Erika: Worker’s Justice Project and Eco-cleaning Coop
International Women's Strike Interview Project
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.
It’s very important for immigrant women to know they are not alone and that through these projects you can build community.
I came to the U.S. in 2000, as a result of the terrible economic conditions in Mexico. I was born and raised in Mexico City. My husband arrived a year prior and my children a year later. The first years were very difficult; I worked long hours in a factory and I never saw the sun. I started work early before the sun even came up and left at night — closed in by four walls and artificial lighting.
My mother and younger brother are in Mexico City. For many years my mother depended on the money that we sent. Between my brothers and I we were able to help my youngest brother move ahead and finish accounting school and find work. After many years of supporting my mother, she’s independent now and has an artisan goods stand in the archeological zone of Teotihuacan.
My family really values what I do here; it’s what needs to be done to move ahead and stay together. Two other brothers also live in the U.S. and understand that the only way to move ahead is for us to help each other. As of now, my children are also independent. My oldest lives with us but is self-sufficient. My daughter is studying and is also self-sufficient. For now, it’s just my husband and I. Apart from cooking sometimes, I do all of the housework. My husband sometimes helps me cook, my son cleans his room and is barely ever home, but housework is simple because there are few of us and it’s not a big load. Either way, our home is small.
It’s been a few years since I lost the factory job and I got involved in the Worker’s Justice Project to find other alternatives. That’s where we started the cooperative where I work, in 2010.
It’s a domestic cleaning cooperative where we specialize in making non-toxic cleaning agents. We make our own cleaning products and are always aiming to experiment and innovate.
Honestly, people spent too much on toxic products that get used generously; to maintain cleanliness at home you don’t need all that — a little is enough. For now, we are seven women and while the market is very competitive against bigger agencies, we’re doing alright. I work few hours and that allows me time to do things at home and to do my volunteering for Worker’s Justice Project.
We have many diverse projects there, but now we sustain five projects that focus on helping workers to know their rights and how to defend themselves against labor abuse. For example, there is a project that is geared towards workers’ rights because it’s common that workers find themselves abused in a range of ways. It’s common that the bosses retain pay or steal wages, therefore these projects help with legal orientation to a variety of workers: domestic workers, contract workers. In other cases, we offer training — for example, with domestic workers — for them to become better qualified and have better work options. For now, I’m focused on one of the projects with workers to explain their labor rights.
The cooperative emerged as a response to the unequal pay and labor abuse that we face as migrant workers. The Worker’s Justice Projects developed a project called Economic Justice Initiative that is based in organizing workers to defend their rights, but also to develop a sustainable business that allows for better work conditions.
When I got close to the Worker’s Justice Project and started the cooperative, the first thing we had to learn was what a cooperative is because it follows a different business model. Because in our cooperative we are all owners, we organize our time, we train ourselves, and we help each other. In an agency, you’re just another number.
It was very important to count on organizational support like Worker’s Justice Project provides to help us develop because we required training, education and legal assistance of all sorts. At first, we counted on financial support; often times we asked for other cooperatives for assistance in fiscal, legal, or accounting issues. In fact, Eco-Cleaning is part of a greater cooperative network with which we are allied. For example, this network organizes events every once in a while where we assist the cooperatives and we share experiences and knowledge. Right now, we are looking for support to develop a marketing strategy online because we don’t have something like that.
We’re still few — we are seven — but work is good. Truth is, I work few hours and that allows me to lend support volunteering in other projects and to have enough time for myself and my family. That allows me to sustain myself because it’s two of us and my husband works all day. We have a lot of work all throughout New York; the only place we don’t is the Bronx. We don’t really know why, but now with a social networking strategy we aim to reach more people.
I feel very acknowledged and valued in what we do. You feel like you’re doing this for yourself, to build your future. We have a lot of expectations.
Now with a new cooperative president we are a bit delayed. For example, we were planning on creating a home because rent is too high and I live in a small house, as you can see, but the new president seems a bit of a pessimist and it brings down our spirits. He recently told us that there’s little possibility of investing in a home because we didn’t even know if we can stay in the country. With Trump, everyone is afraid because realistically we don’t know if we can stay.
However, all my life is here. Imagine: I’ve been here 17 years and so has my family, save my mother and brother. As a matter of fact, we managed to have my mother visit and my little brother too. We have roots here. I miss Mexico, including my culture and people; people are lovely in Mexico. Coming here changed everything and now we want to stay. Simply put, it gave our children a future and when you’re a mother that’s what you think about — that your children have better opportunities than you.
I’m very grateful for the organization. It’s so important for migrant women to seek information, to know that they are not alone and through these projects you build community. The organization has a lot to offer — training, friendships, education — but you have to look and move around. Never stand still waiting; know that you can learn and move ahead. Now I know that I’ll never go back to a factory; as a matter of fact, my old boss offered me a job a bit ago and I said no because now I feel free.