Organizing the Corner: How Williamsburg's Female Housecleaners Are Fighting for Higher Wages

From The Village Voice:

by Cole Stangler

It’s a humid summer morning in Williamsburg and a half-dozen women are waiting for work on the corner of Marcy and Division. They’re standing at what’s been dubbed "La Parada," one of the roughly thirty day-labor hubs spread across New York City and the only one to be frequented exclusively by women. For more than a decade, people have come here to recruit the jornaleras, or female day laborers, on an ad hoc basis — mostly for housekeeping in this Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, but sometimes for odd jobs in construction or light manufacturing, too.

When it’s busy, the corner swells with up to 150 women — most of them immigrants from Latin America and many of them undocumented. In the summertime, demand drops substantially. Today is one of the slow days.

Around 9:30 a.m., a prospective employer finally approaches. Sporting a pink dress typical of the women in the area, she strikes up a conversation with Carmen Nina, an immigrant from Peru who has worked the corner for the last six months. After a brief chat, Nina, 40, who commutes an hour each way from Queens, turns away.

"I’ve worked with her before," Nina says in Spanish, shaking her head. "I said no, because I know she doesn’t pay what she promises." When another day laborer follows the woman into her van, Nina shrugs. "She went because she doesn’t know."

About twenty minutes later, another potential employer arrives. She, too, is dressed in traditional Hasidic clothing. The woman makes cleaning gestures and emphasizes an intense scrubbing motion with her hands. That’s code for cleaning on one’s knees, the workers say, a grueling practice preferred by many of the neighborhood’s ultra-Orthodox households.

The woman wants to hire a housekeeper for ten dollars an hour. Three of the jornaleras say they’ll work for twelve dollars — but nobody manages to bargain up the price.

Another jornalera, Judy Garcia, told the Voice, in Spanish, that she won’t ever work on her knees again, no matter the offer. "We’re human beings," says Garcia, 55, an immigrant from Mexico who’s frequented the corner for the last four months. "I value myself and I like myself. I won’t work on my knees without a mop."

Meanwhile, Carmen Nina gives in. She follows the woman into her car.

Since 2010, the Brooklyn-based Worker's Justice Project, a small nonprofit, has sought to inform the Williamsburg jornaleras of their rights and empower them to curtail the worst of their workplace abuses. Over that stretch, the group has built up a network of about thirty rank-and-file supporters at the corner.

Recently, the group decided it wasn’t enough to simply compete with La Parada: In order to improve the working conditions of Williamsburg’s jornaleras en masse, activists decided they needed to change the nature of work at the corner itself.

Last week, the Worker's Justice Project unveiled an ambitious new proposal. With the help of researchers from the Worker Institute at Cornell University, the group published a report that calls for the creation of a "job center" at La Parada.

The center would enforce a baseline set of employment standards. Under the plan, all workers would be paid at least fifteen dollars an hour, receive basic health and safety training, and be equipped with mops and other cleaning equipment like masks and gloves. If successfully implemented, the plan could reshape the corner economy — and perhaps other hubs like it across the country.

"It would give value to the work we do," says Leticia Sanchez, a 28-year-old single mother with two children who’s worked at the corner for ten years. "Having a fixed salary, understanding your worth as an employee, and having the appropriate tools so that you don’t suffer from any sickness, it would value our work and give us respect."

Sanchez has experienced wage theft and injured herself on the job. Her knees are bruised from scrubbing floors by hand, and she’s partially lost her sense of smell from inhaling chemicals at work. "People get thirsty," she says, "people get hungry, it gets cold, it gets hot, there’s days where there’s work, where there isn’t work."

The imbalance of the street corner economy is staggering, a hellish blend of just about all of the worst trends in the U.S. labor market: Workers have little to no bargaining power. There are no health and safety standards. No employment contracts, no stability. The pay is abysmal. Wage theft runs rampant.

To even the most zealous of labor advocates, the situation at La Parada could be seen as something of a lost cause. Day laborers are notoriously difficult to organize because they tend to be itinerant, lack formal employers, and they don’t sign contracts. Many are also wary of taking risks because of their immigration status.

Currently, the Worker's Justice Project holds English classes at borrowed community spaces, teaching workers phrases like, "Do you have a mop?" and "How much do you pay?" Activists have accompanied laborers to confront employers and recover stolen wages, and in an especially egregious case, helped trigger a successful lawsuit to recover $15,000.

Though similar hiring hall models have focused on lifting standards for day laborers in construction and maintenance, no one has ever successfully created a hiring hall for day laborers in the housekeeping industry, according to the Worker's Justice Project.

"You don’t see the kind of hiring halls in, say, the construction trades being used in many other industries," says Ben Dictor, a New York City–based labor lawyer with experience advising workers' centers like the Worker's Justice Project. "But there’s a reason why the building trades have such power and dominance in their industry and a lot of it has to do with the fact that they organize at the point of hire. What’s being proposed here is that workers who are being exploited and deprived of many of the rights we enjoy in the non-itinerant workforce have said, 'We’re gonna organize at the point of hire.' "

Dictor applauded the proposal as an "innovative model" that "could and should be replicated elsewhere."

"Some of the strongest unions in American history started with what people might consider itinerant work," Dictor says. "People showing up at the dock and waving their hand in the air asking to be picked to unload a ship turned into one of the strongest and most influential unions in the United States. And it’s innovative on the part of this group to look at domestic work as having that potential, as something that has always been here, will always be here, and is an important part of the economy and labor force that has not been organized."

Creating a job center like this is daunting.

For one, anything that resembles an official "hiring hall" structure risks the invitation of a legal challenge. Under federal antitrust law, independent contractors are barred from banding together and fixing rates for their labor as a group. It’s called price fixing.

Then there’s the question of community buy-in. Without a base of employers that commit to the center, activists’ vision of improved standards amounts to little more than a dream. While the Worker's Justice Project has already met with several influential leaders in the area, the group is still on the hunt for more support.

Yossi Gestetner, who provides inter-community and public relations services, serves as kind of a community liaison to the South Williamsburg neighborhood. After meeting with representatives from the Worker's Justice Project, he says he sees some promise in the jobs center idea.

"If you have a proposal that is mutually beneficial, my opinion is that people would be very receptive," Gestetner says. “I think if people in Hasidic Williamsburg knew that someone who comes to work at their place has, for example, a card that identifies some kind of background check, they would be more comfortable to work with these people. And if either side has a complaint or concern to bring up, it’s always better if there can be someone in charge to facilitate it."

At the same time, Gestetner acknowledged that "nothing can force a worker to sign up to the job center and nothing can force a housewife to work with these specific people." He added, "It’s not a contract between a company and a union. You have a lot of workers and you have thousands of families who each does certain things their own way."

That’s where the community outreach comes in. While the job center’s success depends on support from workers, it also hinges a great deal on the ability of workers to win the participation of Hasidic families and contractors.

"It’s women supporting women, that’s how I see it," says Ligia Guallpa of the Worker's Justice Project. "These are communities that are marginalized on their own but can come together to build a unique collaboration. The women day laborers are really coming to support large families and other women who can’t take care of their homes [by themselves]. The employers want to know they’re hiring someone who knows how to clean, who’s reliable, who they can trust, is culturally sensitive to their values."

Despite the Worker's Justice Project’s ongoing commitment to La Parada, day laborer Maria Aguilar, 38, acknowledges things haven’t changed for most workers in the last several years.

"The truth is, it’s very sad," Aguilar says. "To see so many people needing work, [just] with the hope that we’ll get ten dollars, it’s not a lot."

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