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.
“How do we define freedom? How do we define collective liberation? If it’s defined by the oppressor, by the police, or by the government, that’s not freedom or liberation. I think our people, our people of color, we have everything and all the means to liberate ourselves.”
I’m 24 and I was raised in Mexico and California. And then I moved here. I’m Mexican, Chicana. I started working when I was four years old back in Mexico. I started working in the field selling this fruit called pitayas to get my school supplies. I went to school two towns away, so I had to wake up earlier. All of this struggle just to get an education. It was really difficult for my mom to put food on the table for us. I worked in the fields, but I would also come back and cook for my siblings. I would cook for the brother that was older than me. My siblings come from domestic violence. My mom was sexually assaulted by her father and I was sexually assaulted. But after I opened up with other women, these tears have brought happiness and healing. Before, I literally could not talk about my own story. The more you talk about it, the more you find different women talking about the gender violence that they have faced. It’s a domino effect. I think it’s so important because it’s liberating. It’s a liberating form, but it’s also about finding solidarity.
When I was young my dad was killed in my house defending his land. My mom and I would harvest and sell corn. The male agriculturalists would get paid better for the corn. My mom, a couple of other people that were darker skinned, and other women that were selling the corn would get paid less even though it would be the same quality corn. I connected what I experienced to people organizing around me. As people of color we live in organized communities — watching each other’s back with cops and this and that — but “organizing” was not the terminology. My mom sent me to the U.S. because I was the only one that had documents out of all my siblings. Like anyone else, I came for better life conditions for myself and my family. Before becoming organized, you tend to be quieter — like not too bold or not too seen. I think that’s part of the experience of being an immigrant. That’s not a good thing because there are things that can be against you while you’re in school and at work. When I was a street vendor I was chased down by a cop. Anyways, you try to be unnoticed.
I’m the leader of the gender justice initiative project, which has been amazing. There was this huge thing within worker centers with this male organizer. These survivors openly talked about how he sexually assaulted different women workers and had kids with some of them. He had been doing this for years. Some people were not believing the survivors. But for us, immediately we’re like, “no, we’re removing this person.” These types of harassers, these types of predators, they know how to hide very well. So, we removed them completely from our workers organization. And we stood by the survivors.
I’m in the process of working on an actual platform. We used to have a woman leadership program. But we should not just be teaching our women how to be strong on the streets and in the workplace. We should also be teaching the men how to be male allies, how to talk about patriarchy and machismo. It’s debunking and challenging patriarchy but also getting to the root of that. Because a lot of people think that this happens just with uneducated immigrant workers. No. It happens with people who have PhDs. I’ve been in different circles. Gender violence is deep and it’s toxic and it’s everywhere. Our main focus is uplifting the voice and leadership of immigrant woman, women of indigenous backgrounds, transgender people, and people of color, making a safe place for these individuals. Because they’re often so marginalized. These conversations about gender violence and how we deal with that at workplaces, it’s very new. It should not be.
Other women organizers have been pushing me, saying “you should be getting paid, value yourself, your experience”. I have a lot of years of experience. It’s another challenge as a young organizer. I’ve been organizing in other countries since I was 17, 16 years old. I worked for AFSCME Local 3299 organizing campus workers. And I was a worker for USAS, United Students Against Sweatshops. I was organizing down in the field in the garment industry in Nicaragua 5 years ago. I was trying to unionize workers from the garment industry in the free trade zone in Nicaragua. And I organized with a union in the Dominican Republic within the garment industry as well.
Our work is very essential, but that’s why I’ve met so many organizers that retire so early. They organize only a few times, especially woman organizers. I’ve not met one woman organizer that has been organizing for over 10 years because of what they may face: sexual harassment, mental health problems, different things. I think organizers, we’re like psychologists, sociologists, and all those careers. And organizing is not seen as a lucrative career compared to other careers. And that’s a different challenge.
Right now, we’re working on the I-9 Tomcat workers’ campaign, which is about undocumented workers who were fired at the Tomcat bakery during an I-9 audit by ICE in the factory. They were fired for not having documents. The main thing that they’re demanding in the campaign is a fair severance pay for the many years of labor that they gave to this company. Another company that we have is Amy’s Bread. These workers will be the first workers in the local food manufacturing industry, or even just in the labor industry right now in general, to themselves come up with their own workers’ rights agreement, which would be similar to a union contract. They’re fighting for a fair raise that is in the workers’ justice agreement and also for meetings with their boss in how to have better working conditions. Also, right now, through the gender justice initiative, we’re trying to incorporate within the agreement to have a demand for something that states sexual harassment will not be tolerated inside the workplace. That’s never included, even in union contracts.
We meet with women workers, talking about how their days are when they go back home. Is the work divided with their husbands? How can that be changed? I’ve seen with one of the workers that has contributed that her husband now takes her out to dance on Saturday nights. He never did so before. He also takes his children to doctor’s appointments, which was labor that she always had to do. We help them challenge that, to become leaders not only in their workplace but also at their homes. A lot of male members have talked about how they’ve been supportive of not supporting the workers who harass women. How do you support your wife at home? With this gender justice initiative, I also meet with their partners. I think it has been very beautiful because I’ve helped I’ve helped a lot of men who tell me, “wow, Cynthia, I’ve never cried this much in my life.” They say things like “this is the only place where I can feel like I can cry and just not have to be so tough, like I have to be with my family. It’s my relief space.”
We’re part of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, so we have many different immigrant worker groups who are a part of the food system, from people who grow tomatoes in Florida to people who make your Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Vermont. We have connections with those workers — supporting each other, doing trainings in Know Your Rights and how to stand with each other in solidarity against this administration that is aggressive towards immigrant people. On May Day, there were also other movements that were incorporated, like Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL, DACA, and undocumented students’ movements. During demonstrations, we bring in Copwatch. They’re the ones who derail or distract police; especially because our actions are led by undocumented workers, we always prioritize our workers being safe and protected.
One of the reasons worker centers were created was because a lot of undocumented workers were being isolated by unions. They were not given the same rights. In California there was this law, a bill that was passed for companies to protect workers inside their workplaces and not to let ICE inside without a signed warrant by a judge. That was purely because of an organizing campaign by the Tomcat workers that has inspired other workers to organize. We have received different phone calls from other worker centers asking, “how do you do this? how do you start this?” We had French unionists that were interested in learning our model as well. There was an article that was published in France on the Tomcat workers. And we’ve had different interns from Germany learning about our model and documenting stuff around how we play a big role in the non-business union movement and in the broader labor movement, and making sure that in the labor movement immigrant voices are being heard and are a part of the leadership that they’re providing.
When we’re fighting for justice, if there’s one movement or one individual that does not feel that justice, I think there’s no justice at all. We need collective liberation for all. How do we define freedom? How do we define collective liberation? If it is defined by the oppressor, by the police, or by the government, it is neither freedom nor liberation. I think our people, our people of color, have everything and all the means to liberate ourselves. But I’m also a big advocate for our own self-healing and our own self-growth. We have to heal internal wounds and internal trauma in order to serve better and bigger in the movement. More than collective liberation, I talk a lot about collective healing. The movement is very violent. The movement is very traumatic. But the movement can also have love and healing in different ways, like art and music. We’re building. We’re planting healthy seeds. I’ve met a lot of people that are not part of organizing or in the movement because we can be very exploitative to ourselves in the movement. Taking care of ourselves more than anything comes first. My grandchildren are probably going to be dealing with the same things. It’s just cycles. So how can we do better in our own cycle?