My grandfather on my mother's side was a sandhog in New York, literally digging ditches for the new city subway system in the years before World War I to put himself through Manhattan College. He was Irish and poor. His parents were fresh off the boat and lived in a sparse cold-water flat down on Charlton Street on the lower West Side near the docks. After he returned from France, he entered politics and worked for Al Smith and the Democrats - and the working man, the people he came from.
I was reminded of this bit of personal history reading Steve Gilliard's brilliant coverage of the New York transit strike and its aftermath, a battle over the tunnels my grandfather dug with his own hands - he and tens of thousands of other working poor in the days before such municipal work was unionized in this town. Dangerous times, filled with death and injury on the job, no health insurance, and unskilled workers driving trains and working track. The bad old days, at least for immigrants and their minority cousins.
Gilliard was one of the few liberal bloggers to stand up for the union side in the dispute, which shut down the subways and buses for 60 hours and caused formerly populist newspapers to publicly abandon their souls - especially the rag masquerading as the old Daily News under the plutocrat Mortimer Zuckerman. Too many liberals were too quick to take the MTA's side, or to let inconvenience cover up the key issue - which was breaking organized municipal labor. Today, Steve has a great post on the strike's winners and losers and he reserves his most bitter vitriol for fair-weather progressives. Here's a taste:
What also amazes me about the lack of support for the TWU among the blogging set was the lack of realization of their role in preserving the city. Their salaries, which stay in the city, have made New York stable and safe. They are the home and car buyers, the people who fill Target on weekends and Sylvia's on Sunday. They made the revival of Harlem and Central Brooklyn possible.
Without those salaries, Billyburg and the LES would be dangerous dumps you'd avoid at all cost.
Why? Because New York has a viable urban inner city. It isn't Washington or Detroit or someother city which was abandonded for the suburbs.
The New York where you live out your Sex and the City fantasies exists because people doing dangerous, unglamorous jobs keep their salaries in the city. Not that many people want to recognize that. They bought into the nonsense pumped out by the tabs and the TV. They recycled the most odious cheap labor arguments without any real thought behind them. It never occurred to them that New York's economics needs well-paid workers at places like Verizon, Con Ed and for the city.
He's right, of course. Do we really want cheap labor running the subways, repairing the buses, or keeping the tracks clear and safe? I do not. The TWU is at least half-filled with skilled labor you simply could not replace any time soon. Municipal labor unions are vital to the public safety: ask the cops, the firefighters, the teachers, and all the infrastructure workers. Like Steve, I expected the Manhattan Institute to call for replacement workers - to summon the ghost of Ronald Reagan to fire the ungrateful brutes. I expected the politicians to pose and prate. But I didn't expect so many liberals to be so silent.
With one prominent exception: James Wolcott names Roger Toussaint New Yorker of the Year.