This article is based on a talk by Edward Yudelovich at the 2014 Workers World Party National Conference.
Comrades and friends, I am a person with emotional and one-sided hearing-loss disabilities.
I became active in the Workers World Party People with Disabilities caucus in 1981 when I took part with comrade Betsy Gimbel in the Disability Rights workshop at the All-Peoples Congress in Detroit.
Betsy Gimbel, who was secretary of the group Disabled in Action, led the fight that forced New York City buses to now have wheelchair lifts.
Some might say that the All-Peoples Congress was the grandparent of today’s Peoples Power Assembly or PPA.
I am a proud member of a union of 8,500 New York City administrative workers, mostly women and people of color, and I am co-chair of my union’s Committee on People with Disabilities. In October 2013 when the PPA held a rally in New York for the campaign to raise the U.S. minimum wage to $15 an hour, on the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act that established the U.S. minimum wage, I was wearing my union uniform. I was asked to speak at the rally and I spoke about the need to include people with disabilities in this demand, because that law excludes many of us from that right. It also excludes prisoners, immigrants and domestic workers.
Attica prisoners fought for minimum wage rights for everyone
When the Attica prisoners rose in rebellion in September 1971 against inhuman conditions, they had five demands, including speedy and safe transportation to a non-imperialist country and 15 practical proposals. The first was: “Apply the New York State minimum wage law to all state institutions” and “Stop slave labor.”
U.S. prisoners in federal prisons actually have a maximum wage; it is $1.15 an hour. The U.S. has the largest incarceration rate on the planet and many of the estimated 2.4. million U.S. prisoners are people with disabilities who are regularly subjected to abuse, beatings, torture, denial of properly prescribed medication when it is medically necessary, and minimal accommodations to their disabilities.
An example is Jerome Murdough, an African-American homeless and mentally disabled veteran who was baked to death in the prison at Rikers Island in February while on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which made him more vulnerable to the over-100 degrees heat in his cell. Murdough had been arrested for trespassing in the stairwell of a city housing project to escape the cold.
In the U.S., slave labor is also legal for people with disabilities. In so-called “sheltered workshops,” Goodwill Industries pays workers with disabilities as little as 22 cents an hour. That is 1/33 of the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Yet Goodwill Industries’ top executives get over $53.7 million.
The National Federation of the Blind, or NFB, is the largest organization of blind and low-vision people in the United States. Founded in 1940, the Federation has grown to over 50,000 members. It is leading the fight to change U.S. laws to end this slave labor for people with disabilities and, along with other disability rights groups, has organized protests against Goodwill Industries around the country, including one eight days ago in Buffalo, N.Y., led by the disability rights group ADAPT.
The National Federation of the Blind also has a petiton to end minumum wage discrimination against the disabled. This petition is available on NFB’s website www.nfb.org/fair-wages, which is a fantastic resource for information on this subject.
In 2012, the party’s Peoples with Disabilities Caucus reconstituted itself with a series of annual forums commemorating the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, first in New York and then in Dorchester, Mass., this August, where we were joined by the heroic Boston bus drivers. We have been meeting regularly with national conference calls to plan our strategies and actions. We invite comrades and friends with disabilities and our allies from every branch to participate in our meetings and activities, including organizing protests against Goodwill in or near your cities. We will be holding a workshop, Disability Rights in the Age of Austerity, today to discuss our struggles.
WWP Disabilities Caucus in solidarity with Ferguson
Our disabilities caucus is also an endorser of the statement by more than 20 disability rights groups in solidarity with the community of Ferguson, which advocates: “Civil rights, respect and justice are due to all. We will not remain silent. The disability community, like the LGBTQ community, and so many others around the country, stands with the family of Michael Brown and with the people of Ferguson, Missouri.”
It was Karl Marx in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” who coined our great slogan, “From each according to our abilities, to each according to our needs.” We also subscribe to the slogan inscribed on the grave of Karl Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Protest Goodwill subminimum wages for people with disabilities
We are therefore inviting everyone in the conference to march with us in a little while just two blocks from this school to a demonstration against Goodwill Industries. We will show the utmost solidarity with and sensitivity to the Goodwill workers, who deserve good jobs at decent wages. The NFB reports that in Vermont, when sub-minimum wages for many disabled workers were discontinued, the unemployment rate among the disabled doubled.
I received an email from Rose Sloan, Government Affairs Specialist for the National Federation of the Blind, recognizing our Goodwill protest today, and I quote: “Thanks for raising awareness about this issue! I hope your event goes well!”
At many disability rights events, famous people with disabilities are often mentioned. I choose this moment to cite one historical figure with the disability of asthma, the great revolutionary comrade Ernesto Che Guevara, and invoke his great battle cry: “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine.”
Equal pay for workers with disabilities!