Make the Road New York: Success Through 'Love and Agitation'
Credit: Deborah Axt
At a late-night meeting in early spring, using a form of popular theater common in social movements throughout the Latin American countries they emigrated from, dozens of immigrant carwash workers put on a play for an audience of 200 to dramatize the bad treatment and dangerous conditions in New York City’s carwashes. In the play’s final act, the carwasheros unfurl six home-made, body-length banners to communicate their demands: (1) respect; (2) better pay, paid vacation and sick days; (3) healthcare; (4) protections from abuse (something like a legal “just cause” denied to most US workers); (5) 100 percent of their tips, on top of the minimum wage, and (6) a union contract.
It’s the last demand—”¡Un sindicato!“—that brings the folks in the middle of the hall to their feet, loudly stomping and chanting, “¡Si, se puede!” The audience is indistinguishable from the actors, made up mostly of other carwasheros who have turned out for the first-ever citywide Car Wash Workers General Assembly. But lining the outside walls of the room is an impressive lineup of New York City power brokers, including City Council speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn; about as many City Council members as it would take to have a quorum; the Manhattan borough president; and all sorts of lesser-known candidates running for local office in one of the largest cities in the world.
The campaign for justice in the city’s carwash industry grew out of a more than decade-long grassroots organizing effort to assist the working poor to fight their way out of poverty. For the carwash campaign, the organization Make the Road New York is collaborating with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and New York Communities for Change, the group that came to life after ACORN’s destruction. But the groundwork for the carwashero campaign was laid in a 2004 pilot effort initiated by Make the Road called Despierta Bushwick (Wake Up, Bushwick).
Make the Road New York was formed in 2007, when the Brooklyn-based Make the Road by Walking and the Queens-based Latin American Integration Center merged, forming the largest nonunion immigrant membership organization in New York City. Today, with 12,600 dues-paying members, MRNY is a unique amalgam of worker center, legal clinic, citizenship school, mutual aid society, policy shop, protest factory and church. Its four offices in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island are an egalitarian oasis for members, who gather there for conversation and classes. According to Javier Valdés, one of three co–executive directors, “We have created a physical space where people feel dignified and at home—because outside the four walls of our offices, the world can feel really crappy. When people walk through our doors, we want everyone to feel respected and comfortable. In our experience, organizing from anger alone is not enough; part of why people stay involved and active at Make the Road is because we have built a community based on love alongside our highly agitational campaigns.”
Make the Road isn’t just fusing culture with organizing; it is fusing workplace and community issues that are of equal concern to its members. This multi-issue approach stands in contrast to that of traditional worker centers, unions and community-based organizations, most of which still operate in ways that reflect the stark workplace/community divide described by Columbia University political scientist Ira Katznelson in 1981. As he observed in City Trenches, “What is distinctive about the American experience is that the linguistic, cultural, and institutional meaning given to the differentiation of work and community, a characteristic of all industrial capitalist societies, has taken a sharply divided form, and that it has done so for a very long time.”
All of which means that Make the Road’s approach is distinctive, as it weaves together issues like stop-and-frisk racial profiling, affordable housing, environmental and civil rights, and workplace justice. Perhaps most surprising, given its base among Catholic Latino immigrants, is its campaign for tolerance and against the discrimination directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer people. According to Ana Maria Archila, a Colombian immigrant and another co–executive director of Make the Road (as well as an out lesbian whose recent wedding was covered in the media), “I spend at least five hours a week, every week, talking one on one to emerging leaders about this issue. Sure, leaders question why are we doing this? It takes tremendous energy, but it’s the right thing to do, and in the end, our members embrace and accept it.”
Initially, Make the Road pursued workplace justice by focusing on workers’ on-the-job grievances related to wage and hour violations, taking advantage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. When an employer refuses to pay an MRNY member, denies them overtime or the minimum wage, or shorts their hours, other MRNY members go en masse to the worksite and demand the money in a shame-based solidarity protest. If the employer ignores the direct confrontation and refuses to pay, MRNY’s attorneys go after the employer on legal grounds. This program has long been an important recruitment tool, but Deborah Axt, another co–executive director and a former union organizer and attorney, explains that it has a deep value beyond recruitment: “These individual and small-scale fights matter a great deal, because the members can get involved and exercise, test and improve upon their leadership immediately. It’s like having dozens of mini-campaigns going on all at once, all the time.”
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By 2004, Make the Road decided to add something new to its worker justice repertoire: unions. It was a bold move, and one with a high risk of failure. Union election victories are hard to come by in any sector, especially given the incentive for employers to systematically violate the few remaining worker protections under US law. But in view of the sheer number of people experiencing wage theft, Make the Road wanted to scale up. If the workers could form unions, it would give them access to ongoing assistance and potentially raise their wages and living standards above the poverty line. Make the Road sought a union partner. Enter the RWDSU.
The RWDSU under Stuart Applebaum’s leadership joined Make the Road to attempt the near-impossible—a win in marginal retail in the shadows of a big city in the Bush era. And so Despierta Bushwick was born. According to Edward Ott, distinguished lecturer at the City University of New York’s labor studies center and the former longtime executive director at the NYC Central Labor Council, “From almost day one, Make the Road caught the attention of New York City’s unions, because the group’s leaders understood that a union contract could be a tremendous tool for their members. This union-friendly approach—and their demonstrated ability to turn out large numbers of their members for events—set them apart from every other group in New York City.”
The first tactical move for Make the Road was to map a geographic boundary of two blocks in either direction of Brooklyn’s Knickerbocker Avenue, an area where the organization had strong roots. Over the course of six months, its members knocked on more than 6,000 doors, talking with residents about the conditions that workers along Knickerbocker were facing. Many of these residents had firsthand experience in the stores, either as workers themselves or as family or friends. At the end of each conversation, the canvassers asked the residents to sign a pledge card stating that they would boycott any store that didn’t respect its workers. The canvassers also gathered information from each resident about which stores they patronized on Knickerbocker Avenue as one way to gauge the potential impact of consumer pressure.
While Make the Road talked with people off Knickerbocker, the RWDSU organizers were talking with the workers on the avenue. The collaborative team began to work with the New York State Attorney General’s Office to file unpaid-wage claims. The tactic was to ratchet up the amount of back-pay claims an employer might face should they resist the no-cost alternative of agreeing not to fight the unionization effort in return for the claims being dropped. At the time, the attorney general was Eliot Spitzer, who proved sympathetic to the effort.