Local education workers forged an unexpected alliance with the Occupy Wall Street protesters Tuesday, when hundreds from each group converged in front of City Hall to denounce the city’s plan to fire more than 700 school workers, many from the South Bronx, by the end of the week.
It seemed an odd alliance, at first. The multiracial group of mostly middle-aged school aides and kitchen workers, wearing bright blue District Council 37 hats and green t-shirts, were fighting for their jobs.
The mostly young, white Occupy Wall Street protesters, wearing just about anything, have been fighting for a broad spectrum of issues. The group that has been camped out in the financial district for 17 days is growing in numbers around wide-ranging targets such as corporate greed, government cutbacks and Mayor Bloomberg’s policies.
When the two groups joined forces, a loud cheer erupted. “Our children are behind us,” shouted Eddy Rodriguez, president of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal public employee union that represents parent coordinators, kitchen workers, classroom aides and other school workers.
Other DC 37 leaders immediately acknowledged the potential for solidarity. “We’re gonna join them down there,” said Lillian Roberts, the union’s executive director, from the stage overlooking Broadway referring to the protesters in Zuccotti Park. “Their fight is our fight.”
Union officials predicted that the South Bronx would be one of the hardest areas hit by the cuts. Among the total layoffs, 46 are expected to come from Bronx schools. Morrisania’s District 9 would lose 8 percent, and Hunts Point’s District 8 would lose 5 percent of its total school workers, a union spokesperson said.
One Highbridge resident who works as a direct support assistant at Public School 73 where his three children attend said he expects to keep his job, but he’s worried about others in his school.
“No teacher wants to leave a classroom dirty. They’re going to pick up a broom,” said Evans Quamina, who is also president of Local 443. He was referring to the janitors in danger of losing their jobs. “If the focus is on keeping classes clean, the kids aren’t learning anything.”
Bronx resident Ella Arouz found out last week that she was being laid off from her job as a health aide worker at Brooklyn International High School, a position she’s held for the last 15 years.
“Those are my babies,” the Nicaraguan immigrant said about her students. “I watched them grow. I helped them get glasses. I taught them to care about their health. Who will help them now?”
An Occupy Wall Street protester said she understood firsthand the importance of school workers in children’s lives. “My school aides encouraged me to go to class,” said Alex Krales, 22, who attended New York City public schools. “They kept me out of fights and made me feel unique in an overcrowded school.”
A 26-year-old anti-Wall Street protester said he understood that the layoffs would be felt most by low-income women in the city. “I am here to stand with my fellow union workers,” said David Pugh, a security guard from Brooklyn. “We need to protect and defend the most vulnerable members of society.”
Other Bronx residents who joined the rally were dismayed by the potential job losses. “These adults, the counselors and health aides, are the first line of intervention for kids,” said Liana Maris, an outside program coordinator at Crotona International High School in the Bronx. “They end up providing emotional safety, especially if the youth can’t get it at home.”
Riverdale resident Shekema Brown, 37, is not a school worker, but came to the rally to show her support. “I suggest not laying off the workers, said Brown “and finding the money somewhere else.”
Union officials claimed that DC37 had offered other cost saving solutions that the city rejected in June. “The Bloomberg administration’s plan to lay off school support staff shows a reckless disregard for the well-being of New York’s 1.1 million school children and their families,” said DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts in a press release. “Principals were mandated to make these cuts by the city apparently to close a budget gap. Yet when the union offered a proposal generating real savings to bridge the budget gap and save the jobs of these valuable workers, the city cut off discussions.”
At Tuesday’s protest, one fired school worker wept quietly on the edge of the crowd. “I served those kids breakfast and lunch everyday,” said Catherin Rozell, who said she recently lost her nine-year job as a school aide at P.S. 270 in Brooklyn. “And now I have nothing.”
City council spokesperson Justin Goodman said the council will be holding hearings on the layoffs soon.