The News of New York City’s Death is Greatly Exaggerated

This week in North Philly Notes, Francois Pierre-Louis Jr. and Michael Alan Krasner, two of the coauthors of Immigrant Crossroads, write about immigrant groups in Queens, New York.

Since the advent of COVID-19 and the exodus of affluent New Yorkers to the suburbs, some people have predicted that New York will no longer be the city that never sleeps. Our book Immigrant Crossroads has shown the contrary, documenting and analyzing the many fascinating dynamics of community and political activism in this unique borough.

For immigrant families that had endured the four years of the Trump administration living away from their loved ones, the Biden presidency brings new hope and renewed optimism that what Queens was already showing to America will continue. That the vibrant growth exemplified by the borough of Queens and temporarily impeded will flourish again.

Since the 1990s Queens has become the urban epicenter for contemporary immigration—a place that boasts immigrants from 140 countries. While Manhattan drew millions of tourists and mega-rich condo buyers, the city’s four other Boroughs saw the influx of working- and middle-class newcomers from every continent. Places that used to be unattractive to developers and commercial interests suddenly became prime real estate and desired places for immigrants and the middle class to live. Queens led the way in this transformation from being an enclave dominated by the white working class to being perhaps the most diverse aggregation of human beings on the planet. Queens has become an epicenter of  immigrant striving, and activism, presenting an alternative to the nativist vision pursued by Trump’s  propagandists and enforcers.

Hollowed out by white flight, in the 1980s and 90s, New York City’s outer Boroughs have been revitalized with the influx of new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Caribbean and Africa. Neighborhoods such as Flushing, Bayside, and Laurelton have emerged as the epicenter of New York City’s Asian American community. Within a decade, Flushing has become one of the city’s major commercial and banking center for the Asian community. Corona and Jackson Heights became destinations for those from Latin America, and Astoria became the home for Russians and Eastern Europeans and those from the Middle East. All across the borough of Queens, immigrants remade blighted neighborhoods into thriving communities.

As major economic developments took place, new forms of immigrant activism emerged in Queens’ other neighborhoods, a process that is remaking the social, cultural, economic, and political fabric of the city. Take the case of Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Flushing where seventy-five percent of the residents are people of color. When the City announced in 2012, that it would give away portions of Flushing Meadows Park to private developers as a way to revitalize the local economy, a coalition of community-based groups and faith-based organizations created the Fairness Coalition of Queens to fight the Bloomberg administration’s economic development agenda. Forcing the cancellation of a sterile soccer stadium and other mega projects, the Fairness Coalition asserted its own power and priorities to call attention to the need for affordable housing and the checking of rampant  gentrification.

A similar pattern has developed in national immigration politics. Drawing on a heavily foreign-born population (One-in-two residents in Queens are foreign-born, ranking it second in the nation for percentage of foreign-born residents), activist Dreamer organizations have lobbied successfully for state legislation and led the fight for similar action from the federal government. Among the first set of actions by the Biden Administration are a rash of executive orders and a far-reaching legislative proposal to not only undo Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant policies but to usher in human pathways to immigrant inclusion.

Pioneering efforts on health care accessibility, an issue made salient by the Covid crisis also began in Queens where two city-wide immigrant advocacy organizations successfully organized to pass the Language Access in Pharmacies Act in 2009 and in 2012 mandating pharmacies provide comprehensive translation and interpretation services to patients with limited English proficiency.

As these examples suggest, the true impact of the recent surge of new immigrant groups is complex, contradicting partisan stereotypes and xenophobic pandering. Serious scholarship from varied disciplines reveals the richly textured contributions that resurgent nativism has sought to obliterate. Our volume demonstrates that being an Immigrant Crossroads has led New York City to flourish and suggests a path that the entire country would do well to consider following to revive the national motto, “Out of many, one.”

Labor unions and national reform

This week in North Philly Notes, Dominic Wells, author of From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging, considers how labor unions will fare under President Biden.

Labor unions have been on a steady decline for decades, but with the Biden administration there is a renewed hope in the labor movement for a reverse of the trend. Joe Biden has promised to be a pro-union president, proposing to strengthen the right to organize and to hold employers accountable for violating labor laws. 

Although there is no doubt a Biden administration is good news for organized labor, there is good reason to question whether Biden’s pro-labor agenda will come into fruition. Democrats have been promising to protect collective bargaining without delivering on those promises for years. While in office, President Barack Obama promised to join the picket line if American workers were being denied their rights, but when historically pro-union states in the Midwest began stripping away collective bargaining rights, Obama left his picket sign in his closet. 

The strength of organized labor today is in the public sector, which is largely governed by state legislation. In my book, From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging, I analyze the expansion and restriction of collective bargaining rights for public employees from 1960 into the 2010s. I show that there was a time when republicans, at least at the state-level, viewed collective bargaining in the public sector as a legitimate practice. Faced with consistent strike activity from public employees, republican governors and state legislatures were willing to support collective bargaining. Pressure from unions and provisions that prohibited striking helped make collective bargaining legislation bipartisan in many states. 

By the 2010s, bipartisan support for labor unions was nearly nonexistent. Republican state legislatures, with the help of model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), led efforts to weaken public employee unions. In From Collective Bargaining to Collective Begging, I analyze two of the most high profile cases in stripping away the rights of public employees, Ohio Senate Bill 5 and Wisconsin Act 10. These cases demonstrate how labor unions can be successful (or unsuccessful) in protecting their rights and the Ohio case shows that, though unlikely, a bipartisan coalition to protect collective bargaining is still possible. 

Victories for labor unions in the 21st Century have mostly equated to protecting their own existence. There have been few legislative victories expanding rights in recent years. One of the rare successes for organized labor was in Nevada, where rights were extended to state employees in 2019. Outside of formal bargaining rights, teacher unions won raises and other favorable legislation following strike efforts in West Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado in 2018.    

A Biden administration is certainly better for organized labor than the Trump administration, in the public sector and private sector. It means labor unions will have a seat at the table again. It means a more labor friendly National Labor Relations Board. It means there will not be a national right-to-work law. However, if history is any indication, it is unlikely that there will be any national legislation expanding collective bargaining and the right to organize. These battles will likely continue to be fought in state legislatures. Biden is proposing federal guarantees to the right to bargain for teachers, firefighters, and police officers, but his administration and the new Democratic Party controlled Congress will be focused on the public health crisis at the start of his term. If major labor reforms at the national-level are going to happen, they will need to happen in the first two years before Democrats likely lose their slim majorities in at least one chamber of Congress. There is reason for members of the labor movement to be hopeful for national reform, but as a member of a public employee union myself, I will not be holding my breath. 

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