A peaceful union march is brutally attacked by police. A union activist’s leg is horribly disfigured and nearly amputated. Maimed possibly for life, she is charged with multiple felony offenses.
The battleground is not the coalfields of Harlan County in the 1930s or 1970s; it’s not an example of anti-union violence in Colombia or the Philippines. Our setting is present day Providence, Rhode Island.
On that brilliant Saturday, August 11 of 2007, Alexandra Svoboda didn’t do what she was supposed to do. She didn’t stay home and watch TV. She didn’t go shop at her local Wal-Mart. She didn’t waste away hours on MySpace.
That beautiful Saturday afternoon, Alex chose action. A twenty-two year old worker, student, and union activist, she had heard the call for solidarity from a group of immigrant workers organizing at a Queens, New York sweatshop. The sweatshop, known as HWH-Dragonland Trading, distributed restaurant supplies and maintained labor conditions horrendous even by the abysmal standards of the sector.
Some of the workers at the company joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the union which Alex is a member of. The workers were fed up with rampant abuse, stolen wages, and work weeks over 100 hours.
When it became known that the sweatshop sold supplies to a restaurant chain with a location in North Providence, Alex and her fellow IWW members in Providence knew they had to act. They were motivated not by some notion of charity, but by a belief in solidarity and mutual aid. That is, the concept that as workers we all benefit when we stand together no matter our race, immigration status, gender, or sexual orientation.
As the mostly young IWW workers marched toward Jackie’s Galaxie restaurant to raise awareness about its relationship to the Queens sweatshop, North Providence police officers began their attack. Inexplicably, three police officers singled out Alex and violently dislocated her knee as they threw her into the ground. A cop then sat on the horrifically injured Alex and handcuffed her. Meanwhile, fellow IWW member Jason Friedmutter was taken down, cuffed, and arrested as well. Other peaceful marchers were pepper sprayed. (Graphic photos of the brutal police assault are available here.)
After the attack, doctors conducted an emergency surgery on Alex’s leg. Had the surgery not succeeded, they would have proceeded with amputation plans. Three more surgeries, unspeakable pain, and countless hours of physical therapy followed. The police had torn the popliteal artery in Alex’s knee, fractured her tibia and fibia, and caused meniscus as well as ligament tears. Because of her injury, Alex hasn’t been able to work in over a year. Her life will never be the same.
Communities of color, low-wage workers, and other groups familiar with police brutality know that criminal charges or innuendo against victims is the norm following police aggression. The case of Alex and Jason is no different. Alex was charged ridiculously but not surprisingly with three felony counts of assaulting a police officer as well as misdemeanor resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Jason was charged with obstruction of justice. Though Alex’s felony charges have now been downgraded to misdemeanors, the pair still face a criminal trial in the upcoming months.
Confronted with the determined resolve of Alex and her fellow unionists, Jackie’s Galaxie ultimately cut off all ties with the HWH-Dragonland sweatshop. HWH-Dragonland has since reportedly gone out of business. While a union shop with quality wages and working conditions would have been a better outcome, at least there’s one less worker abusing sweatshop on Planet Earth and one more example of the consequences of union-busting for other sweatshops.
Alex Svoboda joins a long line of working class heroes who have been severely wounded or killed struggling for justice against the capitalists and their unchecked corporate power. In Thomas Paine’s phrase, she “dare[d] oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant.” By engaging in direct action on behalf of her class, she aroused the ire of the State and suffered terribly for it.
Revolutionary change comes about through the everyday hard work and sacrifice of people like Alex. She was out there for us that fateful day — all of us who have felt the sting of indignity at work and who believe that working people deserve better.
Let’s be there for her now. Alex and Jason need financial and moral support to have their innocence affirmed at trial. You can e-mail email@example.com for details on how to lend a hand.
When you stand firm in your life not just against exploitation, but the exploiter-corporations themselves, I hope you’ll be strengthened and inspired by Alex’s example. I know I am.
DANIEL GROSS is an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World and the founding director of Brandworkers, a non-profit organization protecting and advancing the rights of retail and food chain employees. He is the co-author with Staughton Lynd of “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer: Building Solidarity While Staying Clear of the Law,” just out from PM Press. You can contact him through www.Brandworkers.org.