This is an op-ed written jointly by five local labor union leaders that represent City of Ithaca employees. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, please send them to Matt Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The City of Ithaca has a long history of being a pro-worker, pro-union community. Sadly, that sentiment has been shattered as evidenced by a packed room and long list of proud union workers who spoke during the public comment portion of the Ithaca Common Council meeting on November 2nd. Together we, organized labor, delivered a message to our elected officials that was united and strong, yet dire, and desperate.
One after another, brave, determined and dedicated city public servants took the opportunity to address the city leaders and expose the toxic working environment that has made it impossible to recruit and retain the vital workers we need to serve our community.
We, organized labor, are the essential workers, who provide the public services our community relies on including public safety, fire protection, and access to safe roads, sidewalks, and clean water. We are the workers who protect the environment, pick up the trash and maintain city vehicles and equipment. We maintain vital public records and we respond to your emergencies and calls for help, no matter the time.
The City of Ithaca has reached a crossroads. There are widespread vacancies across all city departments which have led to mandatory overtime, costly contracting out of services, and incredibly low morale among all city workers. Notably, the Department of Public Works alone is down 30 positions and Ithaca Police Department staffing is down almost 30% over the past decade, all while our community continues to grow and the demand for public services increases.
We take great pride in our work however we continue to be treated as a liability, dispensable and easily replaceable by City Hall. During bargaining sessions, workers and labor leaders are routinely devalued, insulted, demeaned and disrespected by a City Attorney whose sole focus is slashing wages and benefits to balance the budget on the backs of Ithaca’s working class. Workers at the Department of Public Works, the Ithaca Fire Department and the Executive Association are all working without contracts. Ithaca Police Officers and CSEA Administrative workers also went without contracts for a period of time, only to enter into new agreements last year in which major concessions in healthcare were made by the unions in order to get much needed raises that have since been absorbed by inflation.
The effects of the city’s anti-worker agenda have been far reaching and devastating. Despite a lucrative $20,000 sign on bonus, the police department can’t attract desperately needed personnel because word has spread of the city’s anti-labor, union-busting agenda. Job postings for other vital positions across the city remain open with few or no applicants. DPW trucks and police cars sit empty and parked, while the city pays significantly more to private contractors to do the work once performed by us, the unions. This is union busting and we simply won’t stand for it.
We want to provide the best possible public services to our community, but the City Administration is making it impossible to do so. Workers are leaving Ithaca to take jobs in nearby municipalities that value them as an integral part of a team, not just a replaceable asset. Workers are leaving the city to take similar positions in nearby municipalities, sometimes for better pay and fewer responsibilities. In other cases, workers are even resigning to take positions for less pay and benefits, or to begin new careers altogether, in order to escape the toxic working environment that has become the norm in the City of Ithaca.
Residents are finally seeing tangible evidence of the city’s mismanagement and anti-worker policies through a reduction of services, longer wait times, and lower quality of life. Understaffed departments with overburdened workers struggle to maintain and provide even the bare minimum of services while also trying to strike the increasingly difficult work life balance, to be there for our families and our children, where we are needed most. This is not a new problem though, but one that the city has created through years of anti-worker policy that has now reached a breaking point.
It was apparent to us at the November 2nd Common Council meeting that the Common Council has been left in the dark, and not aware of just how dire the situation has become. We thank the members of the council who have since reached out to develop dialogue to better understand the complex issues we are facing with an approach of partnership, genuine concern and mutual respect.
Unfortunately, the City Attorney and Mayor continue to be close-minded and negative. At the November 9th Common Council meeting, the City Attorney and Mayor shamed and scolded the Common Council for expressing their concerns for workers in Ithaca. Both then dismissed and marginalized the voices of labor,
claiming that our grievances weren’t legitimate, but instead based on misguided rumors twisted into personal attacks. In the City Attorney’s statement, a mostly self-serving and divisive response made from a position of power and authority, we were appalled to hear Ithaca’s public servants who were advocating for their community, their livelihood’s and their families likened to a “mob” engaged in an “obscene spectacle.” That said, we also question the judgement of any newly elected mayor who would conduct their first public meeting in this fashion, both permitting and promoting strong anti-labor rhetoric against the city’s own workforce, in a closed meeting that allowed for no public comment or response from council members.
Despite all of this, we believe there is still a path forward. We are confident that in partnership with those on the council who support workers, we will be better able meet the needs and demands of our community while respecting one another, respecting organized labor, and protecting the rights and safety of workers. The residents of this great city deserve better and want to see their government support workers by treating them and their families well, as people, who deserve dignity and respect. We must ensure that workers are paid a living wage with benefits that support the quality of life and wellness that we and our families deserve. This is also essential for the recruitment and retainment of skilled labor so that we can continue to provide vital services to our community that deserves the very best, not just the bare minimum.
It’s time the City of Ithaca holds itself to its organizational values statement and creates a workplace where “each person should be respected, developed, supported and valued” in an environment where the city’s guiding principle, “people are our greatest resource”, is actually embraced and more than just words written on a piece
of paper. If one thing is clear, it is that our great community is in trouble, and time is of the essence.
Thomas Condzella, President of Ithaca Police Benevolent Association
Jeanne Grace, President of City Executive Association
Kevin Kohler, President of Ithaca Professional Firefighters Association
Justin Perkins, President of CSEA DPW Unit
Courney McGuire, President of CSEA Admin Unit