Low-Wage Workers in New York Come Together to Fight Greedy Bosses
Photo Credit: Sarah Jaffe
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May Day 2012 has come and gone, but the reality is, that for most of us -- especially men and women of color or from immigrant communities -- every day is May Day. Every day brings more economic bad news, more reminders that while the top one percent get richer, the other 99 percent continue to have to struggle to make ends meet and provide for their families.
Every day, all across the city, the fights of the 99 percent -- income inequality, unemployment, a too-low minimum wage and bad employers who take advantage of low-wage workers -- go on, largely unnoticed.
Over the last several months, more than 20,000 workers at JFK Airport, car washes, Cablevision and in the supermarket industry have begun fighting back against unscrupulous employers who cheat them out of minimum wages, overtime and promised benefits.
Many of those low-wage workers -- the people who wash our cars, deliver our groceries, carry our luggage at airports and push wheel chairs at JFK -- have been organizing at some of the 200 car washes around the city, Brooklyn supermarkets and other businesses that make their owners rich while their employees suffer.
Airlines -- some of whom pay their CEOs between $1.2 million and $8 million a year -- frequently outsource the minimum-wage work of assisting wheelchair-bound passengers, baggage handling, non-TSA security, and cleaning cabins and terminals. At Cablevision, workers make significantly less than workers who do similar work at unionized Verizon. Despite $361 million in profits, Cablevision paid no federal income taxes in 2010.
In the next few weeks, there will be a series of large-scale actions and organizing drives across the city on behalf of those workers who have worked silently in the shadows.
These workers are not nameless, faceless people. Each has a story with a similar thread: They are hard-working, taxpaying men and women who can barely make ends meet while being denied basic rights, health insurance and other benefits. Prince Jackson is a security officer at JFK Airport who makes $8 an hour with few benefits. Many of his co-workers work two or three jobs to make ends meet; he volunteers at his church's food pantry just to get enough food to eat.
Roberto Ramirez Martinez is a produce department worker at Golden Farm supermarket in Brooklyn who made less than minimum wage with no overtime until he and 12 co-workers sued in June 2011 and eventually were allowed to elect a union to represent them.
Adán Nicolás has worked at the LMC Car Wash in Queens, putting in 12-hour days six or seven days for $5.50 an hour, with no overtime pay. The 5,000 hard-working men and women in the car wash industry often work in the cold, with no protection from chemicals.
May Day, the Occupy movement and the 99 percent narrative have raised the voices of low-wage workers in this city who have joined together under the banner "Organize, Legalize, and Unionize."
They are the people who were told that if you work hard and play by the rules you can achieve the American Dream, but in far too many cases they have suffered silently at the hands of unscrupulous employers who exploit them every day.
Over the next few days they will come together, organize and speak out for their rights to realize The Dream for themselves and their families.
It is up to all of us to join them.
Camille Rivera is Executive Director of UnitedNY.