Every freezing morning of the transit strike members of the UFT, along with brothers in Local 3 (the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and the Central Labor Council stood at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge dispensing free “hot coffee for cold New Yorkers” who had just finished their trek across the bridge. We also gave steaming cups of Joe to office workers, cops, neighborhood residents, striking brothers and sisters of the TWU, the press, bemused tourists, as well as teachers, school secretaries and a student or two. The Red Cross was also there with hot beverages so thanks to them too.
Especially gratifying were the overwhelmingly positive reactions of the public to this union effort and the show of support many gave to the TWU workers nearby. I know there are those who will pooh-pooh this sort of thing as a “public relations stunt” but when you are cold and tired and sometimes angry and it is a member of a union who hands you a hot cup of coffee I believe that it is not only hands and bodies that we warm but also hearts and minds. One gentleman informed me that the coffee wasn’t really free as his wife is a teacher and her union dues paid for the coffee. I’m sure his wife would agree that it was money well spent.
We met a group of young teachers from Facing History High School, a new small school at the Park West Campus on 50th and 8th. (And boy-oh-boy, were they facing history and a cold northwest wind.) They had walked from Carroll Gardens and stopped by for coffee and a chat before continuing uptown to the school. As all good teachers are, they were ready with an open ended question to motivate accountable talk, even if the motivation was a forbidden teachable moment that was not congruent with the flow of the day chart. Inspired, no doubt by all the talk of pensions that emerged from reporting of the transit strike, they asked if someone could come up to their school and talk to them as many new members were confused about the pension system,. Obviously their concern about their well-being, their retirement and their future shows that these teachers are indicative of your typical greedy, blood-on-their-hands, extortionist, thug, lazy, pampered, hypocritical union rat members (all adjectives courtesy of the New York Post), and furthermore they care nothing about kids as millions of other New Yorkers walked miles to work in frigid temperatures so anybody would have done it. A UFT pension speaker will be at the school early in 2006.
There was the rare “Go back to work” or similar invective hurled at the striking TWU workers (and by extension us) or the raised middle finger in our direction (and the person wasn’t driving either) but mercifully little of that. Not that we couldn’t take it.
But back to pensions as this became the issue of the strike. In 1968, when many workers, public and private had pensions, Senator Edward Kennedy noted, in his eulogy for his slain brother Robert, ” he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’” Once upon a time many American workers had in addition to real pensions, real health plans, real wages and a real hope for their future and that of their children. Now we are dreaming of things that were, and were good, and instead of saying “why not for all” we are listening without questioning to those who say “too expensive” “not competitive with the new world economy” “should not be an entitlement” “will bankrupt the country” and “they will greet us with open arms.” Guess we’ll just have to keep asking the question “why not?” until we get some accountable talk from those in power, especially the elected ones and those who give us their version of the news. And in all areas. But back to the bridge.
A highlight every morning was the daily photo op of the Mayor’s disembarkation on Manhattan Island following his well protected voyage across the bridge surrounded by a bubble of security on land and sea and air. He’d stop, make some comments to reporters and then a flying wedge of followers would whisk him into City Hall. Sorry Mike, but Ed Koch still gets the award for bridge theatrics. Take a lesson from him. And on the other side of the bridge, take some small group tutoring from the always bubbly but never “bubbled” Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz who offered hot chocolate, hot coffee, hot tea and, “For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold” warm restrooms in Brooklyn Borough Hall. And yes, had the Mayor stopped by before vanishing into City Hall we would have given him a cup of union brewed coffee, and a strong cup it is, too.