Wale Ogunyemi was killed this summer in an unsafe warehouse outside of Chicago. He was a 42-year old Nigerian immigrant who supported his wife and two daughters from the United States. In that same warehouse, three workers were killed on the job and fifty-one serious injuries have been reported since 2016.
In the first few minutes of the Justice for Jeyasre speaking tour stop in Chicago, Roberto Clack from Warehouse Workers for Justice shared Wale’s story, how they also had to bury a fellow worker, just months earlier, because of an unsafe workplace.
Wale, a Nigerian immigrant supporting his family, and Jeyasre, a Dalit woman funding her way through school, were both subjected to deadly working conditions. For many in their position, these kinds of jobs are the only option.
Other groups in attendance, such as Chicago Jobs with Justice, also shared all-too-familiar stories of worker exploitation, all connecting to the same struggles that members of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union (TTCU) face in South India. Whether it’s in Chicago or Tamil Nadu, global brands prey on workers’ desperation to fill their unsafe factories and warehouses as they drive down labor standards for the sake of corporate profit.
While these stories laid out a depressing state of affairs for workers across the world, they also motivated workers and organizers on this call to build the necessary solidarity and power to hold these brands accountable. As Clack from Warehouse Workers for Justice said, “We need justice for workers like Wale and Jeyasre. We need to organize until we win. Let’s get to work.”
One group at the Chicago stop offered inspiration for what that work could look like. The Chicago and Midwest Joint Board of Workers United (CMRJB), formerly the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) formed in 1914, and is continuing to build worker power 107 years later.
Pete DeMay, CMRJB’s Organizing Director, reflected that “as an organization born from immigrant worker strikes in the garment industry, this hits home for us in a lot of ways.” Chicago has a rich history of labor organizing and garment worker strikes. In 1910, women garment workers led a citywide general strike that lasted 5 months and boasted 45,000 workers at its peak. The strike’s leaders would go on to form the ACWA a few years later.
“The memory is still there one hundred years later”, DeMay continued, “we see this fight as our fight. We don’t see the artificial borders corporate overlords enforce upon us. The time will come when we need to lean on our comrades in India.”
Over one-hundred years later, this group of women garment workers is spreading their movement for labor rights globally by not only offering a roadmap for radical labor organizing, but also offering long-standing institutional support. The global labor movement that TTCU and GLJ-ILRF are building today with the Justice for Jeyasre speaking tour, can bring justice to our fellow workers today and to the future generations of workers to come.
The Justice for Jeyasre campaign is still in the early stages of negotiations, but the solidarity and lessons that Thivya and the US labor movement are gaining will ensure that the women garment workers of TTCU have a safe workplace and that their movement for brand accountability spreads across the world.