Members of 32BJ SEIU (Service Employees International Union) participated in a caravan of about 25 vehicles from the Ursaline School on North Avenue in New Rochelle to Trump Plaza at 175 Huguenot St. on July 20. Across the street from the building that carries the president’s name, speakers demanded racial and economic justice, especially for people of color and immigrants, as the Covid-19 crisis continues.
New Rochelle was selected as an appropriate site for the event because it was there that one of the first major clusters of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. appeared.
The caravan and rally were part of a Strike for Black Lives National Day of Action being held in 20 cities across the country. That effort was to call attention to the need for what organizers described as fundamental reforms to a white supremacist system in the U.S., while at the same time seeking passage of new federal aid for essential workers offered in HEROES Act legislation that would include extended unemployment benefits, hazard pay and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). At the time of the rally the act was being blocked by Republicans on Capitol Hill.
While many building owners already are providing hazard pay, PPE and more to their workers, the union believes federal help is appropriate.
Many members of 32BJ have been classified as essential workers during the pandemic and serve as security officers, janitors, door attendants, office cleaners and in other roles. 32BJ has more than 175,000 members in 12 states and Washington, D.C., with 4,500 members in the Hudson Valley including 3,800 in Westchester.
“We thought it was really important to draw attention to not only the important political moment we’re in and take up the issue of racial injustice but since July 20 was the first day that members of the U.S. Senate and Congress are back in session that we really highlight the importance of passing the HEROES Act,” Lenore Friedlaender, assistant to the president of 32BJ, told the Business Journal. “We have probably 25,000 members union-wide who are laid off.”
Friedlaender said they weren’t buying the argument from the White House and some Republicans that the $600 additional unemployment benefit provided in previous federal economic recovery legislation should not be renewed because it encouraged people to collect unemployment insurance rather than working.
“It’s not just a question of the salary, but the cost of health care,” Friedlaender said. “One of our members, who worked at a local school, said once she was laid off the employer stopped paying her wages and also stopped paying for health care. She would have to pay for her health care. So the argument that it’s an incentive for people to stay home, we don’t agree with that.” Friedlaender also pointed out that there are people who are excluded from the unemployment system.
Friedlaender said that the union members in Westchester who have been laid off from their jobs were primarily working in commercial office buildings, higher education and K-12 schools.
“Part of the idea of having a National Day of Action was, frankly, to get on the radar screen and create some urgency around this issue. One of the members who shared her story at the event works at for a cleaning company and her husband also works. They both work days and for her to keep her job, which keeps the health insurance for the family, means she has to find a baby sitter and pay the baby sitter,” Friedlaender said. She said that because their children can’t eat at school, their food costs are up and because she’s nervous about taking public transportation to work the transportation costs are up. She’s worried about her health and bringing the virus home.
“Essential workers are running a lot of risks and in some cases have higher expenses,” Friedlaender said. “Then there are a whole set of issues that relate to people who are laid off and what their economic situation is.”
At the end of the program, those attending “took a knee” for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the time period it is generally believed that George Floyd was held on the ground in Minneapolis with a policeman’s knee on his neck and others applying pressure to parts of his body while he was struggling to breathe before he died.
“That was to remember the lives of those people who have been killed by the police,” Friedlaender said. “When we stood up we said, ‘We can breathe and we’re going to use the breath to speak to the importance of taking-on this issue.’ Nationally, we’re calling for government and business leaders to take racial justice seriously.”
When asked hypothetically if Donald Trump had walked out of Trump Plaza in New Rochelle and over to the demonstrators what her message to him would have been, Friedlaender said, “There are two urgent pandemics that need urgent attention and relief: the Covid pandemic and we need urgent action to deal with race discrimination. This is a moment where so many people in the United States need their government to support them and make sure that they can continue not just to survive but really to be able to thrive.”
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