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.”