A Neighborhood in Brooklyn Says "No" to Worker Exploitation

A language barrier, I believe, has muddled my conversation with Nieves Padilla. “We’re fighting to get the workers on Knickerbocker Avenue the minimum wage,” she tells me. “You mean a living wage,” I respond. “By law, employers are required to pay their workers a minimum wage. You must be talking about a living wage.” Padilla responds: “Undocumented workers don’t receive a minimum wage.”

Padilla is an organizer for Despierta Bushwick, an employees’ rights campaign that encompasses churches, tenants’ groups and other community-based organizations in Bushwick, a neighborhood in central Brooklyn. Despierta Bushwick is Spanish for “Wake Up, Bushwick.” Latinos comprise 65 percent of Bushwick’s 130,000 residents, who make, per capita, under $10,000 – less than half the per capita income in New York City.

Tax preparation and check cashing centers line Knickerbocker Avenue, the main commercial strip. H & R Block promises “Instant Money!” with a tiny disclaimer indicating that fees and other charges are deducted from tax refunds. Retail outlets like Magic Girls, S & M Lingerie, Jimmy Jazz and Numero Uno Shoes also line the street. Make the Road by Walking, a member-led organization of mostly blacks and Latinos that is the lead group in Despierta Bushwick, estimates that around 200 employees at these and other shops on Knickerbocker Avenue receive less than the minimum wage and never get overtime pay. According to the Brennan Center for Social Justice at New York University, federal and state agencies don’t have the staff capacity to monitor working conditions at these little stores.

Worker outreach, then, is crucial. Despierta Bushwick contacts workers in various ways – doorknocking, going to churches and surreptitiously approaching employees in their workplaces. Giorgio Gonella, a 57-year-old Italian immigrant, is one of the campaign’s volunteers; he has been involved with Despierta Bushwick since its inception. “I am a school bus driver,” he says, “and I am sensitive to workers’ issues.” Some 500 local workers are now involved with the campaign.

Gonella was among those active in Despierta Bushwick’s six-month boycott of Mini Max, a discount department store on Knickerbocker Avenue, in 2004. The boycott ended with the campaign’s biggest victory thus far, as it resulted in $65,000 in back overtime pay for eight of Mini Max’s employees. Additionally, the owner of Mini Max signed a Workers’ Bill of Rights, which mandated a small raise, as well as guaranteed overtime pay, three paid vacation days a year and three paid sick days. The agreement also states that Mini Max’s employees may speak their native Spanish in the workplace.

Andrew Friedman, co-director of Make the Road by Walking, says that the boycott aided the campaign’s victory. “With the Mini Max incident, the boycott was critical,” says Friedman. “We were able to turn away one in four customers. Apparently, turning away one in ten customers can cripple a business.”

As many as eight workers stood outside the Mini Max during its busiest hours, weekends and evenings, and exhorted community members to halt worker exploitation. Workers distributed flyers detailing vividly the conditions at Mini Max – including the amount of overtime pay owed to them. And Despierta Bushwick organized large demonstrations on big shopping days like Mother’s Day and Christmas Eve. These actions kept the issue alive and relevant for Bushwick’s community members, and the boycott’s success galvanized them in the struggle for workers’ rights. “It’s a novel idea in this neighborhood – using one’s money politically,” says Friedman. “This boycott plugged the community members into their own economy.”

Mini Max is not the only retail store in Bushwick that could feel the effects of a boycott. The Housing Independence Project, a tenant organizing group involved with Despierta Bushwick, gathered the signatures of low-income residents who are eager to see positive change for the neighborhood’s workers. The group eventually boasted over 3,000 signatures from residents who vowed to boycott retail businesses with sub-par working conditions.

Ric Echevarria, associate director of the Housing Independence Project, believes that the indisputable exploitation on Knickerbocker accounts for the community’s enthusiastic participation in the campaign. “There’s a high level of agreement that the working conditions on the strip are just terrible,” he says.

By contacting workers on a local level, Despierta Bushwick bypasses the need to court lawmakers who aren’t committed to helping workers in out-of-the-way Bushwick. “Legislators in rural, upstate counties don’t give a shit about people in Bushwick,” says Friedman. “By working on a local level, we’re putting power in the hands of people who are affected.” Raffaele Timarchi, director of faith-based organizing for the national workers-rights group Jobs with Justice, concurs. “Neighborhood-based workers’ rights organizing is a great way to go,” says Timarchi. “Nobody’s going to haul all the way out to Bushwick to do anything.”

Timarchi, who’s collaborating with Despierta Bushwick, has integrated churches into the campaign. He’s working with four large Catholic churches and asserts that church is an ideal avenue to reach the community. “Bushwick is a fiercely Catholic neighborhood,” he says. “It’s just easier to approach workers in the church. Especially when confronting them at the workplace could jeopardize their jobs.” At church, people willingly share their problems and are more likely to sympathize with others. They’re less guarded in the comfort of the smaller, congregational community.

This spring, Make the Road by Walking will release an in-depth study documenting the illegal practices on Knickerbocker Avenue: failure to pay the minimum wage and overtime, sexual harassment and employee intimidation. Despierta Bushwick, however, doesn’t merely seek adherence to the law. “We’re just using the employers’ illegal practices as leverage,” says Friedman. “We’re trying to achieve a code of conduct above and beyond the labor law.”

Nieves Padilla agrees that Despierta Bushwick’s reach needs to exceed the minimum, and often unlivable, standards of the law. “Undocumented workers sometimes receive $3.00 an hour,” she says. “But even $6.00 is not enough to make it in the city.” The Mini Max campaign did not achieve the end-goal of a living wage, but it represents a leap in workers’ rights. Its effects were immediate and visible. Bushwick’s residents can see their community starting to change, one retail store at a time. And they’re not backing down now. “Sometimes it’s hard for workers to speak out by themselves,” says Padilla. “As a community, we need to give the workers voices.”

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