Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant
By Vincent Alvarez
Yesterday, the world said goodbye to a giant. Nelson Mandela was a great man who believed in the urgency of freedom and equality. His life was a testament to the need for change, and the idea that the determination of one person was enough to inspire a nation, and a watching world. Ironically, he passed on a day when, on another side of the globe, cities around the country were raising their voices in the name of a similar fight.
Nelson Mandela’s struggle was universal fight for human rights. He didn’t believe in the systematic alienation of a segment of the population, based on circumstances beyond their control. Just as Nelson Mandela led the struggle for ethnic/racial equality, right now working people are involved in a full-on battle for economic equality.
The faces of this fight to reduce income disparities, while not nearly as recognizable as Nelson Mandela’s, are just as real. Shareeka Elliot is a 26-year old mother of two, who works at JFK as a terminal cleaner for Airways Cleaners. She makes just above the minimum wage, taking home roughly $1000 a month, which barely covers her monthly bills, food, and rent. Naquasia Legrand works two jobs – both at local KFC restaurants. Despite working two jobs, Naquasia’s wages do not allow her to do much more than contribute to the rent and bills for the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her grandmother, aunt and cousin. Naquasia would like to be able to save money to go back to school, but on the wages she makes working at KFC, that is simply not an option. These women were once strangers, but have been brought together by the need to advocate for what’s right. They travel to rallies, and speak with their fellow workers about the need to rise up in the name of worker justice.
In fights for like these, the victories are as real as the battles. Like the Biblical hero Joseph, Mr. Mandela made the journey from prison to the executive office of an entire nation. And while we look forward to a new administration led by a worker-friendly ally, small victories are already being won. Over the last few months, the salaries of 1,400 Resorts World New York employees have been doubled, and out on Staten Island, an agreement was reached to use 100% union labor to build the Empire Outlets. Just this week, NYU graduate teaching and research assistants voted by an overwhelming 98% to recognize United Auto Workers on campus, marking the end of an eight-year battle with the university to gain recognition and collective bargaining power.
These victories are the result of a concerted effort to raise wages, benefits, and workplace conditions for all workers – unionized and non-unionized. Nelson Mandela once said “…to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,” and that is what we as a labor movement must do to help close our city’s inequality gap. This movement is about ensuring that wages and benefits are lifted across the board, because then, and only then, will we begin to end the disparities that have allowed businesses and corporations to profit hand over fist, while everyday working people struggle to get by.
Living in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others, means ensuring the creation of good jobs, paying family-sustaining wages. Respecting and enhancing the freedom of others means to make sure that all children have the educational opportunities necessary to prepare them to excel in higher education, and to compete in a global workforce.
Our fight is the continuation of Nelson Mandela’s fight. From South Africa, to the South Bronx, to Downtown Brooklyn, we are determined to stand together to end these income disparities. We as New Yorkers are determined to see this fight through to the very end. We can draw inspiration and strength from the tenacity of Nelson Mandela, and we can join with this new group of advocates who are standing up for justice. The long-term growth and success of New York City, and of our nation as a whole rest on our ability to meet the needs of our population. This battle for economic balance will be won, because it must be won. Nelson Mandela’s legacy will never die, because we are determined to keep it alive. His fight will live on through us.
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” - Nelson Mandela