New York City’s worker centers organize day laborers and other low-wage workers , who play a fundamental role in the city’s economy and built environment — including constructing, maintaining, and cleaning its thousands of buildings. This workforce is often on the frontlines of the city’s response to disasters, from superstorm Sandy to the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently tearing through the city.
Immigrant, low-wage workers can be among the city’s most vulnerable. They face hazardous workplaces, wage theft, and a climate of fear from immigration raids. This is where worker centers play an important role. They respond to workers’ immediate needs, provide safety training, and campaign for policy change with their active bases of members.
Ligia Guallpa and Yadira Sánchez co-founded the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP) in Brooklyn in 2010. WJP now has two centers, one in Williamsburg and one in Sunset Park. As Ligia puts it: “We have built a strong community that understands the power of community organizing and solidarity in times like this.” Below, she describes how the worker centers create their own form of community resilience, built on years of strengthening relationships, mutual support, and organizing to hold employers accountable. – AS
Worker’s Justice Project (WJP) organizes low-wage, Latino and Latina immigrant workers in unregulated industries, mostly construction and house cleaning. Now, we’re expanding into other industries such as street vending, food processing workers, and restaurant workers.
House cleaning is mostly women. We organize workers who work in private houses, and the issues start with the fact that private houses are not perceived as a workplace. It’s also unsafe, because a lot of the women are cleaning with toxic chemicals. Wage theft is another issue. A lot of women are not paid on time, not paid their overtime, or simply denied their paycheck. It’s a very informal sector, and the fact that there is no regulation makes conditions much worse.
We started interacting with the construction industry by supporting workers who were building back New York City after Hurricane Sandy. Workers were coming to our doors, talking about how unsafe it was. Unfortunately, the construction industry, especially residential construction, is unregulated and unsafe, particularly for low-wage immigrant workers. In the last few years, health and safety has become one of our core issues. As construction has been booming, there have been an unprecedented number of deaths on the job.
We bring together community members and workers who want to change the conditions that exist in their workplaces and in the community. The way workers do it is by coming together, getting educated about their rights, organizing on their worksites or in their communities, and taking collective action.
Opening two physical worker centers has allowed us to create safe spaces in communities where we are actually organizing. We opened a storefront in Williamsburg, two blocks away from the women’s day labor parada, or day labor corner, in 2017. The first women’s day labor hiring hall for house cleaning in New York City operates here. We are attempting to formalize that industry, but also to start policing it as well. Workers determine their wages, determine the hours they’re going to work, determine their conditions. When an employer comes in, there’s a written agreement.
We also expanded to Sunset Park this year. Back in the day, we used to be in a trailer, borrowing other organizations’ spaces to do our work. We moved our hiring hall for day laborers from Bensonhurst to Sunset Park to be more central to the immigrant community, and to expand the program.
WJP is part of the national movement of worker centers. We’re working with other centers and unions to think about how we organize the construction industry, whether through worker-led committees or specific education or legislative campaigns.
It’s a fight we’re collectively leading with workers. I think it’s transformational. One of the most rewarding moments is when workers realize that if change is going to happen in their workplaces, in their industries, it requires them to lead that effort. One of our members, Patricia, from Mexico, fought to get into the construction industry. She initially came and took an OSHA 30-hour health and safety training with us, and became fascinated by the rights, health and safety issues that exist in the industry, and how she as a woman and as a worker and a human being can be an agent of change. In less than a year, she has gone from laborer to safety supervisor. Patricia was able to bring bathrooms for women on job sites and have deeper conversations about respect for women on the job. She is more conscious about what safety really means for everybody, not only while we’re working.
We strongly believe that members are the heart and soul of our organization, and the only way we make change is by building leaders for that work. In the past few years we have developed a small committee of worker-leaders, like Patricia, who are committed to building a culture of safety in the construction industry. Safety Liaisons identify hazards in their workplaces, communicate to their supervisors how they would like changes to happen, and educate workers about how to protect themselves — to understand their rights, but also the responsibilities that they have as workers. Who is better than a worker to speak with and train other workers about how to protect themselves?
Changing the culture of safety takes everybody: developers, contractors, subcontractors, managers, supervisors. I think one of the biggest challenges is how everybody in this chain understands what safety looks like, and that safety is a shared responsibility: across the board, and across every single actor in that specific industry.
There is also an enforcement crisis that needs to be addressed. Who are agencies going to be addressing when it comes to unsafe workplaces and other issues such as wage theft, not being paid overtime, and unequal pay between men and women workers? We’ve been pushing for a code enforcement approach. What code enforcement really means for us is the city partnering with community organizations to address workplace issues collectively. Sometimes what the WJP ends up doing is all the ground work, identifying every single detail — who the employers are, where the employers are, what the conditions are — for a lot of these agencies to collaborate with us and take action.
The New York City Department of Buildings has said that they want to change their mission to be more in the business of protecting workers rather than developers. If this city has the power to shut down workplaces and revoke certain permits, it should use that power on behalf of workers when an employer is not complying with health and safety measures.
Another power that agencies have at the state level is to revoke the business licenses of contractors. We think that unethical businesses who are putting the lives of workers at risk should not be doing business in New York City. And we want District Attorneys to start criminalizing employers who are not only not compliant with health and safety regulations, but have been responsible for worker deaths and injuries. That’s a way to send a stronger message to developers — that we can no longer be a city that continues to do business as usual when workers are dying on the job.
We’re also starting to develop a professional training program for house cleaning. It’s an opportunity to start formalizing that industry, to make it visible and professional, and validate workers in that industry as workers. Because it’s an actual workplace and a profession, workers deserve dignified workplace standards. The program is a ten-hour health and safety curriculum. We’re training women in ways that they can use cleaning products that are greener and safer in general.
Day laborers, immigrant construction workers, and domestic workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s problems: not only the risks of infection, but also the shortcomings of their employers. Some of the most shocking examples include large construction sites and companies refusing to grant workers basic sick time, and domestic workers being sent home unless they produce proof that they are not positive for coronavirus. We all know that, at the moment, tests are basically impossible to come by unless you have symptoms!
Far too often, low-wage immigrant workers, who do not have access to available safety net programs, are left out of disaster responses while bearing the brunt of the difficult and dangerous work that comes in the wake of these disasters. We are calling on the city to create a relief fund, include day laborers and other immigrant workers acting as emergency responders in the government response, make safety equipment and coronavirus testing more available, and expand sick leave to temporary workers.
The dream is to build a pathway for unionization of low-wage immigrant workers. We can only build a stronger workers’ rights movement if we can figure out the right pathway for unionizing that sector.
The current political climate has made this effort even harder. As soon as an employer feels that their workers are organizing or attempting to organize on their site, the first call is: “We’re going to call in ICE,” or “You’re going to get fired,” or “Now we’re going to use e-Verify just because you’re trying to organize.”
Most of our members live in Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and Sunset Park, at the edge of the water. Climate change is very personal for many workers. A lot of our members see themselves as first responders. When another Sandy happens, they know that they will be the first ones on the ground — exposed to dirty, unsafe, and deadly conditions — to build back our cities. We have been trying to prepare workers and prepare our communities. Low-wage workers happen to be the last people to be connected and to know how to respond, yet they are most affected. One of the opportunities we see is connecting the workers’ rights movement to climate change. We’re starting to have conversations with city agencies about thinking through how to build a new economy that is green and opens up opportunities for jobs that can go to low-wage income workers who live in these neighborhoods where the need is greatest.
My hope is that we can build a stronger workers’ movement: that there is a pathway for unionizing immigrant workers; that we build a new economy where there are opportunities for communities of color; that the construction industry becomes an industry of opportunity for women and communities of color; and that these jobs that are safer and more dignified for everybody.
WJP has created an action fund to support its members with rent payments, groceries, and other essentials they need to survive during this period, with priority given to workers who are sick, unemployed, and aging undocumented workers.
All photos courtesy of Worker’s Justice Project.