New York City, with an estimated population of 8.55 million inhabitants, is made up of 5 distinctive boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. Most New Yorkers think of Staten Island, the city’s largest, whitest and least populous borough, as the most right-wing part of the city. After all, it provided the margins that put both former Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani into office, and in November 2016, gave Donald Trump 57 percent of their vote. It’s the borough where Eric Garner was murdered by cops. However, like most other places, Staten Island is not a homogenous, politically monochromatic borough, but is comprised of diverse people of various political stripes, including lots of progressives. Like other boroughs, it’s made up of geographical points—the North Shore and the South Shore, and neighborhoods, each with its own character and demographics. A 25-minute trip on the Staten Island Ferry brings you to the borough that has famously dwelt in the shadow of Manhattan, but is abuzz with activists who are applying imaginative approaches to all of the issues facing people across America.
Recently, we spent a couple of days talking to Staten Islanders. We started out at Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1102, one of the hotspots of community organizing. The walls of the local’s meeting room are vibrant with hand-drawn posters from picket lines, marches and rallies. The spark plug behind the activity is Steve Lawton, Local 1102’s president, now serving in his first term. A native of New Jersey, Lawton moved to Staten Island twenty years ago for a job at Verizon. Since then, he has held every elected position in the local—shop steward, business agent, organizer, executive board member—and now president. His road to union activist began when his natural-born rebel instincts kicked in and he witnessed injustice in the workplace. His experience with Occupy Wall Street expanded his vision, as did his college studies. The stoicism of working people who have to cope with so much abuse on a daily basis frustrates and motivates him. “The real message is—we don’t have to take this,” he said. Devising democratic fight-back campaigns, alongside the members he represents, is his passion.
One transformative campaign was an organizing drive at an E-Z Pass Call Center, with 306 workers. This has turned into a very long struggle. It brought the small local, largely made up of Verizon technicians, face-to-face with one of the nation’s most notorious union-busting law firms, Jackson Lewis. The firm prides itself on being a leader in the field of union-busting. Local 1102 continues the fight on behalf of the Call Center workers, the people who originally approached the union asking for help in addressing their conditions: overworked and underpaid. “It’s a hard fight and we are still up against it,” Lawton said. “But this is their first experience of working with union folks, and good leadership is now showing up.”
A subsequent challenge for the local was the Verizon strike in 2016, which lasted six-and-a half-weeks. During this stand-off between labor and management, there was ample opportunity to develop creative approaches to building leadership among the ranks of Local 1102. One souvenir of that struggle now hangs on the wall of the local’s meeting room— the “Wall of Honor” Banner. It features dates and notches—each one marking a day of the strike—and each customer convinced to turn away from entering a Verizon store—to loud eruptions of cheers from the members out on the picket line. The brainchild of Shop Steward Kevin Joyce, it sent a strong visual message to the company about the level of community support for the strikers. Another innovative strategy took on replacement workers—silently. A long line of red-shirted strikers marched to a hotel that was allowing the replacement workers to convene in their parking lot, and stood silently outside while a delegation met with management; then walked back to the local—triumphant—replacement workers routed.
“My main theme is that the mission is greater than the union it serves. It has to be present and active in the community,” Lawton said. To that end, the local is developing an organizational model that empowers the members to take responsibility for planning and carrying out their activities. “Those who choose to take part set the agenda. They use their intellect, imagination, and creativity, and apply them to their workplace problems, and to all of the issues around us,” he said. There are now committees that meet to deal with workplace and safety issues, and training for rank and file leaders to explore issues related to economic justice.
The coalition, Sustainable Staten Island, grew out of the Verizon strike. It now has a vibrant presence in the community. “It’s important for labor to be involved and to come together with our community partners. In this way, our impact is broader,” Lawton said. “Economic, workplace rights, human rights, and environmental rights are all connected. The same principles of liberty and freedom apply, and we can’t limit our fight for these rights to the halls of our legislatures,” he said. Sustainable Staten Island works with other unions, the New York State Nurses Association, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 726, the Professional Staff Congress, the American Postal Workers Union, among others, and several grass-roots organizations, including Staten Island Peace Action, Move Forward Staten Island, and others.
On June 22nd, Sustainable Staten Island held a public forum on economic inequality, with expert speakers from a range of community organizations. “Over 50 Staten Islanders from diverse backgrounds filled the room to discuss Runaway Inequality. Whereas Les Leopold wrote the book, CWA Local 1102 is putting it into action. There is a political renaissance happening and the epicenter is Staten Island, New York,” said Lawton. We had an opportunity to talk to many of those in the room, and to listen to the remarks of the panelists.
Staten Island Peace Action was well-represented. Two of its founding members attended: Rich Florentino, a retired engineer, and current candidate for a seat on the City Council—on the Democrats’ side, and Jim Clark, an activist whose organizing spans decades. Three young organizers, Mike and Ashley Santangelo, and Delfina Vannucci, described the mission of the peace group and its various activities. Members took part in the April 29th Climate March and Rally on Staten Island (which attracted over 500 people), while their main focus is working against war and violence, and related issues. They show documentary films about how other nations are impacted by the militarism of the U.S. They distribute fliers at the SI Ferry Terminal, explaining where taxpayers’ money is going for military expenditures. They took part in a blockade and vigil at the United Nations on June 17th, in support of UN negotiations to adopt a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. And they engage in conversations on Parent-Teacher Nights to present alternatives for the children to military service. They have lobbied against the depot for storage of long-range nuclear missiles on Staten Island.
Ashley Santangelo was encouraged to join SIPA by her husband, Mike, but has always been opposed to war. “I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened. My peers were all talking about the need to go to war, but I disagreed with that sentiment,” she said. “It’s tricky to get people involved in these global issues because they don’t see the relevance. Especially now, with so many domestic crises. But I like the effort that Peace Action makes to do that,” she said. One of the events favored by Delfina Vannucci is the bi-monthly lectures. “Our last event was about the risks of nuclear war in the Trump era,” she said. The group also tables at various events. “This Saturday, we’ll be at La Isla, a festival with music and performances. Peace Action also takes part in events held by Black Lives Matter, Occupy the Block, Pride Day, and other LGBTQ events,” she said.
CWA Local 1102 Shop Steward Joe Tarulli acted as moderator for the panel discussion. He has taken part in the training provided by the local for community and union activists. “We have about seventy participants through Sustainable SI,” he said. “Our educational system doesn’t teach things like red-lining of neighborhoods by banks and insurance companies, or about systematic racism and inequality. The main goal of the training is to get people out of their silos and to develop empathy. Sustainable SI helps to open peoples’ eyes and to see the issues that need to be addressed, and then, get to work,” Tarulli said.
Panelist Cesar Vargas, the director of the Dream Action Coalition, has his own emotionally compelling immigration story (Google him!). But on June 22nd, he spoke about how the powers that be use race and class to divide people. “Being present can make a difference. What matters is loyalty to our communities. It’s about being there,” he said. Gonzalo Mercado, representing La Colmena, a community group that works with day laborers and other low-wage workers, described how immigrant workers labor up to eighty hours a week, yet are still too poor to feed themselves—hungry, poor,and exhausted. Mercado pointed to their fantastically high rate of injury and death on the job. He described the global nature of immigration—that economic devastation in other countries forces people to flee their homelands. “There are no legal ways for people to come to the US, and employers like it like this, since it makes it easier to exploit these workers,” he said.
John McBeth, from Occupy the Block, spoke a bit about his background and impetus for getting involved with this group. He grew up in the West Brighton Projects and returned to Staten Island after a tour of duty in the Navy. There, he found the same situation he had left and decided to make a stand. “I wanted to lift up my brothers,” he said. McBeth eloquently described the situations in place that leave people feeling there is no way out. He described the injustices of systematic racism and discrimination-in housing; in the schools; in the criminal “justice” system; the fact that the poor pay more, and that children do not dream any more. “Dreams are what cause people to move, to act, and to move beyond their dreams,” he said. Occupy the Block brings resources and information into the community. It addresses the opioid epidemic and gun violence. “The idea behind Occupy the Block, is that you continue working with your organization, but also work with others—with us. We use our bodies—we do it ourselves. This is our community. Do the work and the resources will come,” McBeth said.
Each panelist offered some signs of hopeful initiatives that have the possibility of leading a way out of poverty and hopelessness—increasing wages; workers’ cooperatives; community banks; educating people about their rights,and so on. The author Les Leopold spoke about the basic facts of economic inequality. Rather than reviewing these dismal statistics, let’s concentrate on a program developed by Leopold, and available to everybody, on-line. Start by Googling his Feb. 15, 2017 article, “Runaway Inequality Elected Trump. Here’s How It Can Defeat Him.” The Google his website—at: RunawayInequality.org. Here you can read about what has the potential to become a broad community movement. It has a popular agenda, one with the potential to unite people, a petition, and more.
These ideas are taking root on Staten Island. As Joe Tarulli said: “We are using this program for so much. Now we all have to get out of our silos.” There are some common threads weaving through all of this activity. They include a commitment to change; to empowering people; to building leadership-and sharing it; to trying new models; and to looking at problems systematically, as inter-connected, and with a global perspective. Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Progressives on Staten Island are putting this powerful idea into action.