Demonstrators chanting slogans demand rights for day workers
By Rich Bockmann | Posted on YourNabe.com | Monday, May 2, 2011 6:48 PM EDT
Supporters of workers’ rights took their message to Roosevelt Avenue Sunday, calling on all workers, and in particular non-unionized day laborers, to organize and stand up for their rights.
About 50 demonstrators marched along the avenue from the Philippine Forum at 40-21 69th St. in Woodside to the Manuel De Dios Unanue Triangle at 83rd Street in Jackson Heights, carrying signs and chanting messages of strength in numbers as they proceeded along the sidewalk.
Roberto Menses, a Queens day laborer and labor organizer with Jornaleros Unidos (Day Workers United) rallied demonstrators earlier in the day at the Philippine Forum, where different Queens pro-labor and immigrant groups meet once a month.
“We’re not ones, we’re not hundreds — we’re millions. Count us well,” they called out during an event organizers said was a prelude to the city’s May Day celebration Sunday, when immigrants’ rights demonstrators will march from Union Square to join a trade union rally at Foley Square.
Two years ago, Menses was at the forefront of a conflict between laborers who gathered at Edward Hart Playground in Woodside and the police from the 115th Precinct, who they contend were harassing them.
He led a series of marches and, according to Gustavo Mejias, a retired teacher who is with the Independent Workers Movement, the harassment of laborers and street vendors has gone down significantly.
“Immigrants’ rights are workers’ rights,” said Daniel Vila, an organizer with the May 1st Coalition, who said he expects to see upwards of 50,000 demonstrators in Manhattan this weekend.
Vila said day laborers in Queens — many of whom but not all are undocumented immigrants — are being taken advantage of by the contractors who hire them.
“They get paid $400 the first week, then $300 the next week,” he said, describing a situation of declining wages that often leads to contractors outright withholding weeks’ worth of wages.
“We have three cases now where guys are owed over $10,000,” Vila said.
Menses said that in areas throughout the borough — Astoria, Jamaica, Flushing — some 500 or 600 laborers wait for work every day and perhaps 20 or 30 of them will get picked up. Those who do not find work will rely on local charities for food. He said that in New York City every week $20 million worth of wages are stolen from laborers by the contractors who hire them.
He framed the plight of Queens laborers in the context of larger attacks on workers’ rights, and points to recent events in Wisconsin where union workers were stripped of their rights to collective bargaining.
“If that’s happening to the workers that are unionized, imagine what’s happening to the workers that are not unionized, like the day workers,” he said.
He said he also believed that politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, did not really represent those gathered Sunday. He said President Barack Obama had failed to deliver on his campaign promises of immigration reform, and pointed to legislation in Arizona and a similar “copycat” bill waiting to be signed in Georgia that make immigrants “second-class citizens.”
“Our message is to workers and people suffering this crisis. We need to organize and fight back,” Mejias said.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.