BY SELVENA N. BROOKS-POWERS AND MICHELE GILLIAM
Each year International Workers’ Day has been met with rallies and marches across the country, and in New York City, the New York City Central Labor Council (NYC AFL-CIO) hosts the Workers Memorial Day, ahead of this day, to pay respect to workers who lost their lives on the job.
International Workers’ Day is also widely known as May Day is a celebration of the labor movement and working class. This year, the day will mark almost two months since the start of an all-out war against the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19.
This pandemic has swept across the world and in a myriad of ways it has impacted communities across the nation, devastating small businesses and collapsing the economy with massive job losses. Businesses ranging from favorite neighborhood eateries to mom and pop stores are closed indefinitely, and the sad reality is that many may not be able to come back.
The unemployment rate has now eclipsed the steep decline last seen after the 2008 financial crisis, reaching 26.5 million in job loss as of April 23, 2020.
The amount of loss we are experiencing is tragic. Unfortunately, New York holds the unwanted position as the epicenter surpassing 17,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19. The virus has not been discriminatory in that people of all ages, genders, and economic stations are being infected.
However, the impacts of COVID-19 have been dramatically worse on communities of color as those New Yokers are often employed in jobs on the frontlines in, but not limited to, our grocery stores, among the healthcare and public safety sectors and have subsequently succumbed to the virus.
COVID-19 has exposed the gaping holes within our social and economic systems. On March 26, Peter Petrassi became the first member of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 to die from the coronavirus. That same day, Garrett Goble, also a TWU Local 100 member, died on the job. Only his death was not caused by the fatal disease. An arsonist set fire to the 125th Street – A train station. Garrett managed to successfully evacuate the passengers aboard his train, but he succumbed to the fumes and died at the station.
Unfortunately for many trades, casualties on the job are not uncommon. Nearly fifty construction workers died within a span of two years while the New York City Building Trades lobbied the city for comprehensive worker safety legislation.
It should not take a pandemic for society to recognize the contributions of the working class. When unions address elected officials for stronger labor laws such as student to
teacher ratios for educators, pension equity for civil servants, safe staffing measures for nurses, or prevailing wages it is because they as workers are experts in their respective fields and their work requires incredible sacrifice. So yes, the daily 7 o’clock applause has been a nice gesture for frontline workers but let us not lose sight of the many issues they advocate for annually which would improve their working conditions before, during, and after the pandemic.
During our collective time in the labor movement, we have stood in solidarity with workers fighting for their right to collectively bargain and lobbied elected leaders to create laws to improve worker safety. And, on this International Workers’ Day let us not lose an opportunity to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who continue to work around the clock, on the frontline, sacrificing their own lives to save the lives of others.
So, yes, we will spend this day and all of the days to follow honoring those who have passed. But we will fight like hell for those who are here, and to keep people here.
Selvena N. Brooks-Powers is a southeast Queens resident and community leader. Michele Gilliam is the former National Deputy Political Director for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign and the former political and legislative Director at the Transport Workers Union Local 100.