Make the Road New York: Success Through 'Love and Agitation'
In August 2005, with back-to-school shopping about to begin, Make the Road sent a letter to two of the chains on Knickerbocker Avenue that typified the strip: Footco and Shoe Mania. The letter notified the store owners that unless they were prepared to sign an agreement to cease their unjust practices and permit their employees to make a decision on unionizing free from intimidation or harassment, they would call for a boycott at a press conference. Shoe Mania shut down, almost certainly a response to the union threat. But Footco responded immediately and, by the campaign’s end, the workers had formed a union with the RWDSU and negotiated a collective-bargaining agreement covering about 100 workers across ten stores that included health insurance, paid sick days and vacation time for all workers, and a $3-an-hour raise. The Footco contract would be renegotiated successfully until the company succumbed, along with thousands of other small retail stores, to the economic crisis.
Beyond Footco, several other results were achieved with Despierta Bushwick. Make the Road built deep relationships with key staff at city and state agencies that would enable its members to engage in what they call strategic “sweeps,” in which Make the Road and one of its union partners—typically the RWDSU—gather information from workers in an industry and a targeted area and provide it to enforcement agencies, which swoop in and cite multiple employers at once. In May of 2008 and again in June of 2009, Make the Road played a crucial role in getting the attorney general’s office and the state Labor Department to go after grocery stores for systematically stealing the wages of store baggers. The result was substantial payments, such as at C-Town in Queens, which had to pay baggers more than $300,000 in back wages; Pioneer Grocery in Brooklyn, which had to pay more than $160,000; and Key Foods in Brooklyn, which owed more than $44,000 to baggers. Before the sweeps, the employers typically made the workers sign agreements claiming they were independent contractors, paid them no wages and only tips, and yet treated them just like employees (including assigning them other jobs, like cleaning, and firing them if they wouldn’t comply). Thanks to its large membership, Make the Road helps the generally underfunded state agencies launch what feels like a sting operation against unscrupulous employers, and the impact ripples out well beyond the stores that get fined.
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Even after a couple of years of strategic sweeps, which significantly elevated the scale of their success, Make the Road was frustrated by the inadequacies of the laws they were helping to see enforced. So it decided to attack those deficiencies. As Deborah Axt says, “For the many workers in the informal economy and the nonunion economy, we are trying to put as many pieces together as we can that offer protections like a [union] contract.”
In 2010, Make the Road led the successful effort to pass New York’s Wage Theft Prevention Act, more than doubling the fines, quadrupling penalties if employers threatened their workers with retaliation, and adding important new organizing tools (such as mandating that all paychecks include information on what the worker is being paid, based on how many hours, in the person’s native language). This converted the law from one of the nation’s weakest to the strongest. It was signed into law in December 2010 and took effect on April 9, 2011. The law “makes the hammer of reach and enforcement much bigger,” says Axt.
By 2012, the late Jon Kest, former head of ACORN New York who was then the executive director of New York Communities for Change, was looking for a worker-organizing campaign where the NYCC could make a difference. He began talking with Axt at Make the Road because of the group’s long history of deep collaboration with unions, especially the RWDSU. The carwash campaign that came out of these conversations represents a bigger, smarter evolution of what Make the Road and the RWDSU began on Knickerbocker Avenue almost ten years earlier. In less than one year, workers at six different carwashes have voted yes to forming a union in National Labor Relations Board elections.
Underlying all of Make the Road’s issue work is a commitment to building a high-participation organization. What it calls its “high touch” model, with dozens of weekly meetings, creates points of entry and opportunities for leadership development for Make the Road’s thousands of members. At committee meetings, where the dinner is often cooked by members at the office and served by teams carrying army-size pots of beans and rice, members discuss recent actions and plan for new ones. In addition, the group makes many of its services—from legal help with bad landlords or bad bosses, to ESL classes, citizenship classes and more—conditional on members’ participating in at least two activities per month, creating a sustained participation level where activism constitutes a kind of dues.
High participation is crucial to just about every strategy available to the left. From disruptive strategies like protests, civil disobedience, blockades, occupations, boycotts and strikes, to electoral campaigns, winning and enforcing strong union contracts, and even legal strategies, the most important factor in determining success has long been people power. Make the Road’s diverse issue mix, including workplace and community issues, covers just about every serious problem bearing down on the lives of workers and the poor. This breadth enhances the group’s ability to recruit new members. Plus its high-touch model also aids in the development of large numbers of rank-and-file leaders, which enables large turnouts at its various actions. With unions representing just 6.6 percent (and shrinking) of the private sector workforce, and given the expansion of the informal economy, the fight to expand and improve unions is just as crucial as improving the regulations that protect all workers. And the power to enforce laws and union contracts flows from exactly the same source: robust, democratic, high-participation organizations.
If more sectors of the progressive movement in the United States decided to adopt the high-touch and multi-issue elements that have enabled Make the Road New York to thrive, we’d spend less time licking our wounds and more time celebrating our successes.
From the Bronx to Brooklyn, workers at car washes and fast food joints are finding ways to fight for their rights, reports Lizzy Ratner (April 18).