New York’s
Latino Workers Center

— David Levin


“Today, in much of the industrialized and semi-industrialized world, many active workers are groping for new kinds of organizations or trying to change old ones to meet the present challenges posed by capital ... The search for organizations appropriate to this phase of capitalism is a global conversation ...”

I’ve been asked by ATC to look at one of the new organizational models mentioned by Moody, the workers’ center, from my vantage point as a volunteer with the Latino Workers Center in New York City.

Immigrant workers in New York confront much of the worst that the new global economy has to offer. Those curious about how far the neoliberal drive for “flexibility” and deregulation can go need travel no further than our city’s five boroughs, where 72-hour work weeks without minimum wage or overtime– let alone vacation days or health benefits – are standard fare for tens of thousands of these workers.

The pressing need for immigrant workers to organize is readily apparent. Until they do, most will be forced to endure these sweatshop conditions, and the bottom will continue to drop out on wages and labor standards for all workers. Moreover, the continued absence of effective immigrant worker organization will bolster the racism and “competition between workers” whose “paralyzing and demoralizing effects” on labor organization are cited by Moody.

Conversely, only a strong movement for immigrant workers’ labor rights can pose a viable alternative to xenophobic, anti-immigrant “solutions” to unemployment and low wages.

The difficulties inherent in organizing immigrant workers are equally apparent. Tens of thousands lack legal working papers, and their fear of drawing the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) only heightens their reluctance to take the risks that organizing always entails.

Immigrant workers – even the undocumented – ”legally” have the right to organize and to receive minimum wage and overtime. Under the 1986 Immigrant Reform and Control Act (IRCA), it is the employer, not the workers, who is violating the law when undocumented workers are employed in a workplace.

How this all works “in reality” is a different story. Not even the government makes a pretense that minimum wage and overtime laws are enforced for immigrant workers. Last year, Maria Echaveste – the head of the Federal Department of Labor’s wage and hour division – told a public meeting of Latino workers that it was “impossible” for the DOL to enforce the minimum wage.

That’s true given the government’s current enforcement mechanisms. Workers who file unpaid wages complaints with the New York State DOL typically wait six months for their first hearing – a “compliance conference” – where it is standard practice for the DOL to begin negotiations with a fifty percent settlement offer.

Such a system makes it economically irrational for an employer to pay minimum wage. Why pay full fare now when – in the unlikely event that a worker lodges a complaint – you can settle for half of what’s owed later?

And the right to organize? Under IRCA, employers are required to ask all workers for proof of their legal working status. In daily practice, employers wield this power arbitrarily-frequently asking workers for documentation only after they begin organizing or demanding their rights.

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that undocumented workers are not eligible for reinstatement even if they are fired in retaliation for legally protected concerted activity – in effect giving employers the right to legally fire workers for organizing. (1)

To add to the difficulties, immigrant workers typically work in isolated workplaces with small numbers of employees and a high turnover rate. Work is temporary and everything about the “enterprise” is transient: Employers often aren’t legally incorporated and don’t even have checking accounts, all transactions are in cash and off the books. When work is finished garment and construction contractors disappear without paying.

The search for effective organizing answers to the problems confronted by immigrant workers – and other low-wage workers in unorganized industries – has produced a variety of community-based approaches to labor organizing. The Latino Workers Center is one of a growing number of community-based labor organizations, some calling themselves workers centers, which are trying to develop a new organizing model – one that can bridge the gap between community and workplace organizing and unite (in this case) Latino workers to fight for their rights where they live and where they work. (2)

Workers’ centers are not just an “immigrant workers organizing model,” as can be seen by the development of community-based labor organizations in other communities, most notably among African-American and white workers in the South such as the Center for Women’s Economic Alternatives, Black Workers for Justice, and the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment. In this article, however, I’ll address what I’m most familiar with: the workers’ center model as it functions in immigrant communities, specifically at the Latino Workers Center in New York.

The Organizing Model

Immigrants’ shared experience of language, culture and anti- immigrant discrimination; the influence of community-based and popular education organizing models in many workers’ native countries (Latin America and the Caribbean); and union disinterest in organizing immigrant workers have all contributed to the growth of workers’ centers in immigrant communities.

For my purposes, the term “workers’ center” refers to membership organizations of working people with three defining characteristics: They are community rather than workplace-based; organize around both workplace and social issues; and are multi-trade, uniting workers from different industries and workplaces.

The Latino Workers Center has adopted this form of organization to respond to the economic and political forces that shape the lives of its immigrant members.

First, the Center’s members face enormous instability in their working lives. An individual worker may work for several different employers in the course of a year. Building a community-based membership open to any Latino worker in the city – rather than a membership that is defined by workers’ inclusion in a collective bargaining agreement in a given workplace – enables members to be involved in a labor organization as they change jobs and industries, regardless of whether that organization now has the support of a majority of their co-workers in a given workplace.

Secondly, the Center’s members – whether employed in a restaurant, garment factory, construction site, or in the service sector – share many of the same problems (low wages, long hours, oppressive working conditions) because of their shared condition as immigrant workers in labor intensive industries. Organizing on a community-wide basis, across differences in trades and industries, enables these low-wage workers to recognize their common problems and consolidate their power and organizing impact.

Finally, the Center’s members confront pressing, potentially unifying problems that are not strictly labor issues. Growing hostility towards immigrants threatens the Center’s members in their communities even as it reinforces their exploitation in the workplace.

By organizing around both “labor” and “social” issues – and seeking to transcend this distinction – workers’ centers can integrate a variety of unifying issues into their efforts to build an organization that can fight for their members’ varied social, political and economic interests.

How to Build Power?

One of the most frequently asked questions by activists curious about workers’ centers is “How will workers’ centers build power?” That is, how will they build a base and deliver gains for their members?

For some skeptics, it is a drawback that workers’ centers focus on both workplace and social issues. To them, the approach seems too unfocused or eclectic to have significant results in either arena. For others, it seems impossible for a workers’ organization to make any headway unless collective bargaining is its central goal and function. Any discussion of workers’ centers will inevitably return to these issues. That’s why they need to be put in context.

Workers’ centers are typically found in communities with little existing worker organization. In this, the Latino Workers Center is typical. While a small number of Latino immigrant workers in New York City are members of unions, few of them are meaningfully organized – if that word still means that workers play an ongoing role in collective efforts to secure their rights.

Even minimum legal labor standards are beyond most immigrant workers’ reach, and no institution in the city – not unions, not community organizations, not the DOL – now has the power or will to alter these conditions. If they are to change, immigrant workers themselves will have to organize to change them.

The flexibility of the workers’ center model is fundamental here, using a broad range of activities and organizing issues to draw members in, to make incremental gains that show that it is possible to win results through organizing, and to develop worker activists as leaders in their communities and workplaces.

For example: The Latino Workers Center began in 1993 by sponsoring English classes and labor rights courses and taking on a variety of individual and small group organizing cases with workers from restaurants, garment factories, groceries, construction companies, office cleaners and homecare agencies.

Most workers who approach the Center come seeking to recover unpaid wages. (3) Many come because they’ve been denied their last week’s pay after they’ve been fired or quit. In the garment and construction industries, workers often haven’t been paid in weeks for their ongoing labor. Nine times out of ten, discussion with an organizer reveals that workers are owed additional unpaid minimum wages and/or overtime pay – sometimes totaling tens of thousands of dollars – which employers are legally responsible to pay.

The Center helps workers pull together meetings with affected co-workers, confront their employer and demand payment, and organize pickets and boycotts to pressure recalcitrant employers and arouse public awareness. It also helps workers file charges with the DOL or take other legal action.

Workers come to the Center to address concrete problems. The Center’s challenge is to respond to these concerns without becoming a service organization, to try to use individual problems as a bridge to collective action and, over time, to sustained activist involvement.

Workers coming to the Center for help are encouraged to come to membership meetings which bring workers together to share their experiences, give reports on their cases, offer support to each other’s organizing efforts, and to develop Center campaigns.

These membership meetings are an important part of the Center’s commitment to develop as a participatory organization of Latino immigrant workers, not a service center. Many of the participants have been in the United States for as little as a few months, others for years. Though some who come to the Center were involved in organizing work in their own countries, most were not, and few have any experience with organizations in this country. Membership meetings are often the only opportunity people have to discuss their individual situation as part of a broader social phenomenon, and to talk about doing something about it.

These discussions begin, naturally enough, with general denunciations of exploitation and discrimination and abstract (though sincere) calls for immigrant worker unity. The Center struggles to ground this desire for unity in concrete, realizable organizing work that members can take on as part of the process of building the organization’s power and developing its members as leaders and activists.

The Center’s First Campaign

In May 1995, the Center initiated “La Campaña por Trabajo, Respeto y Dignidad” (Campaign for Work, Respect and Dignity) an umbrella title covering a wide range of activities aimed at advancing immigrant workers’ labor rights. The Campaign began in May with a petition drive and outreach activities (presentations in churches, leafleting near work areas, tabling at community events, Spanish radio and TV interviews, etc.) to promote discussion about workplace rights, anti-immigrant legislation, and the need for Latino workers to organize and demand enforcement of their workplace rights.

These activities built up to a September public meeting with the head of the Wage and Hour Division of the Federal DOL officials from the State DOL, and local and state politicians. Center members and other immigrant workers gave testimony about the illegal conditions they face in their workplaces, and presented demands for strengthened labor law enforcement: more DOL investigators, more aggressive prosecution of wage and hour violations including the imposition of fines and criminal penalties, a DOL task force for the restaurant industry, and an end to DOL cooperation with the INS.

Around this time, the Center was working with kitchen and delivery workers from three Midtown restaurants who were fighting for unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay. The Center didn’t have the capacity to maintain daily pickets at all of the sites, so the cases were combined in an area-wide mini-campaign.

Twice a week, Center members and supporters held lunchtime pickets calling on customers to boycott the restaurants until the employers paid workers their back wages and agreed to pay minimum wage and overtime.

After the pickets, members would distribute labor rights information to delivery workers throughout the area in the form of cartoons which chronicled the fight against the three restaurants. These activities culminated in a “Via Crucis por la Justicia” (”Stations of the Cross” March for Justice). Protesters marched from restaurant to restaurant, stopping in front of each to denounce their labor rights violations with speeches, poems and music.

These efforts resulted in modest successes. Two of the three targeted Midtown restaurants began paying minimum wage, and one restaurant immediately coughed up back pay. Another back pay case resulted in a $5,000 DOL-brokered settlement, while the third is still in court. Most important, the public meeting and Via Crucis provided the Center’s members with an organizing project that gave people a chance to learn to work together and promoted the Center as a group that’s really standing up for immigrant workers’ rights – not just talking about it.

The Center’s greatest challenge is to move workers from passive identification with the goals of the Center to identification as Center activist. This process takes time, and the Center is still in its formative stages. The Center’s gains, however modest, give important boosts to this process.

Balance Sheet

How one draws a balance sheet of the Center’s strengths and weaknesses greatly depends on whether one is inclined to see the glass as one-third full or two-thirds empty. At the Center, we tend toward the positive view, looking at where we’ve come from and taking pride in important first steps on a long, rocky road.

The Center has served as a rare source of information for immigrant workers about their labor rights and how to defend them. It’s been a catalyst for organizing campaigns that have enabled workers to recoup thousands of dollars in stolen wages.

Along with other workers’ centers, it has worked to expose the DOL’s complicity with immigrant worker exploitation and advocated stiffer labor law enforcement. In so doing, the Center has developed a modest but growing name in the city’s Latino community and a membership that is beginning to take on a role in developing the Center’s organizing strategy.

At the same time, the Center is a long way from where it wants to be. The bulk of the Center’s “workplace organizing” is directed towards individuals and small groups who have already been fired. We’ve developed pressure tactics that are successful in recouping up to a certain quantity of unpaid wages. But we’ve found that when more than a few thousand dollars is at stake, the Center’s pickets and pressure are not enough.

Even if the pickets and pressure were enough, the Center would still run the risk of becoming the kind of organization we don’t want to be: a kind of “victimized workers’ advocacy group” (even one that stresses collective, organizing approaches rather than legal service solutions) where workers come to recoup their stolen wages and then move on.

A key to the organization’s viability will be its ability to keep workers involved so the Center gains strength over time, instead of cycling through small groups of people again and again. This is no easy task for a group that is still too small to deliver substantial material changes in its members’ lives, and doesn’t have a dues checkoff that compels people to belong whether they feel it makes a difference or not.

What About Collective Bargaining?

It’s precisely these problems that lead our friends and foes alike to ask why workers’ centers don’t focus more on the labor movement’s bread and butter: struggles for union recognition and collective bargaining.

Though the Center would work with a group of workers who wanted to get union recognition and negotiate a contract, we feel that making this kind of work the centerpiece of our organizing strategy is ironically both more than we can handle, and less than what’s needed.

On the one hand, winning a contract – even in a single workplace – could prove to be too ambitious a goal for the Center. Workers know they can be fired and easily replaced, and that the Center doesn’t have a sufficient strike fund to keep a group of economically unstable workers going for long.

What’s more, the Center would be hard-pressed to generate the economic pressure necessary to win such a fight – after all, we’re pushed to our limits on these larger non-payment of wages cases. (4) And the Center certainly lacks the resources, both human and financial, to launch the kind of industry or community-wide drives that would be needed to really make improvements through unionization.

But even assuming that workers organizing with the Center in a specific shop could win a contract, that hardly ends the debate over strategy and organizing models. Does anyone really believe that an organizing strategy based on collective bargaining and contract administration, which must assume a stable, capital-labor relationship, can effectively remedy the problems facing immigrant workers in the fiercely competitive, capital-poor, totally unregulated world of New York City’s underground economy?

Surely, something more is needed. And what about the myriad social problems immigrant workers face – lack of jobs, social service cuts, INS raids, xenophobic campaigns against immigrants? Workers’ issues don’t end at the workplace door.

Driven by these concerns, the Center is compelled to consider the possibility of a different form of labor organization – one in which contracts and union organization have a place but where collective bargaining is not the only function or organizing fulcrum. The Center’s varied activities – educational programs on labor rights and political issues, fights to win workers’ unpaid wages, community campaigns for stronger labor law enforcement and against anti-immigrant attacks, support of collective bargaining struggles – are fundamentally about forming a base of immigrant workers, members and activists who through their actions can have a say in their future.

Toward that end, the Workers Center is developing organizing committees in targeted industries, bringing together workers from different workplaces to begin talking about long-term organizing initiatives. As these committees grow, they will have to take up complex strategic questions. The issue of contracts and union recognition will inevitably rise, and members will have to consider what makes the most sense at what time: affiliate with an existing union, form an independent union, make the workers’ center their collective bargaining agent?

But such questions won’t be the only issues on the table, for the Center’s members nor for workers elsewhere in the labor movement. The attack on workers’ labor and living standards is so fierce – and the economic changes behind it so sweeping and global – that workers can no longer limit their organization to the workplace alone nor confine their political horizons to a “better contracts” model for increasing workers’ share of the economic pie.

The cross-industry, community-based approach of workers centers – and their attempts to organize around both labor and social issues – are a pragmatic response to the specific conditions low-wage immigrant workers find themselves in. But they also point to a broader vision of what a labor movement can be.

How can we build a movement that can fight for and win what we all need-secure jobs, just wages, quality healthcare, safe neighborhoods, freedom from discrimination and xenophobia?

It’s a long way from New York City’s underground economy to an answer to these questions. We’ll just have to keep organizing until we get there.



  1. Labor law enforcement and immigrant workers’ right to organize are further undermined by INS workplace raids which drive workplaces further “underground,” and the Federal Department of Labor’s cooperation with the INS in workplace investigations. That’s why workers centers call for taking immigration policy out of the workplace by repealing IRCA, eliminating workplace raids, and terminating cooperation between the INS and the DOL.
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  2. Workers’ centers based in immigrant communities include New York’s Chinese Staff and Workers Association, the Workplace Project, SAKHI for South Asian Women, and the Independent Farmworkers Center, California’s Korean Immigrant Women’s Advocates, Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates, Texas’ La Mujer Obrera, Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Massachusetts’ Immigrant Worker Resource Center, to cite those with which I’m most familiar.
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  3. A significant number of workers who come to the Center are union members faced with unfair discharges, layoffs, disregard for seniority or other contractual violations. In some cases, workers have gone to their union representative and received no response. In other cases, the union has so little organizational presence that members don’t know their union’s name or how to contact it. How the Center works varies from case to case, from helping workers draft letters to their union representatives to helping them organize with other co-workers to pressure their union or to take independent action. Deeper discussion of this subject would require another article.
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  4. Though difficult, workers’ centers have shown that these victories are within their reach. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (a workers’ center with 15 years of experience) won a seven-month lockout against the Silver Palace-the only unionized restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown a community in which restaurant workers make as little as seventy cents an hour for seventy-hour weeks. By turning the lockout into a community battle against slave labor conditions in their community, Silver Palace workers turned back management’s demands to slash wages by 66%, eliminate all health benefits, and force workers to share a percentage of their tips with management. (See Chinese Workers Defeat Silver Palace Lockout, Against the Current 51.) Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates’ recent settlement with fashion mogul Jessica McClintock is another example of a workers’ center-driven David-over-Goliath victory.
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David Levin is a volunteer with the Latino Workers Center and a member of Solidarity.

ATC 64, September–October 1996