December 15, 2012
By Barbara Kestenbaum
There is something big happening in America. All across our country workers are fighting back! Their hard-won successes include:
• The unionizing of over 500 workers at Rite-Aid’s Southwest Distribution Center in Lancaster, California by the Longshoremen’s union (ILWU).
• The unprecedented victory by IKEA furniture factory employees in Danville Virginia—a “right-to-work” state—who voted overwhelmingly to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
• The major victory, against enormous odds, by the striking Chicago Teachers Union, who overwhelmingly ratified a three-year contract that included the hiring of 600 new teachers in art, music, and physical education; pay increases; and a new evaluations system that is fair to both teachers and students. Karen Lewis, president of CTU, said, “The fight is about the very soul of public education—not only in Chicago but everywhere.”
• Among those demanding to be heard are immigrants and low-income workers. These include warehouse employees at a Walmart Distribution Center in Chicago, where they and many supporters succeeded in shutting the center down! Unions are being formed and joined, and lawsuits for back wages are being won, including by cooks, dishwashers, food handlers, and waitpersons in restaurants owned by multimillionaires who profit handsomely from the labor of their workers.
• Friends of Labor has just learned that the Walmart Strikes have spread to states across America!
In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education writes about the cause of the often brutal conditions facing workers:
The profit motive is the looking at a person in terms of how much money can you get from him or her? And profit economics is composed of the activities of that ugly motive. Centrally, it is the paying people as little as possible for their labor so that the wealth they produce can come not to them but to you…. Though it has been in operation for thousands of years, such a way of seeing one’s fellow humans is a barbaric thing for an economy and the lives of people to be based on. From it have come sweatshops, child labor, hunger, and ever so much poverty, with all that poverty makes for: suffering and stifled hopes and the monumental curtailment of people’s possibilities.
In New York City alone the fight for dignity and against profit economics is pulsating as workers demand to be seen and heard.
• I have talked to employees at Hot & Crusty on 63rd Street, who won a lawsuit against the owners for back wages. Just this week they got their union recognized. The owner conceded that he was forced to “bow to the workers’ demands to reopen the store, rehire all the workers, and recognize their newly formed union”—the Hot and Crusty Workers Association.
• Another victory for low-wage workers was the unionizing of Hi-Tek Car Wash & Lube Inc. in Queens. They voted 21 to 5 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. It is the first time people employed by a car wash company in NYC have succeeded in becoming unionized.
• In an informational flyer I read about a recent rally, Juan Antonio, 29, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico—who has been working at Hi-Tek under abominable conditions for five years—stated how happy he and his fellow workers were about the results of their struggle for justice: “It’s an historic thing. It’s been a very intense fight.”
• In Brooklyn, Golden Farm Grocery is in the midst of unionizing. A settlement in a lawsuit by the workers, who make less than $400.00 a week for a 70-plus hour work week, gave them some back pay. However, these workers are still among millions nationwide—including more than 1.2 million in NYC—who do not have paid sick leave, but see it as their right
• One of Golden Farm’s workers, Felix Trinidad, was not given any paid time off for his urgently needed chemotherapy treatments, and at age 34 he died of stomach cancer. This past August, in front of City Hall, workers, clergymen and union leaders stood alongside Felix Trinidad’s widow Anastasia Gonzalez 31, mother of two children ages 8 and 5, demanding that a bill mandating that workers get paid sick time–which her husband worked so hard for–be brought to a vote in the City Council, many of whom support the bill. I spoke to his good friend, Jose Manual Paratta, who works 72 hours a week at Golden Farms. With great emotion, he said: “He was my best friend. He was like a father to me. He wanted the union.”
What these struggles for justice show is that people are furious about the contemptuous way they are seen and used: paid as little as possible, while the profit from their labor goes into the owners’ pockets. Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, was passionate about economic justice coming to all people. It is in his kind question, which people and governments everywhere need to answer: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”