In my years fighting for working people, I witnessed something on July 24 I never thought I would see: low-wage workers from as many as 10 different campaigns coming together as one for better wages, meaningful benefits and -- most of all -- respect.
It was an amazing sight. Workers from car washes, supermarkets, airports and laundries, joining hands with domestic workers, day care providers and even locked-out Con Edison employees, speaking and demonstrating in a single voice.
It was our piece of the National Day of Action, where groups across the country staged rallies and demonstrations for workers' rights and raising the minimum wage. Helping low-wage workers and boosting the minimum wage helps all of us in the 99 percent and strengthens the economy now, instead of waiting for help to trickle down.
Here in New York, it began with a press conference in Herald Square in Midtown Manhattan, where workers told how they try to support their families while making $4 or $5 and hour -- well under the ridiculously low $7.25 minimum wage -- with no overtime, benefits or paid sick days.
Three mayoral candidates were there, along with a lot of politicians. Everyone was grateful for their support, but the day belonged to the workers.
Many of them marched with clergy from all faiths, community groups, labor organizers and regular New Yorkers down Sixth Ave. to 23rd St., over to Broadway and down to Union Square. Along the way, they staged noisy protests outside bad employers like JC Penney and Dunkin Donuts, partly owned by Bain Capital, the private equity firm that presidential hopeful Mitt Romney co-founded.
There, they were met by thousands of supporters who braved the sweltering 90-degree heat to make their voices heard in demonstrating for higher pay -- including a higher minimum wage, better conditions and respect from businesses and bosses who exploit them.
They represent the best in us, and inspire us to join this growing movement because -- after all -- it affects every one of us in the 99 percent.
Mahoma Lopez spoke of poor working conditions at Hot and Crusty bakery. Prince Jackson, a contracted worker at JFK Airport, told how Port Authority workers doing the same jobs make much more money. Jose Alfredo Lozano, an LMC Car Wash worker, told how workers made less than minimum wage while working around dangerous chemicals, and the wife of a locked-out Con Ed worker told of the hardship of sudden losing a salary at the whim of the utility company that grossed $1 billion in profits last year and has paid its CEO Kevin Burke more than $24.8 million over the last five years.
What was truly inspiring was that workers with little in common other than being underpaid and exploited in various industries came together as one.
Normally, folks in the organizing and grassroots activist community tend to work in their own little silos, fighting their individual fights. Sure, they sometimes join forces -- not often enough on this scale.
We at UnitedNY and our partners at New York Communities for Change, Make The Road New York, ALIGN, La Fuente and the Black Institute and others, decided it would be different this time. Along with various labor unions, including SEIU 32BJ, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union, the Communications Workers of America and Local 1-2 of Con Ed, we found a way to bring all of our causes -- all of our fights for a fair economy for all -- together.
Organizers and activists met, strategized and went out and energized the workers. Then we held a worker exchange meeting where employees in the various industries met, exchanged stories and vowed to support one another.
Five days before the demonstration, UnitedNY and ALIGN released a report graphically describing the plight of low-wage workers. It noted a sharp increase in the number of law-wage jobs found that the purchasing power of New York's $7.25 minimum wage is 26 percent lower than it was in 1970 -- a clear signal to the State Legislature and Gov. Cuomo that the minimum wage must go up to at least $8.50 an hour as soon as possible.
It's ironic that legislators plan to give themselves a raise in November but won't raise the minimum wage for the lowest rung of workers.
The report also cited car wash kingpin John Lage, Toys "R" Us, Con Ed and some airline contractors and supermarket companies -- and their millionaire CEOs -- as among the worst employers in the city.
Finally, the day I never thought I would see arrived.
It was hot, but the energy generated at the rally knew no bounds.
Clergy members like Rev. Chloe Breyer of the Interfaith Center of New York, fired up the crowd, a brass and mariachi bands played and the workers knew their time had come.
It was a day for the workers to stand up and be heard and they were. As exhilarating as it was, obviously the fight didn't end after the rally and some actions at other bad employers. In a way, it was a new beginning as we gear up to go after bad employers who exploit workers while paying their executives million-dollar salaries -- from John Lage, to Con Edison to Dunkin Donuts and other companies owned by Bain.
We have seized the moment and now we must keep up the fight. Gaining these rights for low-wage workers will help all of us. It is a battle we must win. The entire nation's economy depends on it.
Rivera is executive director of UnitedNY