There is a spirit of resistance amongst the millions of underpaid and overworked New Yorkers, and once a year, thousands of them join together in the streets of Manhattan to celebrate the real International Workers’ Holiday, May Day.
With the sun shining and the sound of music blasting, dozens of labor unions, community and immigrant rights activists, political groups, religious organizations and elected officials from the New York metropolitan area kicked off this year’s May Day at Foley Square with a rally and march through downtown Manhattan. The event was organized by the Alliance for Labor & Immigrants Rights & Jobs For All, an alliance of more than 30 city and regional organizations, including national and local officers and members from such unions as the Amalgamated Federation of State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Domestic Workers United, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) , the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the United Autoworkers (UAW), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the United Steelworkers (USW). The rally also had a strong showing from such unions as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and community groups like Make the Road New York and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.
Demonstrators came together to demand the basic respect that all New Yorkers deserve, and showed support for living wage jobs, workers’ rights and community benefits for millions of low wage workers throughout the city. With Brooklyn-based radical marching band the Rude Mechanical Orchestra playing songs of resistance like “Bella Ciao,” the crowd queued up and walked down Centre Street, looped around City Hall Park, up Broadway and back over to Foley Square for a rally with speeches delivered by elected officials, and labor and community leaders.
While many of the demonstrators carried signs and chanted slogans which opposed the recent adoption of SB 1070 in Arizona—a bill which essentially legalizes racial profiling and strips undocumented citizens of essential rights—the demonstration did not turn a blind eye to the problems that rest here in the “melting pot” of the world.
All too regularly, undocumented workers are paid less than the minimum wage and are forced to work more than 40 hours per week without receiving the legally-required overtime pay. Many times they work in unhealthy or hazardous conditions, and are subject to a multitude of other labor violations. But immigrants are not alone in experiencing the brunt of such labor violations. Millions of workers in the industries that keep the city running and keep the economy bustling are paid at or around the minimum wage, denied overtime pay, receive little or no benefits, and are discriminated against when they complain or attempt to form into a union.
According to the National Employment Law Project’s recent report which surveyed 1,432 low-wage workers in New York City, titled “Working Without Laws: A Survey of Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City,” approximately one out of every five workers are paid less than the legally-required minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. More than half of these workers are underpaid by more than $1 per hour. Meanwhile, approximately 25 percent of low-wage workers in New York are denied overtime pay, and a majority of those who said they were denied this legally required time-and-a-half pay had worked an average of 13 hours per week in overtime. Additionally, 42 percent of the workers who complained of such lousy conditions or attempted to form a union were retaliated against. Workers reported that their hours and/or pay was cut, people were fired or suspended, and bosses threatened to call immigration authorities.
The illegal workplace violations are just one part of the problem. With 10 percent of the city’s population receiving unemployment benefits, New Yorkers are struggling to get by. This figure has dropped since December 2009, when the unemployment rate was 10.6 percent—its highest in nearly 17 years—but much of the labor movement is in agreement that job creation is not enough for hard-working New Yorkers. Labor unions in New York and throughout the country are demanding that employers guarantee a living wage with benefits, and the right to organize into a union without threat or intimidation.
In the face of rampant discrimination and the stripping of labor rights, New Yorkers proved once again that the spirit of resistance is as powerful as it was in 1886, when thousands walked off their jobs, striking for the eight-hour work day. Many things have changed since then, but one thing remains the same: New York is still a union town.