Day laborers on the frontlines during COVID-19

A health and safety training course for women construction workers at WJP’s worker center in Williamsburg, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through New York City, day laborers in construction are among those who bear the brunt of the impacts.

It took time for non-essential construction to be halted, and now that it has, construction on many sites continues – continuing to expose workers to the virus while the city is urging people stay at home.

A day after the order to stop work on non-essential sites took effect, for example, the buildings department received more than 900 appeals from developers and contractors, arguing their projects should count as essential.

Migrant construction workers often lack the safety protections, sick-pay, and union protections that help hold contractors accountable.

In this context, worker centers like the Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn play a crucial role. The Rights Here Project interviewed Ligia Guallpa, Executive Director of WJP, for Urban Omnibus. Read the full interview here.

As Ligia says: “We have built a strong community that understands the power of organizing and solidarity in times like this. Far too often, low-wage immigrant workers, who do not have access to available safety net programs, are left out of disaster responses while bearing the brunt of the difficult and dangerous work that comes in the wake of these disasters.”

Ligia has a clear vision for the future:

“My hope is that we can build a stronger workers’ movement: that there is a pathway for unionizing immigrant workers; that we build a new economy where there are opportunities for communities of color; that the construction industry becomes an industry of opportunity for women and communities of color; and that these jobs that are safer and more dignified for everybody.”

Read the full interview: “A Safe Space”, in Urban Omnibus

Several of the city’s worker centers have relief funds, for example:

Workers Justice Project, in Brooklyn
La Colmena, in Staten Island
NICE, in Queens

Workers rally to get SWEAT wage theft bill into law

Earlier this year, the Rights Here Project spoke with construction worker Rafael. “We day laborers,” he said, “we are prime targets for cheats. There have been times when we are driven for miles, get threatened with arms, work hard through the day in demolition or asbestos removal, and then don’t get paid.”

According to the US Department of Labor, up to $1 billion is stolen from workers every year: either in unpaid wages, or when workers don’t receive the minimum wage, overtime wages, or payment for all the hours they have worked.

That’s why workers from construction and other industries like restaurants and nail salons rallied yesterday outside Governor Cuomo’s office in NYC calling on him to pass the SWEAT bill in to law.

The bill gives workers and the Department of Labor the tools to recover stolen wages, by putting a lien on the employers’ business or property until the conclusion of a court case or investigation. The bill passed the NY legislature and now awaits Cuomo’s signature. Even when workers do take action and win settlements for unpaid wages, employers often close up shop and register under a different name, or hide their assets. The SWEAT bill aims to stop them getting away with this.

At the rally, Adriana Escandón of the Workers Justice Project said: “El robo del salario es un crimen. Pero mas allá de un crimen es un atentado contra la humanidad de los trabajadores y las trabajadores”. “Wage theft is a crime. And more than that, it is an affront to workers’ humanity.”

Earlier on the day of the rally, workers had travelled in the ‘Chiva Justiciera’ bus to employers who had failed to pay their workers, demanding that they pay. Photo credit Nadia Marin-Molina / National Day Laborer Organizing Network

Read more:

El Diario: Op-ed by Ligia Guallpa y Adriana Escandón, Workers Justice Project, “Ruta Hacia la Justicia: No al Robo de Salario

City Limits: “Workers await Gov’s action to make wage-theft dead-beats pay

Talking with Judaline Cassidy of Tools & Tiaras

Judaline Cassidy (second from left) and a group of girls tour a construction site as part of the Construction Skills Day Camp. Photo courtesy of Judaline Cassidy.

In September, Annabel of Rights Here interviewed Judaline Cassidy for Urban Omnibus.

Judaline was the first female plumber in Plumbers Local Union 371 in Staten Island. She recently had a major breakthrough when Plumbers Local 1 officially recognized the “Croton Sisters” women’s committee.

In 2017, Judaline set up the nonprofit Tools & Tiaras Inc, which introduces girls to construction tools. Tools & Tiaras runs workshops during the school year, and summer camps in New York and New Jersey. As Judaline’s words make clear, teaching girls how to use tools is about far more than construction. It’s about power. 

“I didn’t want any little girl to grow up like I did,” says Judaline. “I didn’t have confidence in myself. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the world. And I knew how construction changed all of that for me. I went from being a poor girl, growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, to having a union salary that enables me to have a house, to start Tools & Tiaras. You always have a job as a tradesperson. That is powerful. That’s why more women need to know about it. The freedom.

“When you realize that you can do something that most women and a lot of men can’t do, it gives you this bravado. You even walk differently. Because the minute you start working with tools, the mind shift happens: ‘I can do this. I can do anything.'”

Read the full interview here: “Power Tools“, Urban Omnibus.

A group of Construction Skills campers and future tradeswomen. Photo by Judaline Cassidy

The Unauthorized Plans for New York

Through a combination of imagination and community-building New Yorkers can take planning into their own hands, create powerful alternative visions for their neighborhoods and put them into action. This was one of the themes that ran through the recent event at CUNY’s Center for the Humanities, “The Unauthorized Plans for New York.”

The title played with the idea that an “unauthorized” biography is often the most authentic one. Rough at the edges perhaps, but it conveys nuance and reality in a way that often escapes the official, endorsed version, just as a community-led plan gets closest to the lived reality and needs of residents.

Aurash Khawarzad shared the story of the Upper Manhatta(n)Project, a multi-disciplinary strategy to prepare NYC for climate change. He emphasized the need to work on social and environmental issues on equal terms, and to involve residents directly in decision-making. Much of the process entails “talking to people, listening, and honoring what’s heard. Unless people have agency and autonomy over how cities are planned, displacement will continue to happen,” he said.

[Continue reading below the poster!]

Vision Poster by on Scribd

Aurash also appealed for a shift away from a “funnel” mode of planning – in which community perspectives are channeled by gatekeepers, and inevitably skewed by funding dynamics – towards a “platform” model where people can act directly.

Kazembe Balagun opened his segment by saying that his first experience in planning was when he was seven. Riding in a yellow cab he realized that the map on the back seat didn’t go above 96th street. In other words, according to the map his home, his community, in Harlem didn’t exist.

Black activists, intellectuals, and poets re-created that map and made it their own, Kazembe said, among them Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes (who in addition to being a writer, was a community gardener).

Dio Ganhdih emphasized the “invisibilization” of indigenous culture in New York City, and said how striking the erasure is – with just an occasional gesture here and there – compared to other US cities where the land’s indigenous roots are, sometimes, more present and honored.

Ashley Dawson, CUNY professor and author of Extreme Cities, chaired the event. His book argues that solutions to the growing threat of climate change  have to lie with urban movements who are already fighting to remake their cities in a more just and equitable way.

The evening in CUNY’s Skylight room reflected a deep appreciation for “unauthorized plans” of the past from which much can still be learned, and for those which are yet to be created.

This year the City is reviewing the NYC Charter – i.e. the City’s constitution. One of the major items under review is land-use processes, including “proposals relating to the development of a comprehensive city planning framework for capital spending and land use.” Share your ideas and get involved here.