In this project, IWS-NYC members perform interviews with women organizers from worker centers and cooperatives, as part of a process of militant knowledge co-production. We are particularly interested in unpacking the conditions that both enable and limit autonomous labor organizing and self-determination, as well as the way in which feminist and class struggle co-constitute each other. Ultimately, we would like to address the ways in which both interviewers and interviewees practice — and envision the possibilities for — collective action, as a way of transforming the conditions of the working majority. In particular, those who experience the most acute forms of exploitation and dispossession: women, immigrants, and low wage workers. For other testimonials please click here. For more information on the strike please click here.
Women workers must have groups where they can come together and learn how to fight back.
I’m from a small island, Dominica, which is in the West Indies. It’s a beautiful island, but I left about 13 years ago. One of the reasons I left is because of my sexual orientation, which wasn’t going well with the people in that country. My life — living it the way I wanted to — was difficult. When the opportunity for me to get out of the island arrived, I did.
I first left Dominica in 1999 and I spent about 6 months in the US. I didn’t want to come back to Dominica, but I had to. I came back here in 2004, the second time around, and I landed in New York. Before I left, I thought, “I’m kicking off my dust and doing everything right here.” It was a just a saying, but I knew in my heart how I felt. I knew I wasn’t happy living back home. However, when I came up here, what I expected did not happen.
I first started living with a friend here and I began babysitting for her, but then it just didn’t turn out well. After 2 or 3 years with her, she asked me to leave and I had to figure things out on my own. Within my 13 years here, it’s been a struggle and a fight. I always look at myself as a strong woman, as a survivor, because my mother had nine of us and I see she did it all by herself. I like to strike out for better, so every opportunity that I get to do that I take it. I’m a survivor, a hustler, and so I always go about looking and finding jobs.
I’ve had some difficult times while being here but in the last 5 years, I have really started to evolve. I found work and got my own place. However, after my landlord realized who I was, what my sexuality was, he didn’t want me there. Shortly after, I found another apartment and I had the same experience. Because of things like that, my experience in this country has been difficult. I mean, we run away from another country, come here for a better life, but when you’re undocumented it’s difficult to get back or move forward and this is really my struggle right now — but I try not to look at all of this as just a struggle. I try to look at it as learning in every situation.
In Dominica I used to do office work, secretary type work. I worked mainly in businesses. When you come up here, you realize that because you’re not documented, you can’t go back to doing the work that you used to do. You find yourself taking whatever you get because it’s about surviving, it’s about putting food on the table, keeping clothes on your back, keeping a roof over your head.
I used to keep to myself when I first arrived here, but then a friend of mine introduced me to a LGBTQ community center in 2015 and the support group there. From that support group, I found another support group via the Queer Detainee Empower Project (QDEP) called African Services. I think because of those support groups I learned to evolve. When I first got here, I was very closed off and very shy. You know, you take what you have from home and you bring it here. I was really closed off and inhibited because in Dominica the community there wasn’t accepting of me. I started going to these support groups and I started to go to counseling because I was a mess. I was very depressed and was very alone here. I have no family here and few friends, so when tough times come, it’s hard to cope. It’s broken me down a couple of times, but here I am. I am a survivor and I am going to get by.
In 2016, I became involved in the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) because QDEP and ROC are affiliated. QDEP is one way that ROC gets members. ROC was offering a free training for restaurant work: back of the house and front of the house. It doesn’t matter if you’re documented or undocumented, you can get trained. That opportunity came and I took it because I was out of a job at the time and I hate being idle. I like to be occupied, always doing things, keep my mind going. The training was about 8-weeks.
After I completed the training, ROC told me that I could stay connected with them by being a member so I decided to do that. I started to attend membership meetings and at the meetings, they tell you what their vision is. I like what their vision is. Their vision is fighting for one fair wage for workers, women’s rights, and worker’s rights. I liked that a lot. I like to fight for something I believe in and I believe in all those things. As much as I’m undocumented, I still fight for these rights. Hopefully one day I will get somewhere and I want something good to work out for me. Since then, I’ve been active in ROC. It has changed my life and made me more outspoken. I participate in activities as often as I’m available. I participate in the lobbying, in meetings, and I sit on the board of ROC. I’m a leader in the organization. Whenever they call on me, I’m there.
I’m active in just about everything that ROC does. ROC provides training to restaurant workers and because of our affiliation with other restaurant workers, we look out for other workers looking for a job. ROC also educates workers about their rights, women workers about their rights, and how women can handle harassment in the workplace. ROC also provides financial education to workers, assists people with getting a food handler’s permit, and getting a lawyer if someone is having a problem with their employer. ROC tries to provide whatever resources it can for workers. ROC does a lot and I have gotten a lot from ROC for the past year I’ve been with them. ROC is not just training people to work in restaurants and fight for a fair wage. ROC is also providing life skills, training people in managing their everyday life, how to conduct themselves in the workplace, and what to expect working in restaurants.
I go out a lot to restaurants and talk to workers about what they’re facing in the workplace. Usually it’s hard to speak to restaurant workers while they’re working with their customers and bosses there. It’s a challenge but I’ll do it, even on my own free time. Sometimes I’ll have my flyers in my bag and I might stop by a restaurant and talk to workers. I’ll usually talk to them about how long they’ve been working in the restaurant and what the conditions are like. It’s usually difficult to get them to talk about that while at the restaurant, so we invite them out to other events we have. For example, last time we invited them to a picnic. When they come to an event we have, then we can speak to them more and talk to them about our vision for restaurant workers.
I have learned a lot from doing this work and I have become educated about restaurants and work conditions. Before I started doing restaurant work, I had no idea that many restaurant workers were getting paid only $7.25 per hour and they depended on tips for the rest of their pay. I think this is ridiculous. I got a feel for that when I was working in the back of the house and I feel like I would never work in a restaurant if that’s all I’m going to get paid. You can’t budget your expenses based on that. It does depend on where you work. Some restaurant workers get good tips but not all restaurant workers. What about those restaurant workers that don’t get enough to go home — getting paid $7.25 in 2017? It’s ridiculous.
I have also learned a lot about what women workers face in restaurants. I think the conditions are more of a struggle for women restaurant workers, especially single mothers. You’re relying on tips and you must go that extra mile. They also experience a lot of harassment, not just from their bosses, but also from their co-workers who are usually men.
One of the things I have heard often about is the hours of work sometimes given to women working in restaurants. Some women don’t like working the late shift, but some women do because they get more tips. Some of them choose to work late because of the extra tips, but after they get out of work they find themselves walking home alone or taking the train alone. They also find the extra tips that they get must go towards babysitters to take care of their kids while they are at work. They’re working extra just to give back that money. Therefore, I think for women there’s more of a disadvantage working in restaurants. We try to educate women on their rights and on ways to organize themselves. Last year we had a conference on harassment in the workplace and it went well. There were a lot of women that gave testimony to the harassment they’ve experienced.
I often tell women working in restaurants to find a support group. Finding a support group helped me a lot. If you work in the restaurant business and your work is stressful, you want to be part of ROC. You want to be part of the meetings because you will hear other people’s stories. Sometimes it’s just a matter of hearing someone else’s story that makes a difference in your life. Most of the time when you learn that you’re not alone in a situation, you find hope. Women need a safe space to express who they are and talk about what they’re going through, and that is very important to their health.
In addition to ROC, I’m also active in the Workers Federation. Both of those organizations are fighting for the same cause, but in a different way. ROC is focusing on the one fair wage campaign, but Workers Federation involves many kinds of workers and they have also been involved in the campaign for Freedom Cities. Freedom Cities is a project which derived from different organizations, including DRUM and the Laundromat Project. The idea of Freedom Cities is basically that every city should be safe whether you are undocumented, documented, or a woman. You know, a safe space for everyone — and I like that idea. I’ve been helping with developing that idea and participating in the meetings around that.
I got involved with the Workers Federation mainly through their leadership course which teaches you how to organize, how to be a leader, how to do protests, and how to take political action. Workers Federation gets a whole bunch of workers and teaches them to work together, teaches them to be allies.
If one organization in the Federation is having an action, then they’ll call upon other organizations to participate in the action. For example, the police held their Annual Night Out event which they are promoting as a “safety event” and Workers Federation is calling on everyone to protest that. We know that more policing does not mean more safety. For people to be safe, they must be able to put food on their table, go to work, get their children a good education. I look it at this way, if I can put food on the table and give my children a good education, then I don’t need to steal. Most of the time when people steal, they are doing it for a reason, they are doing it to survive. We tend to sit in the back and accuse them of doing something wrong without knowing the real reason why they’re doing what they do. It is about survival often. So ROC came out in support of that protest.
ROC is a very good organization. It has taught me a lot and showed me that I can be a leader. I would like to see ROC get better and stronger. I think ROC should really try to affiliate more with other restaurants and try to guarantee workers jobs or better jobs. I also think ROC needs a support group for women to speak about their conditions, the pro and cons of the institutions they work in.
Women workers must have groups where they can come together and learn how to fight back. That’s one thing I learned when I participated in the International Women’s Strike march. With everything going on after the election, I was happy to be part of it because it wasn’t just fighting for women’s rights — the fact is it’s just so many things across the board that are affecting women and so many people at this time. I just couldn’t let that pass by, not this time. I remember after doing it, African Services had a meeting and this one woman showed up and said, “Why do people march? Why do they do this? They get nowhere.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it, but trust me, with marching you will not get the result today. If you’re fighting for something you believe in, you’re going to get there. If people before us didn’t fight, we wouldn’t be here today. Why do you think Martin Luther King marched so many times? Black people here, we have come a long way and we still have a long way to go.”
We have to fight against attitudes like this. Another thing we also have to fight is that some restaurant workers, because they make more than the minimum wage and get good tips, they don’t care about the rest of the restaurant workers. I was talking to a restaurant worker the other day, talking to her about the fight for a fair wage, and she sucked her teeth at me and said, “Oh, I make much more than that.” That’s a problem, restaurant workers not caring about the rest.
This is the message I try to spread when talking to workers, “But what about the rest? How do you see yourself helping the rest? What about everybody making something that they can go home with and say, okay, I had a good day at work. I can send my child to daycare. I can send my child to school. I can put food on the table. I can pay my rent. You shouldn’t have to be working and struggling to pay your rent.” I hope we can spread this message, especially now with this election that happened and which is dividing people. I would like to see ROC grow and I hope to continue growing with it. In the future, I plan to become a real activist, really involved in many struggles. I want to fight for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and I would really like to work with children since I have a passion for that. I will continue to fight for restaurant workers and all workers that are struggling, and for a future where we can really be free and are allowed to be ourselves.
* The name has been changed.