A champion of labor rights whose own experience led her to organizing. An educator whose advocacy took her from the classroom to union leadership. A steadfast supporter of transit workers who has become a voice in environmental activism and job creation in the state.
The gymnasium at the Dixwell Community Q House welcomed those organizers Saturday afternoon, as the Connecticut People’s World Committee (PWC) returned with the first in-person Amistad Awards ceremony since 2019 (during 2020 and 2021, celebrations continued online). The event coincides with the 103rd anniversary of the Communist Party USA, the Connecticut chapter of which operates out of the New Haven People’s Center on 37 Howe St. A memorial to the late organizer, ward co-chair, and union representative Art Perlo, who died last December after a months-long fight with bladder cancer, sat on the stage.
The committee presented awards to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1336 President Mustafa Salahuddin, New Haven Federation of Teachers Local 933 President Leslie Blatteau and Vernon Starbucks Store Barista and unionization organizer Salwa Mogaddedi.
“I want to thank the People's Amistad Awards Committee for choosing the Q house as your home to hold today's event,” Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison said in her welcoming address. “It is very special that we're in the Q House [because] this is something that we all fought [for].
“We fought for 10 long years. We've gathered every type of ally, every type of person to come together to make it known to the state that we need money. We need our Q House and that's what the leader of today in the future is all about — working together.”
State Rep. Robyn Porter, a 2017 Amistad Awardee, presenting Salwa Mogaddedi with her 2022 Amistad Award.
Morrison was not alone in highlighting the power of unified voices coming together for change. Each of the evening’s speakers shared how collective action and unionizing can help improve the working class’ quality of life and enact change.
“It only takes an individual person or a small group of believers to bring about the idea that change is possible. We have the power to change the landscape and shift the culture around Labor in this country,” Mogaddedi said. “The struggle of working-class members is not unique because inequality is ubiquitous all across the world. This movement holds so much in my heart because I am a true believer in it. We have all seen first-hand how collective activity has the capacity to command change.”
Mogaddedi, who holds a degree from Eastern Connecticut University in labor and industrial relations, has worked in the service industry since she was 15 years old and working at a movie theater. Even at a young age, she experienced how many “blue-collar workers” are treated differently and not given proper protections, she said. She remembered cleaning vomit off the movie theater floor without proper sanitary equipment, risking her own health.
She said safety concerns eventually followed her to a deli where she had to clean a meat slicer while the blade was running, which caused her to slice her fingertips in the process. When she started working at Starbucks’ Vernon location, she found the comfort of other employees experiencing the same struggles as her. Alongside her co-workers, she helped unionize their Starbucks location with a 14-1 vote on July 14 of this year.
2003 Amistad Awardee John Harrity presented Mustafa Salahuddin with his 2022 Amistad Award at the 2022 People's World Amistad Awards hosted by the CT People's World celebrating the 103rd anniversary of the United States Communist Party.
She added that her own employment experiences aren’t the first time she encountered the poor treatment of the working class. Mogaddedi’s parents came to the United States as Afghan refugees, and she recalled them receiving poor treatment at the hands of their employers. Her father worked for a glass manufacturing company, she said, where he was exposed to high heat levels without any fans or other accommodations.
“My dad didn't want to give up so he convinced his co-workers to walk off the job, citing that management would be helpless without them and would have to take them seriously at that point,” Mogaddedi said. “It only took my father and his co-workers a single day of striking before management acquiesce and install fans [and] ask them to return back to work.”
Blatteau, who is also a social studies teacher, spoke a similar sentiment and believes it is crucial to shift union engagement into activism calling for change. She said she takes an anti-racist approach to her teaching, which helped her realize organizers need to work toward shifting both power and the narrative that leaves marginalized voices behind. For years, she brought that approach to her students at Metropolitan Business Academy; then last year, she ran with a union slate aiming to change public education in New Haven. They won.
2019 Amistad Awardee Ken Suzuki presented Leslie Blatteau with her 2022 Amistad Award.
“We must be trusted, empowered and given the tools to ensure democratic workplaces where collective bargaining rights improved working conditions, fair benefits and opportunities for collective decision making are guaranteed shifting power and justice we need to shift narratives in our [spaces] from the dangerous racist, classist and sexist dominant narratives that still exist to counter-narratives that central racial, gender, economic and environmental justice,” Blatteau said. “We need to remember the power of counter-narratives in our movement today.”
Speakers all discussed the progress that organizers are making in Connecticut and across the country, from removing former President Donald Trump to Yale University graduate students' push to unionize. In her closing address, Connecticut Communist Party USA Chair Joelle Fishman said committee members ask themselves how to make the Amistad Awards event better each year, but it proves to be easy as the movement continues to grow.
Those involved are looking forward to what the next year has to offer.