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Know Your Rights
Source: Open Democracy
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

How undocumented workers took on the New York establishment – and won

“During the hunger strike, 23 days without eating, my sadness, and my desperation manifested on my body, on my face. At first, you don’t notice, but when you take off your mask, you see the physical wear, or desgaste, on your face,” said Rubiela Correa, 44, a house cleaner who lost her job in March of last year and ended up in the city’s shelter system.

Correa is a Queens member of Make the Road New York, which is part of an alliance of immigrant workers organized by the Fund Excluded Workers coalition. Several months ago the group launched a hunger strike ahead of the New York State budget on 16 March, demanding $3.5bn in funding for workers excluded from federal and state COVID-19 relief programs.

But Correa’s transformation, along with the other hunger strikers, wasn’t only physical. The hunger strike presented what she describes as “the opportunity to do something about my desperation” and “the doors began to open… where I could fight for my dignity not just for my own but for others.”

The hunger strike lasted 23 days, ending on 7 April when the New York State Legislature and governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to a $2.1bn fund for workers excluded from unemployment benefits and federal stimulus checks.

The win culminated a year-long campaign, including shutting down bridges, and protesting in front of the mansions of billionaires and the offices of elected officials.

Before Thanksgiving last year, Make the Road New York and other allies packed the sidewalk outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office to demand a tax hike on the rich. “This week, billionaires will feast like kings, while our people have to survive by food lines. Is this fair?” chanted Julissa Bisono, associate director of organizing for Make the Road New York. “We know that our governor loves to cook for his family and offers the same to millionaires in the Hamptons, but what about us?” Bisono added, pointing to a mock breadline with essential workers standing behind a table with no bread while next to them sat billionaires feasting.

Correa is now one of nearly 300,000 New Yorkers who will benefit from the fund because they lost employment in the pandemic-stricken city but were ineligible for state and federal relief programs. New York City is home to roughly 476,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

“This was a fund to win respect and recognition for the labor and the dignity of undocumented workers. Undocumented workers have lived, worked, and paid taxes in our communities for decades, yet they have been shut out of the safety net,” said Make the Road NY lead organizer Ángeles Solis.