This May Day, Let’s Keep Fighting for Economic Justice in Harlem
Workers have always formed the backbone of our economy. Yet, looking at the way workers have been exploited and abused over the past few decades, and this past year especially, you could hardly tell this is the case. That is why today, on International Workers Day, I proudly stand alongside laborers from all across New York City in demanding true, lasting economic justice.
In the past year, the pandemic and the ensuing economic meltdown made it clear: workers of all stripes — from healthcare professionals to grocery store cashiers, from delivery drivers to transit workers — are critical to a functioning economy. This was especially visible in Central Harlem, where the largely Black and Brown working poor have worked tirelessly in often hazardous and insecure work conditions, with little benefits, barely scraping enough money to afford rent, healthcare, or school tuition. Every day as I continue to reach out to my neighbors, I am enraged at a system that mistreats and exploits hardworking people who, despite working long, punishing hours, are barely able to scrape enough money to afford rent, healthcare, or school tuition.
For over a century, workers around the world have assembled on May 1st (May Day) to honor and commemorate the struggles of everyday workers — those who’ve died for rights we take for granted, as well as the ongoing struggles that continue to lie at our feet. In the U.S., we are not taught about May Day’s history, the origins of the labor movement, and the ways in which struggles for racial and economic justice have always been interlinked.
In the very first May Day, in 1886, unionized workers took a stand against the growing exploitation and abuse of an increasingly unequal capitalist system in which workers were forced to endure punishing hours in insecure and hazardous conditions in factories, mines, shipyards, and railroad lines. And just like demonstrations today, these fed-up workers bravely chose to resist against capitalist bosses and violent police — and on the path to economic justice, many lives were lost fighting for the benefits we enjoy today, from weekends, overtime pay, and workers compensation, to the right to unionize and strike.
I first gained my socialist, class-based critique of the system from studying Black liberationists and revolutionaries, many of whom we all revere and often quote: Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, a year before MLK was killed, he warned that “we must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together…you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others…”(May 1967). It was these revolutionaries who taught me to see the bigger picture of how our oppression works — through the lens of capitalist exploitation and the systematic and violent forces of racism. Right here at a rally in Harlem, Malcolm X reminded protestors “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” I experienced a deep revelation reading revolutionary books and speeches, and started to understand the root cause of our oppression.
To be sure, there is a long history of racism within the mainstream labor movement — a fact that pushed Black workers to form unions of their own, including here in Harlem. Conversely, class divisions created powerful rifts within and between Black, immigrant, and other communities of color. Even so, Harlem has also seen many inspirational examples of workers building coalitions across the divisions sown by racial capitalism, and Black workers have always formed a critical part of the labor movement. Just like with the interracial coalitions that linked together to advance civil rights and economic justice in the years after the formal abolition of slavery, we are also facing a system of growing inequality that favors the 1%.
As a socialist, I also recognize that building working class power is key to fighting capitalism. Whereas before the country’s wealth was hoarded by railroad and steel barons like John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, today our economy is dominated by tech firm CEOs like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. The inequalities between the lowest paid workers are absolutely stunning: according to one recently viral post, if Jeff Bezos (who’s set to be the world’s first trillionaire) “were to give all 876,000 Amazon employees a $105,000 bonus, he’d be left with exactly as much money as he had at the start of the pandemic.”
In the middle of a devastating public health crisis that has left over half a million Americans dead and millions more chronically sick and unemployed, it is unacceptable that the five largest tech firms — Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook — would rake in a combined yearly revenue of $1.2 trillion — more profits than they’ve ever seen before. To put it plainly, it is reprehensible that Big Tech could amass such fortunes on the backs of those who risked their lives while our government failed to provide healthcare workers adequate personal protective equipment (PPE); when gig workers scrambled to deliver us the goods we needed during quarantine; and when workers in warehouses and meatpacking plants were forced to work without adequate occupational safety measures in place, including social distancing, air conditioning or bathroom breaks.
Just like the workers who resisted police violence and the exploitation of bosses in the very first May Day, we, too, are facing a critical turning point in the fight for racial and economic justice. The conditions are ripe for workers to fight back. And we must fight back. We must fight against the theft and insufficiency of our wages, our poor working conditions, the disregard for our health and safety, and the relentless retaliation, surveillance, and misinformation that corporations like Amazon and Walmart use to undermine our rights to collective bargaining.
Thanks to an unequal system that has tilted the balance of power towards big corporations, union membership has been dramatically fallen in recent decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership has fallen to half of what it was 35 years ago. In recent years, the situation of unions has been rendered even more precarious thanks to weak and uneven labor regulations that hamstring unions’ capacity to build up their base. This includes the recent Supreme Court ruling of Janus v. AFSCME (which undermines the unions’ financial base) as well as the failed effort to unionize the predominantly Black warehouse workers at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. There’s no questioning that the system has been decisively rigged in the favor of big corporations.
This May Day, I make the following pledges as a candidate for City Council:
To reverse this concerning decline in union power, I pledge to actively and unconditionally support the unionization of all workers. In fact, I believe all worker strikes, whether wildcat or general, should be legal.
I will also urge City Council to prioritize workers’ rights and push for legislation like the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act, which is now stalled at the federal level in Congress, that would strengthen workers’ hand in bargaining for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. This includes supporting the rights of freelancers and gig workers (such as Uber and Lyft drivers), as well as others whose work classification as independent contractors denies them the same benefits as regularly paid employees.
I will also work towards funneling direct funding and assistance to community organizations that help workers unionize at individual worksites, as well as initiatives like Owner to Owners that help form worker cooperatives where employees are able to take collective ownership of their companies.
In throwing my full and unconditional support to unions and the right to strike, I see the labor movement as a critical piece of my larger vision for economic justice in Harlem. Unions will have a crucial role to play in any movement towards creating jobs in different sectors within our community, from emerging legal cannabis industry, to local infrastructure jobs within the Green New Deal, to the small businesses that make Harlem a mecca of Black entrepreneurship.
Building interracial, cross-industry solidarity among all workers — from those in white collar tech jobs to those on the front-lines of healthcare, social services, sanitation and maintenance — will be a key element of my plan to bring true economic justice to Harlem. Workers are the ones who keep the economy of this city and country running, and this May Day, let’s remember that victory is possible if we unify, fight, and reclaim our right to build a better world.
Kristin Richardson Jordan (KRJ), Candidate for New York City Council District 9 Kristin is a poet, local activist, speaker, teacher, DSA member, Black queer woman, and third-generation Harlemite on a mission to disrupt District 9 (Central Harlem) with radical love. Started almost a year and a half before the murder of George Floyd, her Kristin for H.A.R.L.E.M. political platform includes advocacy for police accountability, abolition, affordable housing, redistribution of resources, senior care, gun control, education, and environmental justice. She is interested in making change both through her grassroots campaign and through a community-based participatory democracy once elected and has drafted policy on each of her HARLEM platform points. Find out more and get involved at KristinForHarlem.com.