original article by Gabriele Holtermann for the villager on amny.com
Laundry workers and allies demand the right to unionize on May Day. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)
New York City saw several rallies on Saturday as part of the commemoration of International Workers Day, bringing attention to the labor movement and demanding greater unionization rights.
Also known as May Day, the unofficial holiday was first created to honor the workers killed or injured in the Haymarket Riots in Chicago, a pivotal moment in the American labor movement in which workers protested for an eight-hour work day.
At noon on this May 1, a coalition of labor union allies, including Laundry Workers Center, met in lower Manhattan and marched to the residence of Sergey Patrikeev in Chinatown.
Patrikeev, owner of Liox Cleaners and Wash Supply, fired his employees in February 2021 after they attempted to form a union.
Mahoma Lopez with Laundry Workers Centers compared the laundromat industry to sweatshops and said that many laundry employees, mostly immigrant women, are sexually harassed and have to work under deplorable working conditions. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to work without proper PPE.
“We heard testimony from workers that they had to handle clothes with blood, urine. All kinds of fluids with zero protection, no protection at all,” Lopez said.
Former Liox employee Cecilia shared that she and her colleagues had to wash up to 80 pounds of laundry an hour without any breaks or proper ventilation and weren’t paid a minimum salary.
When the workers decided to form a union to improve their working conditions, the company closed and filed for bankruptcy, owing employees a reported $1.5 million.
“That’s why we’re here, fighting for all the workers of this company. We’re fighting for everybody here on the First of May. And it is crucial to create solidarity to be stronger. So remember that the system is nothing without us, and we are the working class,” Cecilia shared with the help of a translator.
Lenard Morin, Chair of Local 1070, offered solidarity with the laundry workers and demanded that they be reinstated immediately.
“We will monitor the progress of this campaign to make sure that the rights of these women are respected and that they are treated with dignity, and we pledge our commitment to support for laundromat workers in any way we can,” Morin announced.
The May Day rally in Union Square brought out about 300 supporters of the labor movement, where they were greeted “Scabby the Rat” and an oversized Jeff Bezos puppet that was on prominent display.
In an interview with amNewYork Metro, Charles Jenkins, president of Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, pointed out that workers have always been essential long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been saying for years that we’ve been essential. If we don’t use our labor, nothing in this city gets done,” Jenkins said and called for hazard pay for the workers who kept the city moving while putting their lives on the line during the pandemic.
Jenkins, a TWU Local member for 33 years, emphasized that workers should have the right to unionize because union membership provides a gateway to a better life.
“It has afforded me the opportunity to send my kids to college and have that middle class,” he said.
He also praised the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, who unsuccessfully tried to unionize. The warehouse workers overwhelmingly voted against joining the union after the e-commerce giant used anti-union tactics during the campaign.
“Their work is not in vain. We understand this struggle is a marathon. With so many of our campaigns, we didn’t win the first time; we didn’t win the second time,” Jenkins said and pointed out that a union drive underway at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island.
“So we are committed as union brothers and sisters,” he added.
Standing next to an oversized Jeff Bezos puppet with a sign “Union-Buster-In-Chief” dangling on its chest, Chris Smalls pointed out that Amazon allegedly spent $25 million to stop the Bessemer warehouse from unionizing.
Smalls, who was fired from Amazon in March 2020 after he had co-organized a work stoppage at Amazon’s warehouse on Staten Island in protest over a lack of PPE amid the coronavirus outbreak said that the workers in Alabama “sparked a fuse across the world,” while Amazon claims that Smalls was fired because he didn’t adhere to social distancing guidelines and received multiple warnings.
“They [Amazon] spent money union-busting for months on top of months. We all watched and covered it. But let me tell you this. We start right here in New York City. We already started. As we speak, we are beginning our efforts in Staten Island at my former facility where I was fired,” he announced and said he has already gathered numerous signatures from warehouse workers.
Smalls pointed out that Amazon is already employing union-busting efforts at the Staten Island warehouse and urged people to support his efforts.
“We’re going to win this one. The chief union buster Jeff Bezos ain’t going to beat us, right? He’s not going to beat New York, right? This is a union town, right?” Smalls fiercely asked the crowd that responded with cheers.
Chris Silvera with Teamsters Local 808 expressed his support for smaller groups like laundry workers who sometimes fall below the radar.
“We talk about Amazon, but we forget the laundry workers. The laundry workers are the ground we walk on. We have to take a stand in support of the laundry workers. We’re gonna move legislation,” Silvera said and urged that the law needed to be changed, referring to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act).
The PRO Act would curb union-busting efforts by employers and strengthen workers’ right to strike. It also would take employers who are in violation of labor laws to task -currently, employers don’t face any serious legal repercussions when they engage in anti-union discrimination- and prohibit employers from replacing striking workers with non-union workers, among other things.
In 2020, the House of Representatives passed the PRO Act, which former President Trump promised to veto should the bill ever reach his desk. The bill never made it out of the Republican-led Senate.
The House of Representatives passed a revised version of the bill on March 9, 2021, and President Biden has pledged his support for the PRO Act, and labor unions are calling on Biden to pass the act by executive order.