Immigrants Fight Back

Workers Centers Lead Where Others Don’t

By Abby Scher

This article is from the September/October 1996 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

This article is from the September/October 1996 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 207 cover

They have the invisibility blues, these low-wage workers in New York’s black market of labor. On Long Island, they are Central American women who work as maids, or men who wait on street corners to be picked up for day jobs as gardeners or in construction. In New York City, they are Mexican workers laboring behind deli and pizza counters, deliverymen dropping off takeout food, or sweatshop workers competing with low-wage garment factories abroad. Even working long hours, their weekly pay may reach only $150. Sometimes a boss doesn’t pay them at all.

Workers in the growing unregulated economy have been invisible to the labor department inspectors who are supposed to enforce minimum wage and hour laws for all, documented and undocumented workers alike. They are largely invisible to the unions. It seems that the only government agency eager to find them is the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which won extra funding from President Clinton and Congress last year to conduct workplace sweeps in search of undocumented—“illegal”—workers to deport. The INS gets help of course, as it did from Albany-area construction workers who called its agents in this summer to deport non-union workers removing asbestos from schools.

For the past 15 years, though, these workers have been visible to workers centers. The organizers and fast-growing membership of these centers reach out to low-income immigrants and native-born Americans to build campaigns for fair and legal working conditions, and sometimes for affordable housing. While small, with handfuls of paid staff and at most 1000 members each, the centers are on the front lines of a battle against harmful, sub-minimum-wage work that depresses the labor conditions of all workers—a battle that most other combatants, from unions to labor investigators, have not been effectively fighting.

It is hard to pinpoint what makes four workers centers in the New York area—and the hundreds elsewhere in the country—distinctive from other organizing. Their tactics are not new, but are particularly suited to reaching the low wage workers most abused by the system. Campaigns target one high profile employer for years and build upon ethnic or racial solidarity. Women organize women. Pickets, education, media zaps; these time-worn tactics have an impact because members deploy them in long community-based campaigns and not just workplace struggles.

In a storefront office in Brooklyn, you can see the impact as the women’s committee of New York’s oldest workers center, Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), campaign for safety on the job. “Occupational health and safety” is not a bureaucratic turn of phrase for the women, but a need to live without crippling back pain, or without the tips of their fingers peeling off from contact with toxic dyes. One evening in June, they photographed each other’s injuries, earned working 60 or 70 hours a week in Brooklyn or Manhattan sweatshops. Glued on plasterboard, the photos would soon be displayed on a sidewalk information table and at a neighborhood meeting called to challenge garment bosses.

“We’re adopting the older models to new circumstances,” says Jennifer Gordon, a Harvard-trained lawyer who four years ago helped found a Long Island workers center, the Workplace Project. “You can’t pretend we’re making this up.”

In some cases, the workers centers’ community-based tactics have challenged unions to become more active in organizing or promoting to leadership people they were neglecting. And unions are finding workers center innovations worth borrowing. Five years ago the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) began establishing their own workplace justice centers to reach out to undocumented or unorganized workers, and the Service Employees International Union will soon follow with its own in New York.

The workers centers’ impact can also be seen in the news every day, as exploitative labor conditions receive more attention. This year, designer Jessica McClintock bowed to the four-year campaign of Oakland’s Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates and agreed to subcontract only to bonded manufacturers obeying labor law. Restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown now pay overtime (even though most still confiscate waiters’ tips) as a result of Chinese Staff’s decade-long campaign targeting Silver Palace, the largest restaurant in the neighborhood.

Now the question is: Can the isolated, tiny offices, staffed by three or four activists, help build a widespread movement?

Responding to a Vacuum

Workers Centers developed their distinct, community-based style of organizing in the 1980s and 1990s as more and more work became unregulated—beyond the enforcement arm of defunded state and federal labor departments—as unions lost power and as a new wave of documented and undocumented immigrants moved to American cities.

The informal, unregulated sector of the U.S. economy grew during the 1980s, as economic restructuring hit home. While multinationals roamed the globe in search of low-wage labor, in the United States they increasingly outsourced to small operators, signing contracts that affirmed with a wink that the subcontractor would obey all U.S. labor laws. While labor laws apply to all workers, those without INS papers have always been more exploited with the threat of deportation over their heads.

In 1986, the U.S. Congress gave unscrupulous employers extra ammunition in the Immigration Reform Act’s employer sanctions provision. Required to check their employee’s immigration status, bosses became virtual agents of the INS. Workers became more fearful of reporting illegal conditions and sweatshops were pushed further underground into the growing unregulated sector. When, a few years later, President George Bush directed the U.S. Department of Labor to report factories employing undocumented workers to the INS, the federal labor arm’s job enforcing the law was made harder.

California, Texas, New York—these states are home to more new immigrants than any others, and are the home to some of the oldest workers centers. Three-quarters of the immigrants to the United States come from Asia and Latin America, and they often move to these states, whether bearing an INS stamp or not. Thirty percent of New York City residents are foreign born, edging close to the 40% of residents who were immigrants early in this century. Of the estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants in this country, about 1.5 million live in California, 500,000 in New York and 400,000 in Texas, according to census estimates. The impact of these trends can be seen in the dropping wage levels of immigrants and those at the bottom of the economy.

Unions seem to have been caught off guard by the growing sphere of low wage work in their industries. It is an old story: unions’ bureaucratized modes of operating often kept their doors shut to the new workers, either as union members or as leaders. Construction, demolition, restaurants, garments; many new immigrants flooded into the dangerous, low-wage jobs where unions were weak, or where union leaders hesitated to organize new constituencies who might threaten their position. Black workers in the South, and women and immigrants throughout the country, started small organizations of their own—mutual aid societies, advocacy groups or full-blown workers associations whose members waged labor battles.

“In a vibrant labor movement, they probably would have been picked up by a union,” says Ann Bastian, senior program officer of the New World Foundation, which has been funding workers centers since 1984. “They remained workers centers because the union side wasn’t really there.”

In New York, the 17-year-old CSWA was built by garment and restaurant workers whose industries’ locals were either corrupt or losing power. Despite the good organizing record of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), which merged with ILGWU in 1995 to create UNITE!, only 25% of garment factories are unionized in New York. And union reps have been known to look the other way when these “closed” union shops hire non-union workers, either to prevent the loss of the entire shop to the union or to pad their own pockets. In one recent scandal, business managers of ILGWU Local 10 pled guilty in 1993 to taking bribes from a manufacturer, allowing him to evade thousands of dollars of union health and pension fund payments and hire non-union workers. The union’s policy of cooperating with management seems to have gone too far.

“There have been some holes in what unions have accomplished,” says Marjorie Fine, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, a foundation that funds workers centers while supporting union activism. Among the weaknesses she noted among unions: their failure to respect women’s grievances and their role in organizing, to respect people already engaged in organizing a community, and to work equally well with both documented and undocumented workers.

Who Are the Workers?

Black and white, native and immigrant, documented and undocumented, union and non-union, women and men. Workers Centers struggle to bridge divisions separating workers, even when they build upon ethnic and gender solidarity.

An Organizer’s Story

By Sebastian Quinac, Latino Workers Center, NYC

I went out on Avenue A & B and talked with a guy selling fruit on the corner. I asked where he came from and whether he liked working this job. At the beginning they don’t talk to you. (I say) “We help workers to solve some problems they have with work.” Most of them don’t think they have problems with work. They get $150 a week; that’s fine with them! They don’t know the law—minimum wage and overtime—they just don’t know.

They ask, “what should a person do?” That’s the beginning of the contact, to educate or get them interested in getting involved more at the center and organize themselves more. It’s difficult. In my country—Guatemala—when we say organize the community it’s easier. They have more time to talk, they trust each other more than here. We try to organize for one reason—if there’s no water in the town. Here, thinking about organizing people is not easy. They work, the TV they are captured by—they are not interested in organizing to fight for their rights unless they have a particular problem. But the other point is, as we work mostly with undocumented workers, they think there’s no reason to organize in the workplace. We have to convince them. They have internalized the publicity—that they are ilegales, that they are lazy—the way that the anti-immigrant sentiment qualifies them.

Our work is not easy. However, I’ve been working here for about four months. Through this time I’ve known that people are saying this is the time to do something, even though they don’t have papers. It takes time to make them conscious of what’s going on.

“They pay attention to what people from other countries bring to the U.S. in organizing,” says Fine. “A lot of them have done organizing in other countries—and they understand what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to build trust before you start to organize” (see box).

In a small way, workers centers try to organize within or across industries. In North Carolina, women chicken processors, and in Texas, farm laborers in chile fields, build organizations. Immigrant workers in the back of New York delis, restaurant deliverers, construction and home care workers labor in isolation from one another, but the Latino Workers Center on the Lower East Side struggles to bring them together in “industrial committees” with others doing the same kind of work. Within the sprawl of Long Island suburbs live more than 200,000 Central Americans. Many are the new service workers that the privileged prefer to see but not hear—the domestic workers, landscape day laborers, building cleaners, factory and restaurant workers. They are among the 250 members of the Workplace Project in Hempstead, L.I., near the Queens border.

Despite sharing a language, many Spanish-speaking immigrants do not feel they have a lot in common with one another: Dominican New Yorkers have developed strong social supports over the years, while Mexicans have just arrived. Central Americans often come with a lot of political experience. The Latino Workers Center—founded by Chinese Staff in 1991—tries to reveal what they have in common.

“When I came here, it surprised me,” says Sebastian Quinac, a native of Guatemala who has been one of two organizers at the Latino Workers Center since February. “In California are Central Americans and Mexicans. But here are Ecuadoreans, Dominicans, Mexican, Peruvian and Chilean, Argentine... We work with all Latinos.”

Bridging ethnic gaps is hard, but so is bridging the gap between documented and undocumented workers, when some of the documented immigrants want to stop immigration, says Quinac.

“With the media blaming the undocumented workers with lowering the wage—then [when] the documented loses the job, there is conflict,” he says. “This comes from them, but it comes from the media and anti-immigrant sentiment. So our work is hard, because they start to think that way, that we should not have more immigrants come.”

In the Chinese community too, there are documented immigrants who don’t like the undocumented, says Chinese Staff organizer Wah Lee.

“Bosses really are using that, and pitting documented workers against undocumented workers,” adds JoAnn Lum, project director at Chinese Staff. “It makes it very difficult for documented workers to make minimum wage. So we really try to organize workers together, so you’re helping to raise the level for everyone.”


The young students wear white headbands emblazoned with the Chinese characters for “justice” in a vivid red. They are on a hunger strike, sleeping for days on an elevated platform in the middle of New York’s Chinatown, calling for an “end to slave labor” and enforcement of labor laws in the neighborhood. Since it is June 1995, these activists from Chinese Staff’s youth group hope to capitalize on the press’s interest in the sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising by drawing on the Chinese students’ symbols. They know first hand that bosses flout labor law without fear of prosecution, since they, their parents, or friends’ parents, have worked alongside children or for sub-minimum wages. The Chinatown press watches uncomfortably; they don’t like the troublemakers’ open talk linking organized crime with Chinatown businesses.

Direct action, boycotts and pickets against exploitative employers are more common workers center tactics than hunger strikes. But like advocacy groups, workers centers engage in high profile public relations campaigns to get their grievances aired in the media.

For Etelbina Flores and other domestic workers whose campaign with the Workplace Project was covered by the New York Times in February, this might mean getting a group together to picket their wealthy employers’ homes in Great Neck or file in small claims court for back wages. They demanded to be paid more than $2 an hour and treated with respect—and found the media was interested in hearing about “the dirty little secrets behind the closed doors” of wealthy homes.

Like the Highlander Center in Tennessee and popular educators worldwide, some workers centers try to build their members’ power to take action and their awareness of how the economic system works by discussing themes drawn from their everyday lives. They try to nurture a new vision of society.

“The forces out there that our members and workers face everyday—about promoting just yourself, and money—become part of our work, struggling over those things,” says Lum of Chinese Staff. “About getting together, and that there are other values other than money.”

The Workplace Project turned to popular education after its effort to recruit members by offering legal services proved too passive a way to involve people.

“We learned that was a bust,” says Gordon. “We’ve gotten $200,000 in back wages—that’s nice. But when you see people coming back season after season, you realize you’re being a payroll service for the employer. Very quickly, in five or six months, we began training our membership base.”

Some drive 1-1/2 hours each way from the far reaches of Long Island to take Workplace Project classes on organizing, labor history and labor rights. They car pool and bring the kids, who are set up with a TV while their parents join 35 to 65 others in the classroom.

“We still have a legal clinic,” says Gordon, “but no one gets services unless they are a member or on their way to become one (by taking the class).”

Popular education classes are less successful if staffers target students who quickly display political consciousness and neglect those who are not ready to embrace the politics of the workers center. Not everybody wants to join a picket line.

“There needs to be different levels at which you can enter into the organization, so you can do the work you’re ready to do,” says Chris Agee, a former teacher at a workers center. The more established a workers center is, the more ways you can be involved, through citizenship classes, museum trips, or, like at Chinese Staff, joining an anti-gambling campaign.

The rigidity of bureaucratized unions lurks behind the workers centers’ struggle to have the members generate the issues, not the leadership. Of course, the leadership needs to step aside for this to happen.

At Chinese Staff, Lee says, “the issues come from problems people bring in off the street, and then we discuss it on our board, the pros and cons: what about the issues, what effect is it going to have.”

At a town meeting in the summer of 1995, Chinese Staff invited U.S. labor department officials to hear workers from the community speak out about Chinatown labor conditions and demand that it enforce the law—prompting the formation of a special federal task force on Chinatown.

In January 1995, after debating what the greatest impediment to enforcement of labor rights was, 200 members of the Workplace Project decided to ignite a campaign to force the state department of labor to respond to their complaints—even though only a handful of them can vote. They brought the chair of a labor committee of the state legislature down to Long Island to hear their testimony about the barriers to justice—such as the language barrier they encounter with English-speaking staff of the state labor department. Their campaign sparked the Prohibition of Unpaid Labor Act, which doubles the fines against employers who don’t pay wages and ensures that undocumented workers have the right to file claims with the state labor department. The bill is currently stalled in the state Senate.

Relationships with Unions

“Organize not unionize,” argues a position paper written for the first national conference of a small consortium of a dozen workers centers, held in New York in June 1994. But the workers centers’ anti-union reputation is a “red herring,” as one staffer put it. Despite their often uneasy relationships with the union old guard, workers centers regularly help organize small unions. Even Chinese Staff, which has the reputation for being the most contemptuous of big unions, has helped form independent unions of restaurant, construction, and food service and maintenance workers. Members of the Workplace Project who are day laborers hired off of Long Island streetcorners are talking about forming a union.

The distant face of union bureaucracies lies at the root of the distrust, says Wah Lee, a restaurant worker who joined Chinese Staff during its epic struggle to unionize the Silver Palace.

“Most of the garment workers I know, including my husband, they just pay dues and they’re never told what the union is doing or what they can do,” says Lee. “Every three months or so they’ll get a newsletter from the union, and twice a year or so they’ll get an insert in Chinese that tells them about lobbying in Washington DC, but doesn’t really talk about workers in Chinatown. So most garment workers don’t know what the union’s about.”

The members of her small restaurant workers union know that unless they are involved, some of their power will erode, she says.

In a bridge-building effort by the Latino Workers Center in June, a staffmember invited unions and immigrant rights groups together to discuss ways to oppose the INS sweeps of New York workplaces for undocumented workers. Boston’s Immigrant Worker Resource Center regularly allies with unions, most recently in a city-wide living wage campaign.

Newer, less established workers centers have an incentive to be more friendly with big unions. Foundations interested in worker issues look more kindly on their funding requests.

Unions Have Workers Centers Too

Even if the occasional ILG official disparages workers centers as annoying gadflies (as one did to me), the ILGWU was the first union to borrow from the workers center model. Since 1991, ILGWU (now UNITE!) has established “workplace justice centers” in five cities—New York, Miami, Los Angeles, El Paso and San Francisco—based loosely on the model of independent workers centers. By September 1995, its Garment Workers Justice Center in New York’s midtown Fashion District reported registering 1500 to 1800 associate members. These members do not work in union shops, but benefit from UNITE! services such as English classes, says Emmanuel Ness, a Brooklyn College professor who studied the center.

Ness found that the center tended to attract very low-paid workers with wage problems that the union had helped solve. Ness also found that the centers generate worker activism. Associates are more likely to join UNITE! protests—such as a recent demonstration outside Macy’s in New York—than are regular unionists.

Even with its wealthy coffers and large size, UNITE! faces the same problem as independent workers centers and other unions—it can organize undocumented workers into a bargaining unit, but an employer can merely ask for their papers and fire a healthy portion of the new unionists.

In the summer of 1995, this fate befell supermarket workers in the Bronx, who, following a community-wide struggle, organized a union through the United Food and Commercial Workers. They won the battle but lost the war when the employer asked for their papers.

Unions like UNITE! with large immigrant memberships are fighting the immigration act’s employer sanctions provision. Undocumented and other low wage workers are organizing so that employers really have something to lose if they break labor law. Now the INS needs to remove the roadblocks it has placed in their path, or the workers might end up like the mythic Sisyphus, who pushed a boulder up the mountain, only to watch it roll down again.

Abby Scher is co-editor of Dollars & Sense.

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