Low-wage workers rally for better pay in Times Square. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Hurricane Sandy pushed into view echelons of working-class New Yorkers normally hidden behind workplace walls or in obscure neighborhoods, or made invisible by familiarity and indifference. There, suddenly center stage, was the old, heavily Catholic, white working class. Some of the most devastated parts of the city, like Breezy Point and Gerritsen Beach, seemed frozen in time, neighborhoods of Irish- and Italian-American policemen, firefighters, blue-collar workers and politicians, still reflecting a New York dominated by European immigrants and their children. As on 9/11, heroic rescue efforts by the Fire Department exposed how white and male it has remained, even as the city’s population has become ever more diverse.
Newer immigrants, too, were thrust into the spotlight, like Philippines-born Menchu de Luna Sanchez, one of the nurses who carried sick infants down pitch-black stairways when flooding forced the evacuation of New York University’s Langone Medical Center. President Obama hailed her in his State of the Union address. Even much poorer New Yorkers received attention, like the thousands of public housing residents stranded for days and sometimes weeks in high-rise buildings without power, heat, water or elevator service. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, undamaged by the storm, well-heeled dads and moms found themselves in the unaccustomed position of trying to amuse their housebound children for hours on end, as the low-paid, immigrant child-minders who pour into wealthy neighborhoods each morning were themselves trapped at home.
New York, at least numerically, has long been a working-class city. Today, there are far fewer manufacturing workers than a generation or two ago and many more service workers, far fewer immigrants from Europe and many more from Asia and Central America. But perhaps the biggest change is that workers and their families are less socially visible than in the past, except when disaster hits or conflicts break out—like Sandy or the school bus drivers’ strike earlier this year. Increasingly, the image of the city as the home to great wealth or layabout hipsters (sometimes, as on Girls, living off their parents’ bank accounts) has camouflaged the struggle of middle- and lower-income New Yorkers simply to get by.
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Trouble Beneath the Surface
At first glance, workers in New York, compared with most of the country, are doing well. At the start of last year, nationally only a third of the jobs lost to the Great Recession had been regained, but New York City had already bounced back to its pre-recession employment level. In December 2012, the city had more than 3.9 million jobs, the most ever. And more of those jobs were unionized than almost anywhere else. A recent report by Ruth Milkman and Laura Braslow, put out by the City University of New York’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute and its Center for Urban Research, found that more than 22 percent of NYC workers belonged to a union, nearly twice the national level. With its huge mass transit system, government-regulated rents, low-cost public university, large public hospital system, generous Medicaid program, and sprawling network of government and nonprofit social services, New York provides working families with a set of benefits and opportunities few cities can match.