A New Political Paradigm for New Brunswick

By Amy Barenboim on April 17, 2017

Protesting (via nj.com)

In the wake of a city, and a state, ravaged by political corruption, New Brunswick, NJ has managed to spawn incredibly progressive movements and organizations, signaling a new political paradigm.

Such corruption as the (not so) recent water scandal has left many NB residents disillusioned.

Reporting on corruption within the New Brunswick Water Utility began in 2013 when the state Department of Environmental Protection filed orders charging the New Brunswick Water Department with falsely reporting results of routine water quality tests.

The department failed to alert the public that their water supply may be contaminated, and potentially disease causing. Edward O’Rourke, an employee of the Water Utility, was held responsible and stripped of his license by the DEP, and suspended without pay, not fired.

Failures to meet federal water quality regulations were later found to go back to 2008.

In September 2016, the Water Utility was found once again to be in violation of federal water quality regulations. The plant’s operator pleaded guilty to public corruptions and cover-ups of water-quality test results.

December 2016 saw Water Utility employees William Ortiz and Joseph DeBonis charged with bribery and tampering with public records, respectively. Later in the month, evidence regarding the water scandal was confiscating and subsequently destroyed by New Brunswick Police Department.

In addition, New Brunswick has yet to declare itself a sanctuary city, meaning a city which limits its cooperation with the federal government in order to protect its undocumented immigrants from deportation.  Surrounding cities have made such a declaration including Newark, Trenton, and Union City. Despite a high immigrant population, and protestations by political activist groups, New Brunswick will not acknowledge itself as a sanctuary city.

Out of the haze of bribery, cover-ups, and a seemingly uncaring City Council, progressive organizations have emerged.

One such organization is New Labor, which cites itself as “an alternative model of worker organization that combines new and existing strategies to improve working conditions and provide a voice for immigrant workers throughout New Jersey.”

The organization helped to rectify the fact that one in six households in the Unity Square Neighborhood of New Brunswick suffers from wage theft. In partnership with Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work, New Labor filed a report entitled “Controlled Chaos: Focus Groups with Women Warehouse Workers in New Jersey.” The report detailed chaotic, unsafe work environments including wage theft, particularly for female employees.

On April 23, New Labor has organized a march entitled Workers Memorial Day March. The co-founder of New Labor, Lou Kimmel, says the march is memorializing the “5,000 workers [who] die on the job” every year.

United Students Against Sweatshops, a Rutgers Student Activist Organization, has made many strides in affecting Rutgers’ policy. In 2012, USAS held a meeting with Rutgers president Robert Barchi about the university’s licensing agreement with Adidas. USAS cited Adidas’ unpaid severance to laid-off workers at a plant in Indonesia. Soon after, Rutgers severed its contract with Adidas, in addition to several other universities.

Currently, USAS is campaigning for a $15/hour minimum wage at Rutgers University.

In February, USAS, and politically active NB residents and Rutgers Students attended a filibuster at a City Council Meeting. Those in attendance filibustered for the Council to declare New Brunswick a sanctuary city.

The onset of progressive political action in NB should not be taken as a signal of lessening of corruption, or the lack of need for further action. But rather, that in the face of a dark political underbelly, NB has spawned an equal and opposite movement that has been growing, and will continue to grow. The reform efforts may be going on separately, and yet they are not. They are a collective of people who are moved, and who are moving towards a new political paradigm for New Brunswick, NJ.

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