The fight for the vaccine mandate is a new fight in the history of the city’s work

For the first time in decades, New York City faces the possibility of losing important services through multiple agencies as a vaccination mandate for the city’s 300,000 municipal workers takes effect Monday morning .

With essential manpower like sanitation, firefighters and emergency medical services with significant immunization gaps, the city could see needed services dwindle for weeks.

Despite the city’s long history of union action – from the strike waves of the 1930s and 1970s to the public transport strike of 2005 and the police downturn of 2014 – the minority mutiny of mostly uniformed union workers represents some. something new, according to historians and union experts. .

While unions of teachers and public health workers have responded to vaccination mandates with strong vaccination campaigns – recent city data indicates that both groups are over 95% vaccinated – those in uniform are not resisting. financial pressures or the prospect of losing benefits, but an obligation to receive an extremely safe vaccination.

Unvaccinated workers are turning their backs on city leaders just months before nearly all of their union leaders have to negotiate new contracts with a new mayor and seek higher wages to cope with the rising toll. ‘inflation.

“New York city unions haven’t faced a real hostile leader for a very long time,” said Joshua Freeman, professor emeritus of labor history at the City University of New York. “They can take it for granted that a situation like this at a different political time could be very dangerous for them.”

Although Freeman and other experts are skeptical that the city faces a threat to its day-to-day operations in the form of a total shutdown of public transport or hills of trash bags on every corner, leaders of the two uniformed agencies and their unions sent disturbing messages. warnings.

A fifth of the police force could be sent home without pay, given current vaccination rates, which would create a “very real possibility” of an officer shortage, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said.

The fire department has suggested that up to one in five ambulances and fire stations may be offline Monday morning, even as the EMS union leader tries to reassure residents that the body “won’t let the public down.” .

The sanitation commissioner has already blamed apparent slowdowns in waste collection to the effect of the mandate.

Although the power of organized labor has waned in recent decades, and strikes and municipal slowdowns are illegal in New York State, New Yorkers are used to disruptions every few years.

“It’s not without precedent,” Freeman said. “The particular context, COVID, is quite strange, but we’ve seen disgruntled workers not showing up for work before. “

The effects of such actions have historically been mixed, and may become so today, according to Thomas Dyja, author of “New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess and Transformation.”

The 1968 sanitation strike had its worst effects in residential areas that lacked adequate garbage storage facilities, the Daily News reported at the time. The 2005 transit strike left commuters in boroughs outside of Manhattan stranded.

“Obviously this has had a major impact on workers, people of color, people who depend on public transport to get to where they need to go,” Dyja said.

Still, the police slowdown of seven years ago has resulted in fewer arrests across the city, resulting in “relief” for some heavily guarded groups and areas, he added. In the first week, arrests for tourniquet jumping fell 99%.

Already, evidence suggests that the growing slowdown is affecting areas of the city that have historically experienced limited access to services. While complaints of uncollected trash have quadrupled over the past week, most have come from south Brooklyn and Staten Island, according to an analysis of 311 data from Gothamist.

While previous strikes were led by union leaders, often in response to the prospect of staff cuts and other financial threats from the city, the backlash from the vaccination mandate is largely a minority phenomenon, with the Most of the city’s workers being vaccinated, and motivated by what many describe as workers trusting vaccine misinformation.

Persistent vaccine skepticism, on the part of members at all ends of the political spectrum, strikes even long-time union leaders, especially as uniformed unions have recorded significant rates of illness and death. COVID-19 deaths – nationwide, more police officers have died from COVID-19 than bullets since the start of the pandemic – and have known for months that the city is heading towards a broad vaccination mandate.

“I don’t know where the rift is, between management and unions and their workers,” said Ed Ott, the former executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council.

Sanitation workers, Ott noted, take “all kinds of beatings” to deal with their proximity to bacteria and trash in household garbage.

“So why this one?” ” he said. I don’t even understand it.

The city doesn’t have many historical precedents to build on to deal with the potential slowdown, experts say, in addition to standing firm on the vaccination mandate and pushing back legal challenges. This week, a judge sided with the city against the police union in dismissing their lawsuit against the vaccination warrant.

“It’s not about negotiating,” Dyja said. “This is clearly a public health problem. “

Faced with hundreds of firefighters protesting outside Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio stood firm, saying he did not expect serious disruption.

“I have no doubts,” de Blasio said Thursday. “We expected a large chunk of the vaccinations to occur near the end of the deadline.”

Still, Ott believes the city’s lingering problems with uniformed unions can only be resolved through direct communication if either side is to break the cycle of opposition – and avoid deepening the dispute. mistrust.

“Uniforms have their problems,” he said. “What every mayor has learned, sometimes the hard way, is that you really have to talk to them.”


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