November 18, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
Make the Road New York honored AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at its annual gala Nov. 13, and the praise was mutual. Deborah Axt, codirector of the Brooklyn/Queens-based community group, said Trumka was at “the forefront of building deep alliances between labor and communities,” while Trumka lauded “the incredible, incredible work you do” for “people who work hard for way too little.”
Make the Road New York, formed in 2007 by the merger of the Bushwick community group Make the Road by Walking and the Queens-based Latin American Integration Center, works on a wide variety of issues. It’s helped organize grocery-store workers and “carwasheros” who were getting paid less than minimum wage, put out reports documenting how and how often New York City landlords raise rents illegally, and campaigned for immigrants’ rights and against the abuses of “stop and frisk” policing.
To Trumka, that makes them an “example” of the kind of broad community-labor coalition he called for at the AFL-CIO’s convention in September. That concept isn’t universally supported within the labor movement, as leaders of building-trades unions whose members would get jobs constructing the proposed Keystone oil pipeline have criticized the idea of uniting with environmental groups who believe tar-sands oil will accelerate the coming of climate-change catastrophe. But Trumka has argued that with union density declining and economic inequality increasing, the labor movement needs a new vision to turn things around.
“It’s time to build a new working-class movement,” he told the crowd, one that encompasses young and old, native-born and immigrant, union members and people who’ve never heard of unions. He praised the “major victories” won by the city’s carwasheros, who got their first contracts at several car washes this year after organizing with the aid of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, Make the Road, and New York Communities for Change. He also vowed, “we are going to get comprehensive immigration reform done.”
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was the first speaker, saying that the increase in income inequality is the main issue of our time. Make the Road also gave awards to lawyer Michael E. Jaffe and its outgoing codirector, Ana Maria Archila.
Jaffe was honored for his work fending off efforts to weaken the state’s scaffolding law, which he said “makes sure those in power are responsible that workers are kept safe.” And Archila, who is moving to the Center for Popular Democracy after 13 years at LAIC and Make the Road, gave an emotional farewell, approaching the lectern to chants of “¡Si Se Puede!” and telling the audience, “I became who I am by walking the streets of New York with you.”