Sweat vs. Equity

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Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights

Years ago when I lived in the Rio Grande Valley I used to go to a mom-and-pop café in downtown Harlingen, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, but whose menu I remember as exceptionally long and ambitious. Whenever you went for lunch, you would page through the listings with great anticipation. But inevitably, no matter what you ordered, the waitress would smile sweetly and announce, “Sí, lo tenemos, pero no hay.” Yes, we have it, but there isn’t any.

I know a metaphor when I see one.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that café. In between all the stories about disasters natural and unnatural, the imploding White House, and the quagmire of Iraq, there also has been a recent spate of stories about work and workers: GM workers have been asked to absorb a billion dollars’ worth of health care costs; workers at Delphi auto parts have been asked to take a two-thirds cut in pay. “There used to be a kind of floor for worker welfare,” Leon Fink, editor of a journal called Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas,” tells the Los Angeles Times. “But we’re now living in an age in which all those old standards have come unglued.” In the October 31 issue of Time, a 6,515-word piece titled “Broken Promise” details the myriad ways that corporations—with assistance from Congress—have abandoned or will abandon millions of workers when they retire: “a wholesale downsizing of the American dream…. [that] began in the 1980s with the elimination of middle-class, entry-level jobs in lower-paying industries—apparel, textiles and shoes, among others,” and has “spread to jobs that pay solid middle-class wages, starting with the steel industry, then airlines and now autos—with no end in sight.”

Sí, lo tenemos, pero no hay.

Maybe that’s why Jennifer Gordon’s Suburban Sweatshops is such an important and intriguing book to be reading at this time. Gordon writes about people who’ve been promised a different kind of American Dream, with no floor for worker welfare and endless opportunity for disillusionment. Now a professor of labor and immigration law at Fordham University, from 1992 to 1998 she founded and directed the Workplace Project, an immigrants’ rights center on Long Island. In 1999 she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and began working on Suburban Sweatshops. The book combines labor and immigration history with a painfully earnest critique of the role of lawyers in efforts to organize day laborers and other low-wage immigrant workers. It also offers an assessment of the successes and failures of the project that she founded and which continues to function as “a base from which to carry out some noteworthy experiments in challenging the conditions of work in the underground economy.” Those experiments, she writes, have “changed lives in ways that are more than individual, developing leadership among immigrants who are at once deeply committed to this organization and well positioned to lead future organizing efforts there or elsewhere.”

Before graduating from Harvard Law School, Gordon had worked with Central American refugees and had also spent two years visiting factories, restaurants, and other worksites in the Boston area, talking to employers and employees and advising them of their rights with respect to INS. Frequently, the conditions that she saw appalled her and influenced the kind of law she was determined to practice. After securing a modest grant, she arrived in Long Island in time to experience the effects of a dramatic demographic shift. According to the 1970 U.S. census, 95 percent of the population was white; by the time 2000 rolled around, 25 percent were people of color, according to the census figures that in all likelihood were too low. Most of them were foreign born and the majority were Latino. Equally significant was the shift in employment patterns as the numbers of defense industry and other “traditional” factory jobs declined. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (now known as UNITE!) lost 50 percent of its membership during the 1980s. Meanwhile, “suburban sweatshops” blossomed. When Gordon uses the term she’s referring not to sweatshops as in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire or sweatshops in the meatpacking or poultry processing industries, but in construction, auto repairs, home renovation, domestic work, restaurants. Some of those worksites are of the mom-and-pop variety; all of them employ immigrants, many undocumented. Working solo out of a one-room office in a social services agency, Gordon set up shop and began listening to workers and handling their legal problems. What she heard from them has an all-too familiar ring to it:

Jorge Bonilla was hospitalized with pneumonia after sleeping all winter on tablecloths mounded on the floor of the Long Island restaurant where he worked, the heat capped at 50 degrees. He had been evicted from the room where he had been living because his wage of 30 cents an hour was so low that he could not pay his rent, even working 80 hours a week.

As a live-in domestic worker, Yanira Juarez cared for two children and cleaned house in Suffolk County. Duped by her employer’s claim that her wages were being paid “into a savings account,” she worked for 6 months with no pay, and then was fired without seeing a penny.

A day laborer, who did not want me to use his name, stumbled dazed and bleeding out of his employer’s truck and through a Long Island hospital emergency room door one summer afternoon…. A new boss had picked him up that morning and taken him to his jobs. After he cut twenty lawns, grass clogged the lawnmower. In a hurry, the employer had ordered the worker to clear the blockage without cutting the motor.

From 1993 to 1995 the project recovered more than $215,000 for 166 workers. Gordon hired a fulltime organizer, a Salvadoran who had founded Long Island’s first Spanish language newspaper. Eventually the project developed a structure to balance the goals and methods of organizing with the work of the legal clinic. In exchange for help with their legal problems, workers would be asked to attend a nine-week series of nighttime classes conducted in Spanish. In contrast to traditional “Know-Your-Rights” classes with a lawyer or paralegal in the front of the room, these classes emphasized labor and immigration history, were led by Workplace Project members and were intended “to provoke immigrants to think critically” about what they were experiencing in their own jobs and the situation of undocumented workers in general. In a way, a kind of concientizacíon, a concept with which some of the Salvadorans were familiar in their home country—a liberation theology without God. After they completed the course, workers were invited to join the organization and participate in regular meetings, committee work, and workplace actions, which often combined public shame with worker solidarity. They might do a small protest, for example, in front of the home of a recalcitrant employer who refused to pay back wages. For all its flaws, suburbia had its advantages. A protest that might go unnoticed in New York City would certainly attract attention when conducted in front of a pleasant home in a Long Island cul-de-sac. On the other hand, an isolated suburban office park offered fewer opportunities for public protest.

Perhaps the project’s most noteworthy accomplishment, and certainly its most media savvy, was the role it played in the passage of New York’s Unpaid Wages Act, which dramatically increased the penalties that employers would be fined for failing to pay the minimum wage. It also made the willful failure to pay minimum wage a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

During the campaign, Workplace members frequently met with legislators as well as the media. In one instance, a group of 10 undocumented immigrants, along with Workplace Project staff, descended on the suburban office of a powerful Republican state senator named Dean Skelos, who had voted to deny education to undocumented children and hospitalization to undocumented workers. He was also a major proponent of the English-only movement. As soon as they arrived in his office, the Workplace delegation handed out headphones and instructed Skelos to put on his headphone. “Slightly perplexed,” Gordon writes, “he slips it on. With that movement, he enters a world at a noticeable tilt from the one he has long operated in, a new world where immigrants who cannot vote and speak no English talk to him directly, as members of the community he has been elected to represent, and expect his respectful response.”

Eventually Skelos not only endorsed the proposed legislation, along with nine other Republicans, he also sponsored it in the New York State Senate. The bill passed unanimously in both the Senate and the Assembly and was signed into law in 1997.

Suburban Sweatshops

Not long after Gordon left the Workplace Project, Long Island attracted national attention when two immigrant day laborers were brutally attacked near Farmingdale. The uneasy relationship between immigrant day laborers and the rest of the community continues—as it does in Austin, where the Central Texas Immigrant Workers’ Rights Center, a project similar to the one that Gordon founded, has taken up the cause of day laborers who gather outside a local Home Depot looking for work. The overall climate for those working on immigration and employment issues became bleaker in the wake of September 11. And in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case called Hoffman Plastics vs. National Labor Relations Board, which, as Gordon puts it, “eviscerated” undocumented workers’ right to organize. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court held that the National Labor Relations Act, which deals with union organizing, still technically applies to undocumented workers. But those who are fired for their efforts to organize or support a union are not entitled to reinstatement or back pay. Sí, lo tenemos, pero no hay.

The movement to create immigrant workers’ rights centers continues to grow, with 135 across the nation in 2003, according to Gordon, who casts a cool eye on what her own center was able to accomplish. Despite its impressive successes, the Workplace Project was never able to achieve an overall increase in wages. It experimented with contracts between domestic workers and employment agencies, with a landscaper’s co-op, and with a domestic workers’ co-op. But overall, workers have been limited to the inadequate minimum wage provided by the law. Similarly, the project has never been able to make itself financially independent, and continues to rely on foundation grants. Perhaps most important, in a Latino community that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, the project’s membership, at most, has been around 500, with only 10 to 20 percent considered active members. Hopeful that a new social movement may yet emerge, Gordon suggests that under pressure from outside and within, the labor movement itself may move toward broader alliances locally and globally.

Perhaps the best evaluation of what the Workplace Project has been able to achieve, comes not from Gordon, but from one of its members. “I feel like right now we are on the tip of an iceberg,” a Salvadoran immigrant named Carlos Canales told her in an interview in 2001. “The Workplace Project is a tiny ant, with a tiny ant’s needle, trying to break that iceberg down.”

And that’s as good a metaphor as I’ve heard in a long time, one that applies to millions of workers in this country—both citizen and immigrant alike.