership. As part of their involvement in campaigns, union members willing to volunteer are also phone-banking and mailing out information about candidates the unions have endorsed. Union locals often rely on their immigrant members to spread messages through their tightly-knit communities, which can require language and cultural sensitivity.
Union political activity tends to focus on bread and butter issues, like creating jobs and fighting for living wages, rather than social issues, like gay marriage, or international ones, like the war in Afghanistan. In their endorsement process unions have been presenting candidates with their platform and seeing how they respond, screening officials’ records and eventually throwing their support behind those who share similar goals.
In New York, unions also encourage voters to check Row E, which is the Working Families party line. According to Ademola Oyefeso, political director of RWDSU, a union representing employees of retail, wholesale and department stores, “It sends a message to every elected official that “yes, you won, but the people in your area want you to be a little more progressive.”
This year most New York labor unions endorsed Democratic candidates in state-wide races, Andrew Cuomo for governor, Eric Schneiderman for attorney general, and Tom DiNapoli for state comptroller. They’ve also endorsed numerous assemblymen and state senators like Joe Addabbo. It’s no secret that labor unions have fund raising power, and candidates often court them for support. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always on the same page – Cuomo in particular, has made a point of saying he won’t be bullied by labor unions, even though he accepted their endorsements.