More than 10 years in the making, the Obreros Unidos (Workers United) Day Labor Center in Yonkers was dedicated May 1 in ceremonies that included remarks from Timothy Cardinal Dolan; Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, and performances from karaoke singers and a mariachi band, in a celebration of a Catholic Charities project which provides support and education for day laborers.
“Obreros Unidos is standing up for us,” said Jose Antonio Galdamaz, a member of the organization’s board and a factory worker. “You are saving our lives,” he told the assembled dignitaries and workers, as he praised the agency for providing life-saving OSHA training for construction workers and for standing up for immigrant workers who suffer wage theft.
Obreros Unidos is like a brother to me. We try to help people in need
Located in a strip mall adjacent to the Saw Mill River Parkway frequented by day workers seeking employment and contractors needing help, the new Catholic Charities Day Labor Center serves as an education and resource center.
The group is active in all kinds of issues affecting Latino immigrants in Westchester County, from food assistance during the Covid pandemic to forging improved relations with the local police, said Jose.
“We are working with the local police to keep our community united and strong. We are not afraid of the police in Yonkers anymore. We work together,” he said, noting a renewed spirit of cooperation that now exists which he credited to the work of Obreros Unidos and the center’s team.
Cardinal Dolan praised the forward-thinking vision of Catholic Charities. “Catholic Charities has a unique ability to be proactive in seeing challenges,” noted the cardinal, who said he noticed day laborers on street corners in Yonkers while visiting St. Joseph’s Seminary after being named archbishop of New York in 2009.
The Center features a kitchen for social occasions as well as rooms for day laborers connecting with employers. Classes are offered in varied topics, including workplace safety, English, nanny care, and guitar.
The walls are decorated with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as posters exhorting an end to racism, discipline, unity and a statement, in Spanish, that hard work is the nail of success.
The center is frequented both by workers and volunteers, among them Alberto Vaquero, who said he came to the United State from Mexico in 1984, has worked in factories and now serves as a volunteer cook at the center.
Jose contacted the center after moving from Pennsylvania in 2014. A native of El Salvador, he’s found steady employment in a local plastics factory.
“Obreros Unidos is like a brother to me. We try to help people in need,” he said.
Isabel Puma, a native of Ecuador, is part of the group’s women’s committee. She works as a cleaner and has benefited from English classes offered at the center, she said.
She works seven days a week – taking part-time hours – and also takes care of an 8-year-old daughter. Isabel said she is proud of the women’s group at the center and how it has responded to needs of immigrant workers in Westchester County. Classes at the center, she said, respond to practical needs, such as training in manicure work and providing English classes geared to particular work situations, such as working as a cleaner or a nanny.
Tara Seeley, Senior Program Officer of the Westchester County Foundation, attended the event to offer support for Obreros Unidos. Her foundation is specifically concerned about wage theft of immigrant workers and provides legal assistance to combat its prevalence.
“Immigrant day laborers are especially vulnerable to wage theft,” she said, noting how immigrants, often without documents, are scared away from pursuing what is rightfully theirs after they have been exploited by unscrupulous contractors.
Groups like Obreros Unidos provide education, an invaluable component in securing workers’ rights, said Tara.
“Some who are new to the country are vulnerable and afraid. They may not know their rights and may be afraid to assert their rights.” Lucia Goyen, Director of Day Laborer Programs for Catholic Charities, noted that the center has helped recover more than $60,000 in stolen wages.
She said that immigrant workers “face a myriad of obstacles” but still “show up and keep New York State running.” She noted that day workers continued serving throughout the Covid pandemic, even as some died from the disease and workplace accidents.
She credited Janet Hernandez, Westchester Coordinator for Catholic Charities, active in the immigrant community of Yonkers for more than a dozen years, for providing leadership during the lean times of the pandemic.
Janet said that the solidarity of the workers – many of whom spruced up the facility for the opening ceremonies – is the way improvements are made in immigrant life in Westchester County. Showing up for work and uniting together for fair wages, she said, is an indication that “in doing small things we can change the world.”
Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, noted that the Center is the result of a coalition that Catholic Charities’ has been able to forge among union, church, business and community leaders. One of those leaders is Mayor Mike Spano of Yonkers, who noted that immigrants in Yonkers, through Catholic Charities, “have someone who will stick up for you.”
The Yonkers’ dedication was just part of a weekend celebration of immigrant workers timed to coincide with the May 1 feast of St. Joseph the Worker. An April 30 Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral included more than 200 representatives of day laborer organizations in both Yonkers and the Bronx.
At the Mass, Msgr. Sullivan told the assembly that the event celebrated “the dignity of work.” The Mass included the display of photos of workers who have died over the past few years through Covid or via workplace accidents.