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 create a women´s network and make the revolution.

I came on vacation six years ago to visit my mother and decided to stay. It had been thirty years since I had seen her. She came here to work and my brothers, sister, and I were living with my grandmother. I was born in Colombia, but when I was 21 I went to Spain with my grandma and spent twenty years there. We had our own apartment there; we had everything. I used to work as an office cleaner.

Now my mother and I are living in Queens. I do not have children or a husband; I am living with my mom and my three brothers. I have another sister, who is living with her family in New Jersey, but my brothers and I are living with my mother. She came here alone. My brothers have also joined us: one of them came two years ago, another one has been here for six months, and the other one for four months. We were all raised by our grandmother and when everyone was grown up, she made me go with her to Spain.

I have Spanish citizenship, but here I am undocumented. I live from day-to-day. My mom is also undocumented, although she has been living here for thirty years. My sister is a U.S. citizen, but she cannot help my mom with the documents because my mom had problems with Immigration Control when she was trying to enter the country. In the border area, she was arrested and spent four months in jail until she was released by paying bail. Then she came to New York and while she was working, she was caught again and was arrested for three months. We did not know anything because we were very young. My grandmother forced her to leave Colombia so that my parents broke up and, once abroad, she sent money to support us. After some time, we moved to a new place in Colombia and we lost communication. We went nine years without knowing anything about her, until a friend of the family put us in contact. That is why when my mom asked me to stay with her here, I decided to do so.

Since I arrived, I scarcely have had two jobs, which I got three weeks ago. After getting the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) certification, I started working in cleaning construction. I’ve just begun. My mother is the one who supports me; she is the one who supports all of us. She works as a high fashion dressmaker. Currently she works in a boutique, where she makes bridal dresses — she has always been sewing. My brothers are working too, but my mother is the sole bread winner: it is impressive. She came to the US alone, knowing no one, and without knowing English. She can speak the English the job requires though, but normally she does not speak in English. I am learning it and, as of now, I am a better listener.

At present my priority is to find a job, because we are spending much more now that we all live with my mom. Also, I would like to work in order to help at home. Since my brothers are working right now, they bring in some money, but we do not have enough with the money they give to her because they have their families in Colombia too. If they give $170 weekly to her, it is for daily expenses. The rent is $1,800. It is crazy: $1800 for a one bedroom-apartment. We are subletting the bedroom to sustain ourselves and using the living room to sleep. How is it possible that one woman who earns $400 weekly can cover everything: rent, bills, clothes, transport? It makes me feel sad, because my mother is 70 years old. On weekends we are together and clean the house, she and I, because my brothers do nothing.

I would like to find a job in construction and I do not want to work babysitting. Here it is very complicated. If something happens with the children you are caring for, the parents may sue you and if you do not have a babysitter certificate, you can be in trouble. This is the country of judicial claims. Nor have I worked as cleaner. When I had just arrived, I was dog-sitting for a friend of my mom. I was working for two weeks, but I did not get paid very well and I quit. She told me $300 for the two weeks, but when she paid me, she just gave me $200. Then I asked her, “And the other $100?” and she replied to me, “No…I do not have it.” When she asked me to work for her again, I told her I was not interested. I am a woman who is very well informed and I knew that even though we are undocumented, we have rights in every country. If they do not pay me what I deserve, I do not work.

I have always valued myself as a woman and I have had some problems with a partner for that, because he tried to yell at me. If my brothers shout at me, I do the same to them. Nobody will discriminate against me or humiliate me; my grandmother did it for many years but not anymore. My mother is an elderly person and my only responsibilities are to her. That is why I let my brother know when we had an argument recently. He said I was late in doing the dinner for my mom, and that I was useless and was living from my mom. And I answered, “you are nobody to tell me anything because you are not giving money to me, nor you are bringing money for the house, so you respect me.” My roommates — they are a couple — were there and they told my mom. The wife told him he was really mean with his sister and he responded, “but she knew how to defend herself, she told me things she shouldn’t have said.” I have more rights because I arrived earlier. They see my mother sick and they do not even take a glass of milk to her; I am the only one who assists her. If her blood sugar goes higher, if she has sudden high blood pressure, I am in charge of checking it and trying to get it lower. Although they see her in pain, they do not even say to her, “Mom, can I help you? Do you need something?” Therefore, I have more rights than them. I am harsher now; I do not know if it is because life made me be like this, but this is how I am.

I got an OSHA certificate here in NICE and started coming here every morning to look for an occupation. Suddenly, I found a four-day job and went to work in demolition. To work in construction, we need to obtain different certificates. I have the four-hour certificate, but the other ones I will not do because they are more expensive and more complicated. The organization offers the OSHA certificate for free and we have to pay the rest — NICE gives great discounts, though.

During the week, in NICE, I spend the whole day as a volunteer. From 7am to 12pm I am searching for work for myself and for the others, and if I do not find any jobs, I stay in the office from 12pm to 6pm as a volunteer. That is how the day is structured here in NICE. From 7am to 12pm the workers and volunteers look up different job openings on the internet, write them down on a paper and pass them to the day laborers, and afterwards they call the companies. We [the day laborers] look for our own occupation. Web pages and newspapers publish job postings and here in NICE we collect them. Now, for example, there are some vacancies, but there are no workers. Most of them are specific: carpentry, scaffolds… I have one certificate for scaffoldings, but they require three of them and I am afraid of heights, so I will not get them.

When I started coming to the workshops, the people in NICE told me there were labor opportunities. However, I could not get any job until I had the OSHA certificate, so I began as a volunteer in the organization. Although I cannot achieve work for me, I help my colleagues and I feel good. Many of my coworkers have their family, children, housing… and I help them get jobs. NICE is open from 7am to 6pm; the time I spend in here, it seems I work here — but I do not. My mom said I am wasting my time. Yet I do not think so, because I help people. I feel great helping others, but she does not know understand how I feel. She has her own thoughts, another way of living, and she does not understand it. We have our differences, but we try to get along well. We do not fight at home, although sometimes I get mad at my brothers, because I spend the whole day outside the home and it is not fair that they do nothing. Then there are moments that one gets angry.

NICE has been open for seven years and I have been here for almost a year, since August 29th, 2016. I like it in here. I came to participate in a women’s entrepreneur workshop and I began getting involved in the organization that way. I wanted to do something for others and decided to keep coming as volunteer. This is my first time engaged with an organization where I can help others. I see it as a way of taking care of myself and taking care of folks. Doing good, I feel fine and besides I help others.

NICE is a non-profit organization that aids immigrant workers, particularly day laborers from the metro stations here at 69th St [69th St stop, Line 7], and this local was set for them — the majority are men. They use the local to rest; when it is hot outside, they come here to refresh themselves, have some water, some coffee… they have the restroom, which was made for them. When NICE did not exist, they peed on the streets and police used to arrest them. People complained workers left everything dirty and got drunk, so NICE created this space. The main goal, then, was to provide them with a place to stay because they did not have anywhere to go. Afterwards, NICE grew and they commenced to offer these courses and workshops. At the beginning few people used to come, now we are about 1,000 people monthly. There are a lot of people attending NICE — even more since we opened the Facebook page — people from all over the place in New York: from Staten Island, from Long Island, from New Jersey. Almost everybody is from Latin America. There is someone from another country; they speak Spanish, though.

Currently there are more women than men taking the courses. There are more and more women in construction because they are getting paid much better. In construction, women and men earn the same. The distinctions in their salaries are related to the different abilities each one has. For example, an instructor can make between $170-200 daily and the assistant between $120-130: this depends on the individual’s capacity. Usually women must clean up debris and men are in charge of demolition. It is really hard removing debris with a shovel. There are very big pipes; if they are full, men pick them up, otherwise women do it. But generally cleaning is a women’s task.

I would like to study and be able to work in NICE. Maritza (the women’s sector organizer) started as volunteer and now works for the organization. I would like to do something related to this organization at the University, obtain a formal education in human resources and get a position here. I studied until the third grade in Colombia and then in Spain I finished elementary and middle school. I am looking up some distance learning options with my sister.

The staff members in NICE are documented, but the majority of the people that come here for assistance are undocumented immigrants and we help each other. Here you become strong and responsible. I would not mind getting a position in cleaning again, but here the labor demand is in construction because you can make $120 daily, $15 an hour. As a domestic worker, however, you make between $11-12.

In NICE, we do workshops for women on Tuesday. At the beginning, it was a day just for women, but men complained because they could not come. We tried to explain to them why, but they did not understand it and now we invite them to come. Here I learned a lot about my rights as a worker, which I did not know about before. We receive courses in sexual assault and gender discrimination. There are different workshops that are about abuse: sexual and in the workplace.

I think it is important we get in touch with the other interviewed women, so that we can support each other and we create a collective network. We have to tell women to go forward because they are capable. Women are said to be the weaker sex, but we are the stronger sex — we can stand much more than men. We need to build a women’s network and make the revolution.

*The name has been changed.

Nai: New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE)
Interview courtesy of Nekane Garcia