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.
We have to unite and fight; they cannot kick us out of this country, our lives are here.
I arrived to this country for the first time in 2005. I was lucky to obtain a student visa in Ecuador, my country of origin. Not a work visa or student visa, but a tourist visa. In my country, I loved to study and it was an opportunity to learn English, and so I thought I’d take an English class in the U.S. My goal in coming to this country, like for so many, was to progress, get ahead, and have a better future. In those times, I was single and left all my family behind; my brothers are still in Ecuador.
I did not have the intention to come and stay in the country, but shortly after arriving I met my spouse. I formed a family and since then I have not returned to Ecuador, other than vacations to see what’s left of it. Honestly, it can be really difficult for me. I feel a bit nostalgic because my family is there and one never stops missing one’s culture. I also think that my priorities are my daughter and my husband — the family I built here — but one never forgets one’s roots.
It wasn’t my intention, but I decided to stay given the luck of finding my husband and starting a family here. However, I did and then I began to work.
At first and for many years, my family in Ecuador financially depended on me: my father, mother, and a younger brother that was going to college. Now, my brother is an adult and takes care of himself and my parents have passed away. The only person that depends on me now is my daughter, although in extraordinary situations (i.e. illnesses or emergencies) my family in Ecuador may call and see how I can help.
Although I am far away, they always consult with me on important matters. For example, one of my brothers has a disability and I sometimes feel like his mother. I am constantly checking in on him: seeing how he is, what’s going on, if he’s been taken to his doctor’s appointments. Therefore, I still maintain a constant connection. I also have a close relationship with my brother’s children. I am an example to my family because I got out of there and found the opportunity to better our situation.
In my family, as in all Ecuadorian families, women play a very important role. Above all, my mother especially was an important support system and played the roles of mother and father at the same time; even though my father was present, my mother was the one with the vision of the future for us. I am the only woman within my siblings and my mother never thought I would be the one to leave the country. Women in my country also play an important role in society. Now women don’t just play the role of housewife — condemned to washing, cooking, and ironing — like in the times of our grandparents. Nowadays women are professionals and actively participate in the economy of the country.
My husband also works. Since my husband was born here, he comes from a different mentality and he raised himself. Since we’ve been married, we share responsibilities. I had a high-risk pregnancy and my husband played, and still plays, an important role in supporting and minding my health. When my daughter was born, I stopped working in order to dedicate my time to her for a while; once she was growing, I continued my labor activities outside of the home.
In reality, we share the housework. I have a varying schedule, so he takes care of the kid’s homework. We both cook, we both get groceries, do laundry, and share everything. It’s not usual for me to solely take care of housework. My husband is different from Latino men that are machista (though that’s less and less common).
The problem is that housework is very important and sometimes becomes women’s work. I try to make my schedules align with my daughter’s because my husband sometimes comes home tired as well and if I’m not there he is completely in charge of helping our daughter with homework, and that can also be tiring for him.
Since I came to this country, I started working in an agency as a caregiver: I met my husband there. But when I got pregnant we both decided that I would stop working to take care of our daughter for the first few years. In this country, it’s tough because many women have to make the sacrifice to leave the children in order to work, so we preferred that I would dedicate some time to our daughter. We can support ourselves with my husband’s wages. He didn’t make much, but it was enough — even if every once in a while, we were tight on cash. I went five years without working.
When my daughter started school, I searched for work and started my English course again. Since then, I continue to grow and study the language. In that time, I learned about Golden Steps: a cooperative that is in charge of care work for seniors, which worked well for me because I already had experience in that field and enjoyed it.
Senior care-work implies having certain qualities: patience, respect, the ability to communicate with the families and doctors, and to learn to listen. I already have four years with Golden Steps: I was treasurer, secretary, and now I am president. It’s a different kind of work because of the type of services we provide and because we are the business owners. We are an organization made up of Central and South Americans and Caribbean, and we have plenty of benefits because we operate under contract. We prepare ourselves to provide great service: we learn first aid and we receive training in client care through the Alzheimer’s Association. So, we are constantly training to provide great services.
I have a lot of experience as a caregiver. I’ve had clients that are blind, and have Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Everyone is different; you have to learn their background — how active is this person, what are their history and tastes. Did they paint, use makeup, exercise? From these questions we can figure out how to implement the activities they previously enjoyed into their daily lives currently. We try to emulate their lives in their prime. That’s what we offer, as opposed to big agencies.
It has been difficult to pave our road because our competitors are big agencies with Medicare and big medical insurances companies, but we offer personalized services. Our group is small: we are thirteen and we now have seven women that are in a probationary period, but they are preparing themselves. Those months are in order to get capacitated and gain the necessary training. We have three women that are receiving CNA training. Some are about to get their driver’s license, since we’ve lost a lot of work for not having a license. It’s common for our clients to ask for assistance on getting to Long Island and Staten Island, or sometimes the client has a car and will ask if we have a license and if we can drive to the supermarket or whatever it may be.
We have received financial support from some entities and with those funds we are able to better prepare ourselves and get certification; we do what we can best do. We offer training for our specialized personnel. Sometimes trainings are eight hours, sometimes they are thirty hours with a certificate. We also have support from Cornell University on Nutrition and Health, in order for us to have a more integral way to help our clients. That helps us determine that their diet is adequate for their health issues.
Sometimes we take on that role in order to suggest to them what to eat, but our work goes beyond that. Sometimes we are psychologists or counselors. Providing care for someone is mostly about listening to them. More than anything, seniors like to talk; they speak about their lives and repeat themselves pretty often, and it is in our obligation to listen with interest to their stories and respect their ideas. That’s a difference with us — if you don’t like the client you leave; attention can be impersonal with an agency.
Often, people confuse agencies and the cooperative; the cooperative movement is gaining strength. Within the organization that we are a part of there are lots of cooperatives for childcare, cleaning services, pet care, and construction. There’s a lot of everything. In Golden Steps we’re all women, but we want to incorporate men because there are clients that only want male care workers to take care of them, depending on their religion or culture.
We organize as follows: we have a leadership committee that is made up of a president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary. We are four. We also have a publicity committee that is in charge of events and organizes where we flyer and what sort of publicity we need. We also have an office committee, which in reality is comprised of the people that answer the phones when our organization is closed on weekends or holidays. The office partners are the ones with a better understanding of English. We’ve only had one Spanish-speaking client; in general the people that look for us are Anglo.
On top of working with elders, I am the president of the coop. We’ve had a lot of conflicts because on top of being a mother, you’re a wife, and you work on the necessary tasks for your cooperative. There are moments that the stress is too much and we want to turn in the towel, but everything’s an issue organizing ourselves. We meet once a month and there we speak about clients, events, the training we require, legal situations (though thankfully we have none), and statute changes — because we all have rights and obligations.
My workweek is divided into three days when I work in the cooperative; Sunday, when I do ten hours in Golden Steps and the other days I fulfill the role of coordinator at the Center for Family Life. In the Institute we prepare members in computation and publicity design, and at the same time we we aim for the cooperatives to play supportive roles in their communities — to confront the real issues we face. For example, we are working with a Sanctuary Families program. In the case of deportations, we are preparing volunteer families so that they can care for our children left behind. These families have to be prepared on the legal side to guarantee that our children finish school in order to return safely back to our countries.
I’m only off Saturdays, mostly in order to spend it with my daughter. I always try to balance my time, but in my personal time, my daughter is my priority. There have been times that I have rejected work because she was little. There’s no relation between what I do with Golden Steps and my abilities as a Coordinator in the other Institute.
Since I started with Golden Steps, they’ve supplied us with Leadership Training: what is a leader, how to be a leader, conflict resolution. These are things that we learn in those workshops. Now as coordinator of this Institute the aim is to work in groups and that’s very complicated. I have learned to take care of how I speak and to generate respect among ourselves because the idea is to build strong communities. In these organizations, like the institute where I am coordinator, there are many women. It seems that women’s participation is democratic, but in reality it is not and we have aways to go.
In general as a society we have a lot of women represented in councils, and they focus on helping women and the community, but the goal is much larger because you’re a woman and you have to prove your worth to yourself and to the community to move forward and prove that you can fulfill a leadership position. I am also a volunteer at my daughter’s school and the group that we have there is mostly women as well. The way I see it, women are progressing professionally, but there’s still a lot of machismo. We are still demonstrating that we can do it. Now there are women in many fields; we are more daring because we look after our children and that motivates us.
There’s a lot of concern over the current President. We went to the DC Women’s March; I couldn’t attend but a few women members of our organization went. I went to the May Day event here in Manhattan; that’s how I came to meet you. Many cooperatives have a large percentage of undocumented people and people are concerned about ICE, and we are preparing to defend our rights. We’re worried that they will come to our jobs and this is keeping a lot of our women at home. Many work in factories, big stores, and restaurants and that puts them at risk. In our case, there are less risks because we work in homes. It’s harder for ICE to go in, but the worry is always there that someone will report us.
We have to unite and fight; they won’t kick us out of the country, this is where our lives are and we will fight for it. We have seen cases of mothers that are anguished and daughters that have cried because they are worried that their mothers will get deported because of the current administration. I always tell them that they shouldn’t be scared. Our children motivate us. I always tell migrant mothers: do not get paralyzed, seek information, get closer to organizations and the community.
*Names have been changed.