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Standing on the shoulders of a giant: tribute to Nelson Mandela

Vincent Alvarez | 12/19/2013, 11:58 a.m.

Last week, the world lost 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.

Mandela’s struggle was the 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 Mandela led the struggle for ethnic and 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 Mandela’s, are just as real. Shareeka Elliot is a 26-year-old mother of two who works at John F. Kennedy Airport as a terminal cleaner for Airways Cleaners. She makes just above the minimum wage, taking home roughly $1,000 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, Lagrand’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. Lagrand’s 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, 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 percent union labor to build the Empire Outlets. Just this week, NYU graduate teaching and research assistants voted by an overwhelming 98 percent 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. 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.