At the Connecticut Worker Center, we work with immigrant workers – both men and women. We were founded by immigrant workers, and almost all our board and staff come from the community that we serve and organize. Most of them are or have been immigrant workers themselves. Most of our Brazilian immigrant community here in Massachusetts – the largest Brazilian community in the United States – are grateful for the opportunity to be in a place where they can find gainful employment, and relative economic and physical security for their families. Most can easily compare their situation here in the United States quite favorably with what they left behind in Brazil, and that is why they have made the sacrifices to migrate here in the first place, and to put down roots. They are parents of tens of thousands of American children right here in Massachusetts.
There are several interconnected arms of our work with this community, encompassing organizing, services, education, research, and policy advocacy, and we are active in each of them. All these lines of engagement work in close tandem with one another.
Our constituents tend to come to us at the Center on occasions when they are in crisis in their lives, most often involving exploitation or abuse by employers, landlords, business people, the police, or ICE. These occasions happen more frequently than they usually expect, and they result in severe economic, social, and emotional damage. We use these occasions, when workers come to us asking support, to help them with advice and intervention to solve their problems, through mediation, direct collective actions, or taking legal action on their behalf – but to also educate them about their rights and what they can do to assert them on their own when they are violated. We use services, in other words, as a tool for education and organizing.
We stress the need for immigrant workers to learn skills in leadership and civic engagement, not only on our own behalf, but in collaboration with others who are – like us – advocating for more socially just conditions of life. We train workers in leadership development, ESOL, computer literacy, public speaking, state and federal laws and regulations regarding work, OSHA workplace safety and health protections, research skills, processes and traditions of government and civic life in the United States, and how to organize others in the places where we all live and work. This way we can develop tools to advocate for ourselves and others on our own, understanding it is our responsibility to teach our acquired skills to others who do not already have them. It is important also for all of us to learn to interrogate public policy, investigate its effectiveness through participating in the many policy research projects we carry out in collaboration with local universities, and understand how democratic processes and our own engagement in them can effect genuine policy and social change. Since a natural response of many immigrants is to define their problems as private woes, and to try to keep a low profile as newcomers and strangers to U.S. communities, and not make waves, our work to sensitize them to their important public responsibility takes genuine organizing and education. As members of the community ourselves, we have the cultural and linguistic skills to do this in a way that reaches our constituents, and we have ourselves gone through this sometimes challenging learning process.
We work hard to teach our community that miscarriages of justice are rarely only about them personally, and that political engagement most fundamentally carries a commitment to improving justice for all members of our community. It is in the end only through systemic change that our own problems can be solved. As immigrant workers and newcomers it is essential for us to embrace this engagement with public responsibility, so that it can inform the fabric of everyday life where we work, live, worship, and send our children to school. Our responsibility, of course, is much broader than simple partisanship and voting for candidates in electoral contests. As mostly non-citizens, our constituents are in fact usually not eligible to vote, but they still can and do play important political roles in effecting positive change in their communities – for the benefit of all. At the Connecticut Worker Center, we recognize that immigrants, and how they are treated by the economy and the society, are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine” where the well-being of democracy and justice – for everyone, immigrant and non-immigrant alike – is concerned. We struggle to keep all of us canaries alive and prospering.
CWC Supports Workers Knowing their Rights
Our workers’ rights project is CWC’s core program and is the foundation for all the initiatives, activities, educational sessions, and training that take place at CWC. In the last four years we have recouped approximately $ 3.5 million in restitution for workers, by direct mediation, through complaint referrals to state and federal labor authorities, or in small claims courts.
We have weekly know your rights workshops at our office located at 14 Harvard Ave, 2nd Floor Allston. If you worked and didn’t get paid, call us at 617-783-8001 or email us at email@example.com
The CWC has had a long and productive collaboration with the OSHA Region 1 office, whose dedicated staff have been instrumental and supportive in our work to improve workplace safety and health for immigrant workers. Regional staff have regularly accompanied us to many community health fairs and other related events, in outreach efforts to inform the community of safety and health standards. The CWCs first protocol of collaboration with Region 1 OSHA began in April 2006 as part of OSHA’s ALLIANCE program, in conjunction with our COBWEB Project lasting from 2003-2008. Our Alliance for collaboration in training and research initiatives was reaffirmed in April 2008, in September 2011, in September 2013, and again in 2016.
Apart from our extensive safety and health training, one of our more interesting collaborative projects has been the production of a professional quality 10-minute Portuguese-language video made using 35 Brazilian community actors that focuses on common safety hazards in residential construction, restaurant work, and office cleaning. The video is designed to sensitize workers to OSHA safety and health rules in these common areas of work for Brazilian immigrants, and to understand standard OSHA complaint procedures (to view the video, go to:
Leadership Development as a Central Emphasis in All CWC Programs
All CWC programs further active civic engagement by our community. Our workers’ rights and domestic workers’ organizing efforts, and our active involvement in immigrant rights campaigns, are aimed centrally at increasing the number of community activists and leaders engaged with CWC and with broader movements for social change at local, state and national levels. Many of our constituents cannot vote as US citizens, but can play important roles in the political debate around immigration issues, for example, by demonstrating, attending rallies, political education, educating their voting family members and neighbors about the issues, or giving public testimony. Our organizing and training support workers in gaining the knowledge for analyzing their own situation, for learning legal and political options available to them, for joining with others in struggle, for developing their own voice, and for taking action to solve their problems. We welcome and support all who can take on leadership roles at the CWC.
We do everything we can at every stage to back them up, at the CWC offices, in community settings, in public actions, and in the media, such as on call-in radio shows.
Participation in CWC activities and governance usually starts with one or several workers coming with a problem. That is the first step toward leadership. We engage them in their drive to affect their own situation, and to claim their own voice, by offering information and advice, and material and technical support. A visit to CWC is often followed by further workshops, community meetings, ESOL or OSHA safety training classes, and by taking increased leadership in the workplace or wider community. CWC requires workers who bring labor law violation cases to us for advice, advocacy, and intervention, to go through a workers’ rights workshop. They often also bring their wage theft claims to our new workers’ council, and while solving it, join the council themselves. Those on the council also undergo a six-month leadership training course, that includes public speaking, organizing and running a meeting, and other matters. In the council and in our workshops, we stress how important it is for everyone with knowledge of workers’ rights to educate others in their workplaces and communities, and to realize that knowledge increases their civic responsibility to the community. Workers, in fact, often volunteer at CWC to help other workers.
We at CWC are workers ourselves. Most board and staff either currently work, or have worked in the past, in job sectors that employ our constituents: construction, domestic service, restaurant work, and gardening. Two of our board are domestic workers, and four are construction workers. Almost all board and staff are 1st generation Brazilian immigrants themselves, and people of color. We know in our skin what the pressures are that immigrant workers face today. It is not hard for us to empathize with the members of the community we work with, because we are part of it. We also recognize that we ourselves – like them – need ongoing training, and to learn more. Leadership development is a central part of all our work, for staff, board, volunteers, as well as constituents. We are committed to promoting group-centered leadership that empowers as many people as possible.
The Building Justice Intensive Leadership Development Program. Our most focused and intense leadership development effort takes place in our Construíndo Justiça (Building Justice) Workers’ Committee. For members of Building Justice, the leadership training program takes a total of 30 hours, six five-hour sessions held on Saturdays. The sequence includes sessions on:
1-) Basic workers’ rights: what they are, and why there are so many problems with seeing them observed; how this is linked to the disadvantages that being an immigrant of color, often undocumented, brings to workers within the US racial and class order;
2-) Basic leadership skills: how to facilitate meetings, create agendas, public speaking, and talking to the media;
3-) Event and meeting planning and organizing – what is involved;
4-) The basics of civic and political engagement; what the individual and the group can do to advocate for policy change, and to move a bill;
5-) Mediation and small claims court as means of resolving wage theft cases;
6-) How to understand budgets and decision-making about money;
7-) Group decision making and accountability: how do you make decisions that are principled and transparent;
😎 Issues in subcontracting and employer misclassification of workers;
9-) How to use mechanic’s liens as a legal tool to force employer legal compliance.
Domestic Workers Deserve the Same Labor Protections as Other Workers
Ending Exclusion from Basic Labor Laws
CWC was a key leader in the four-year campaign to achieve a Massachusetts Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2014. Since then, CWC created the Domestic Worker Advocacy Project (DWAN) to educate workers and employers about their rights and responsibilities under the new law. We have a domestic worker rights booklet that is used in this work; with partners such as Studio REV of New York, and Northeastern Nu Law Lab, we created a Know Your Rights and Workplace Safety hotline for domestic workers; and, we developed a new OSHA safety and health course for domestic workers in 2015. We are also leading a Connecticut campaign to achieve a domestic worker bill of rights in that state.
Supporting our Immigrant Community in Troubled Times
CWC has been deeply engaged in immigrant rights organizing, defense of immigrants’ rights, and supporting movements for immigration reform at the state and national levels. We are becoming a registered service center under the USIS Board of Immigration Appeals. CWC’s Immigrant Justice Project assisted over 130 applicants for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
We help families to locate relatives held in detention by ICE, and we do considerable educational work around Massachusetts’ new Real ID law. We have recently become part of the wider Immigrant Defense Project, overseen by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Through this project, we are continuing to support DACA renewals, and we are connecting members of the community with legal resources and sanctuary spaces.
Interrogating a Source of Injustice and Inequity in our Community
Understanding Race in America
At the CWC, we have always felt the need to do regular training of our staff and board, and workers in our workers’ councils and rights workshops, on issues of racial justice. Our constituents as well as our staff – who tend to be first-generation Brazilian immigrants themselves – have difficulty understanding that their Boston troubles in gaining acceptance and fair treatment, and much of the abuse directed at immigrant workers, can be partly explained on account of racism toward them based on physical appearance, and their racialization on account of language and cultural differences. This leaves them in a very discouraging situation. They often think an appropriate response is simply to lower their expectations, maintain a low public profile, and remain isolated inside the immigrant community. Tuning out issues of race evident in their own fortunes as immigrants in a strange land also reinforces Brazilians’ sense they are in the US only temporarily – though this is not usually true – and therefore they feel they can disavow any responsibility for civic engagement and advocacy for social justice in their adopted homeland, even when it is in their own communities and in their own interest.
Culturally particular views of race imported from Brazil also keep them from appreciating how many of their own struggles are shared by other immigrant groups. Because they do not always see reality of race in their own US experiences, it can be difficult for them to be empathetic toward domestic minorities who feel the long-standing sting of racism, and who perhaps see it more clearly. This can create special barriers for Brazilians in forging alliances and common purpose not only with African-Americans, but also with Latinos, despite obvious affinities in Latin American backgrounds, and attempts on both sides to work together on rights issues. The US is a challenging environment for newcomers who do not always understand it right away.
We have taken a variety of initiatives to engage with the issue of racial justice in our programming – including a film series on race in collaboration with Allston-Brighton SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), introducing Racial Justice units into four weeks of our ESOL curriculum, participating in wider coalitions and campaigns for racial justice (such as Boston’s recent 2017 City-Wide Race Dialogue), and creating video vignettes for social media designed to examine racial issues our community regularly encounters.