Reports from NYC’s March 5th Rally Against Budget Cuts

Posted March 11, 2009

On March 5th tens of thousands of New Yorkers packed City Hall for a rally called by One New York – a coalition of the major labor unions and community groups – to oppose Governor Paterson’s austerity budget and demand income tax hikes for the wealthy.

Here are some first hand accounts:

• I arrived early and saw the big sound systems and enormous screens erected at the intersections, and thought, “another pre-packaged, penned-in rally…where’s the damn class rage?!”

Then the crowds started gathering. By 4:30, a speaker from the stage reported 40,000! And despite the pens and pretty predictable speeches about making a “fair budget,” there was real fighting mood and unified spirit in the crowd. I was also encouraged to see lots of high-school and college students. Traffic was effectively halted, lower Manhattan taken over by the City’s working-class, and we definitely felt our collective power in this.

So what’s next? Some of yesterday’s speakers spoke to class-wide organization and demands, for broader working-class solidarity. I hope we can find a way to organize the anger and willingness to fight that was evident there – but I worry too that the big-wig organizers in the labor establishment will automatically return to their own form of business-as-usual. We have to push them not to, and to stay in the streets where- and whenever possible.

One interesting note. Last Sunday, a community forum in Washington Heights on “Confronting the Crisis” was organized by some tenant associations, a local peace group, a transit justice campaign I’ve done some small work in, and student and teacher activists. Around 100 attended. These folks all committed to attend yesterday’s rally and arrive together by subway. This group also discussed planning some local mass actions to follow after the city-wide rally. I wonder if this kind of new organizing is happening in other communities.

• A lively demonstration with a good turnout from DC 37, SEIU, UFT and PSC. Large number of African-American workers. Showed clearly that workers can be organized around budget cuts.

Unfortunately, the demo was subject to the usual NYC police method of crowd control — penning people in. We were allotted half of the street while
buses rumbled down the other side. The demo was further partitioned by cross streets which allowed traffic but not pedestrians, forcing some demonstrators to walk several blocks out of their way to reach the demonstration.

Speeches from union leaders were either soft — “slightly increase the taxes on those who can afford it” — or full of militant rhetoric like Randy Weingarten’s with no proposals for next steps.
I had the sense that this demonstration, like others called by NYC labor leaders, was more about letting members blow off steam and giving the impression that
the unions were taking on the city and state than it was about showing strength and exerting real pressure as part of an ongoing struggle.


• While looking online for news of the March 5 rally, I came across a report of a similar rally against budget cuts held in 2000. That rally was estimated at around 40,000 and featured many of the same speakers making many of the same speeches we heard on March 5. Although this year’s rally was larger, I don’t have the sense that the NYC labor movement had used the time since 2000 preparing its members for this fight.

The turnout from several unions was inspiring, but the speeches from the platform were not. What does the call for a “fair share budget” really mean? It means that the leaders of NY’s unions are willing to accept cuts that affect their members and the broader working class, as long as the wealthy are also affected by cuts or higher taxes. Since they accept the logic of cuts, higher fees, and lost jobs, their vision is limited to trying to minimize the damage.

But what consequence are the union leaders threatening if a “fair share budget” is not passed? Their only threat is to vote a few politicians out of office. At the March 5 rally, like the one in 2000, there was no threat of strikes or other job actions. There was no threat to occupy hospitals facing closure. There was no threat to physically halt evictions or to move families into empty houses and apartments. There was no threat to promote a fare strike among riders of busses and subways if the fare is increased. In other words, the corporations and banks responsible for the economic meltdown face no threat from the union leaders gathered on March 5. If it comes, it will come from rank and file union members and community activists organizing independently and, often, in opposition to the leadership of their organizations.


• On the one hand, the turn out was pathetic– 25,000 (the SEIU’s 50,000 is completely unrealistic) out of more than 500,000 union members in NYC is terrible. On the other, a turn our of 25,000 for the first mass mobilization against this round of cuts is very encouraging. Hopefully it will inspire more, more small scale and militant struggles as workers in the city realize that they and their immediate workmates are not alone in being pissed off with the cuts! We can only hope!!



One response to “Reports from NYC’s March 5th Rally Against Budget Cuts”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    These reports seem contradictory. Steve seems to suggest that this was larger than the rally of 40,000 in 2000, while Charlie states clearly that this event had 25,000 (ie, less than in 2000).

    My sense is that 25,000 people on a first major local demonstration on almost any issue- while obviously not being enough to turn the tide- is far from “pathetic.”

    I agree that too often the union leaders accept the underlying logic of neoliberalism, and only seek to manage it’s worst effects. And that collectively, we are unable to arrive at more militant tactics as part of bigger strategies for victory. And that we’ll often see die hard militants as parts of rank and file union members and community groupings organizing independently of intransigent union leaders. What seems to be missing from this assessment is where (concretely) are the forces that ARE willing to fight at this moment? Not just the stock quote “rank and filers” and “community organizations.” Which ones are in motion? Which ones can be moved to it? Where are the union leaders (surely their attitudes and willingness to act range along a spectrum, and some of them- and their unions- can be brought into a more militant fight?