Make the Road New York is a fast-growing community-based, nonprofit organization with centers in
Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. The organization takes its name from a poem by Antonio Machado:
Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar/ Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by
walking. Make the Road began in a church basement in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1997,
when a group of community residents met to face the challenges of the 1996 federal welfare reform bill. Since
then, its membership and mission have expanded greatly. It now counts well over 3,500 members, and fortyfive
staff members oversee eleven projects. In 2007, it expanded still further when it merged with the Latin
American Integration Center. Make the Road works on with a broad range of economic and social justice issues
including workers rights and unionization, youth development, housing issues, gay and lesbian rights, and
Regional Labor Review wanted to interview Andrew Friedman, the organizations co-founder and one of three
current Co-Executive Directors, because of his leading role in Make the Roads innovative and successful drive
to organize retail workers along Bushwicks Knickerboker Avenue. The Despierta Bushwick Campaign is a
model of what community-labor coalitions can achieve in low-income, immigrant communities. In July of this
year, Sharryn Kasmir spoke with Andrew at his Bushwick office.
SK: Youve got quite a lot of things going on here.
AF: Its kind of a large beast at this point. I mean, there are forty-five full-time staff people and 3,650 members,
so its definitely a different and more complicated organization than when we started.
SK: How does the membership structure work? How do members become active?
AF: We dont canvas for members. We encourage people to come participate in one of our eleven organizing
committees, and only after they participate do we encourage them to become members. The idea is that
members exercise democratic control over the organization and we want folks to understand what the
organization is and what are our values are before we cede control over the organization to them.
We do outreach mostly focused on our organizing committees and the work theyre doing, on immigrantworker
issues or housing issues or youth issues or education issues, and we invite folks to participate in the
committees dedicated to those things. Once folks come in and have been a little active, know other members,
understand how decisions get made within the committees, at that point we encourage them to become members
of the organization.
SK: I understand you have several different office locations.
AF: We have four offices right now. We have this office here in Bushwick. We have an office in Woodside,
Queens, one in Jackson Heights, Queens, and one in Port Richmond in Staten Island.
SK: Do those different offices reflect the different demographics of those neighborhoods or do they focus
on different issues?
AF: What were trying to do is offer a coherent kind of social change approach or methodology in each of our
offices that combines leadership development, community organizing, and some provision of services. That
said, folks face slightly different issues in different locations.
The housing issues tend to be somewhat different but the workplace-related issues are very similar. In Queens,
immigration status is more of an issue, but even though Bushwick is a neighborhood thats move heavily
African American and Puerto Rican, many folks in our workers committee find enforcing their workplace rights
complicated by immigration status issues. The Workers in Action Committee here in Bushwick and the
Workers United Committee in Queens are actually similar.
SK: Are Make the Road members for the most part Central American?
AF: Probably the most common countries of origins of our members, in general, would be Mexico, the
Dominican Republic. In the Workers Committees in particular, we also have a fair number of folks from
Ecuador and Colombia, particularly in Queens.
SK: As I understand it, you are one of three executive directors?
AF: There are three Co-Executive Directors. Its a slightly unusual leadership model. But, you know, when we
started Make the Road by Walking about eleven years ago, there were two of us, and neither of us wanted to
just do the executive-director-type work. We both wanted to keep a hand in program work as we continued to
grow. Then we merged with another organization, and they had an executive director and it was important to the
merger for that person to stay in leadership of the organization. We feel great about it and its working so far.
SK: How do you divide the work amongst yourselves?
AF: Its almost like a corporate vice-presidency model. We each have areas of responsibility and then we share
the responsibilities that traditionally would be the executive directors job. This accounts for about a third of
each of our jobs.
Its great in some ways. When things are hard, its great to have other folks thinking with me on this stuff, and
when things are good, its also great to be part of a team. Its been something that tends to get greeted with
skepticism in some circles, but it has been one of the things I feel least ambivalent about in terms of institutional
structure. Its been very positive.
SK: Which of the programs are your responsibilities?
AF: I oversee about two-thirds of the organizing department, the operation side of the organization, and our
services team. Ana Maria Archila, one of the other co-executive directors, oversees the education organizing
and the immigration-related organizing, and I oversee the civil-rights organizing, the LGBTQ organizing, the
workers organizing, and the environmental-justice and housing organizing. Oona Chatterjee, the third coexecutive
director, oversees the youth organizing and youth development, as well as our partnerships with two
high schools that we helped to found, the Bushwick School for Social Justice and the Pan-American
International High School. She also oversees our development work.
SK: How did Make the Road begin?
AF: Both Oona and I had a background in organizing work, campus organizing for her, anti-Apartheid activism
and anti-US-involvement-in-Central-America-related work for me.
Both of us found ourselves in law school. She found herself there having been pulled by the ear by her parents. I
went feeling like I was interested in larger systemic change. But upon getting to law school both of us were
really committed to not speaking for other people and not leaving unquestioned the power that lawyers and
judges and legislators have, but rather trying to use the law and legislation to inform regular folks, participating
more meaningfully in shaping public policy or litigation as a way to catalyze larger change.
SK: The two of you met in law school and came up with the idea to start the organization together
AF: We were students and we were very process-focused, and so initially we had a reading group thinking
about the relationship between law and organizing. We spent a lot of time thinking in the abstract, at a
conceptual level. And then we spent a lot of time thinking about issues of process: questions of decisionmaking,
After about eight months, it felt very heady and very divorced from anything on the ground. So we said, Well,
why dont we try and do something, and even just as a learning exercise, well learn more getting our hands
dirty. We started meeting people in different neighborhoods around the city and saying, Would you be
interested in a partnership? Almost everyone we met with said, Oh great, free lawyers! Like we got a ton of
work for you!
But a pastor right here in Bushwick said, You know, people need lawyers because they dont have power.
They do need lawyers, but what they really need is power. What would be best is actually if we could find some
organizers. After having had meetings in Bedford Stuyvesant and up in the South Bronx and in Jackson
Heights, we were so ecstatic to find a guy who shared our perspective. He was an experienced organizer
himself, so he moved us very quickly from our heads to on-the-ground work. He said, Why dont you do a
workshop next week on federal welfare reform.
SK: Was this during the time of Bill Clintons Welfare Reform?
AF: Clinton had signed the Welfare Reform Act in August of 1996, and this was the end of February of 1997.
Everyone had just gotten their letters saying no more SSI, no more food stamps. Oona and I had prepared some
insane, fourteen-page training plan, and we got here, and there were seventy-five Spanish-speakers in the room.
We realized that no one cared about the intricacies of the eligibility rules — all the stuff that you pay a lot of
attention to in law school, which just doesnt affect anyone on the ground because nobody on welfare in New
York City owns their home, nobody owns a car.
So we pretty quickly got into trying to do much more basic training, and then we told people that there was a
legal-services system for them to go to for help. Give us your ZIP code. Well tell you the office. And then
we said, Well, come back next week to see how it went.
Everyone came back. They had gone to the local offices, which either did not have people who spoke Spanish
or did not have adequate staff. So there were these original seventy-five people plus thirty of their friends who
came back. Not withstanding our grand vision of law and organizing, we spent two months just doing straight
administrative law help. It was easier to figure out how to get someones food stamps back than how to confront
malevolent policies of the Giuliani administration.
After a couple of months, we said, All right, this is not going to happen organically. We have to dedicate time
and energy to figuring out how were going to catalyze some organizing activity. At that point, we created our
membership structure, and we started to evolve into the organization that we are now.
SK: At that time, the initiatives and actions came from what your members saw happening in their
AF: Exactly. We did a pretty in-depth interview process with about the first one hundred people who we had
been working with over the past five months. Based on those interviews, we identified five potential areas
where there seemed to be some interest, and then we hosted a series of community dinners and threw it out
there for a conversation: What are the people who are at this dinner most interested in working on? What do we
think that there is the most opportunity to organize around? What started to emerge was the initial set of issues
we took on.
SK: What were those issues?
AF: They were mostly around language access– civil rights for limited English-proficient folks in New York
City. At that time, everyone was very focused on what was changing about the welfare system, both at the
federal level and at the city level with Giulianis Workfare program. That was where our heads went, as folks
looking at the landscape. And it turned out, ironically, that for the folks in Bushwick, the problems predated all
of these changes. They couldnt talk to people at the citys welfare centers in the 1970s and the 80s, and so it
was a preexisting problem that folks identified.
SK: So Workfare was just one more problem on top of the more basic language problems?
AF: Exactly. No one felt good about Workfare. Everyone hated it. But the thing that people saw as their
primary and insurmountable obstacle was that they couldnt even communicate with their case worker about
Workfare, about the application process, about requesting a fair hearing.
SK: New York City has just recently announced a new language access order for public services.
AF: Which is great! Thats something that we have been working on for a long time. So that was the first issue
that we started to work on, and pretty quickly new things started springing up.
At that point in time, Bushwick High School was at about 220% capacity and so they were doing this insane
thing called split shift, where half the kids go from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and the other kids go from 1:00
p.m. on. Every single adult we saw said, Hey, can my kid do an internship? We said: Sure.
One day we looked around. We had one room on the third floor of a rectory, and we had something like nine or
ten teenagers there. We had no phone system. I would show up in the morning with my cordless phone from
home. There was no work for these kids to do. And we said, This is really a bad use of these kids time. We
should get in touch with some educators. We should figure out a way to help them use this time so theyre
learning and also potentially doing organizing work themselves. Our youth power project emerged in that way.
And one day someone came in because their building had flooded because the sewage infrastructure for the
neighborhood was the same as it had been when about one-sixth as many people lived here. So whenever it
rained there were these huge backups, and literally cars would end up floating, would get lifted off the ground
about two blocks from where the church was! Out of that we had a community meeting and eventually that
grew into our environmental justice project.
Similarly, with increasing frequency folks came in who were working at sweatshops or doing light contracting
or other work who hadnt gotten paid minimum wage, or who hadnt gotten paid wages at all, or were sleeping
in the basements of bodegas. Thats how we decided to work on immigrant workers issues.
SK: That work takes place in the Workers in Action Committee?
AF: Exactly. In Brooklyn, its called the Workers in Action Committee, and in Queens its called the Workers
United Committee. Together they form the Workplace Justice Project.
SK: What was the trajectory of the Workplace Justice Project? How did you get started on the Despierta
AF: We found that there were widespread labor-law violations that were affecting thousands of folks in many
sectors: in restaurants, light manufacturing, the garment industry, general contractors not paying workers or
folks doing landscaping work. There were violations everywhere. Theyre very common, and folks by and large
feel too vulnerable to stand up for themselves when theyre employed. In a lot of the industries that folks are
working in, organized labor is not actively trying to organize for strategic reasons. So we spent a lot of time
initially just helping challenge the impunity that employers had. So someone would come in. We would then
work with the worker to draft a demand letter.
First it would be a confrontation supported by the members of our Workers in Action Committee or Workers
United Committee in Queens. If its a small amount of money, sometimes a boss will just pay the $3,000 they
had stolen from someone, depending on the employer, how scared they are. Oftentimes they wont, and then it
will require some direct action and maybe some legal work, in collaboration with our legal team.
We found that we were pretty effective at winning millions of dollars over time, at different workplaces. But we
were struggling with changing the institutional balance, building institutional power for immigrant workers. We
wanted to find innovative ways to actually help workers organize.
It felt very challenging, given the fact that at this time, about five years ago, we only had one Workplace Justice
Project organizer. We were not capable. We didnt have the staff to do it. We were winning money for folks,
but it was almost like we were a multi-trade association of fired workers because people wouldnt come forward
until they had lost their jobs. And then they would have lots of information and be better situated to stand up for
themselves in the future, but we were not building any institutional power in the workplace. We were very
interested in thinking about how to do that.
A group of workers came to us from a retailer in the neighborhood. One of them was mad because she got fired
for being pregnant. All of them were mad because they hadnt gotten any overtime pay. So we did a demand
letter. We initiated litigation, but we also initiated a community boycott of this store.
A friend of mine who had done a lot of work with United Farm Workers was in town, and he was on the picket
line with us. I was feeling sad because we were turning away probably only one out of four customers. And I
was feeling like, Huh, there are three out of four walking right by us. My friend pulled me aside and said,
You know, youre crazy. You can put any business out of business if you can turn away one in ten customers.
Weve done tons of research on this at the United Farm Workers. Profit margins are just not 25%. You should
be feeling good. This is a higher percentage than any picket line Ive ever seen.
United Farm Workers uses the boycott strategy a lot, so that information helped our thinking about strategy.
The other thing that informed our thinking was that almost everyone who came by and was supportive said,
You know, my cousin works down the street and shes also not getting paid minimum wage. Why are you only
targeting this store? Everyone in the block is not paying minimum wage or overtime.
It felt like we had some strategic strength with respect to the retail sector because we were able to get
consumers to show solidarity. Also these folks were locked into long-term leases in the neighborhood, which is
different from a lot of the light garment manufacturing, where they can just pick up and overnight go to a
warehouse based in Corona or another neighborhood. So we felt we could effectively use public pressure to get
the employers to do something.
At that point, we started thinking about trying to establish some sort of floor for working conditions and then
steering consumers to those stores that respected those standards. We were also interested in trying to help the
workers organize into a union, but we felt like we couldnt do it. So we started to look around for folks in the
labor movement who were interested in partnering with us. We came into contact with folks at the Retail,
Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU] who were simultaneously looking for community partners
to try to organize some kind of community-based efforts. So it was actually very fortuitous.
Our members, I think, had a strong commitment to the importance of organizing themselves and workers in
general into unions. But they also had some deep skepticism from their experience with labor unions being
either non-responsive to their concerns in this country or in their home countries. Mexico has a very corrupt
labor movement. So there was a lot of work that had to be done to build trust with RWDSU. I think RSWDU
was very open to doing that work. They had a very explicit commitment to work differently with the
community and said: Well organize folks, but well organize them into a new local, not an existing local. So
the workers that you helped to organize will actually control this local. They created Local 2006, which is all
workers organized through the Despierta Bushwick Campaign.
SK: When you say that the union was open to doing the work that it takes to build trust, concretely what
did that mean?
AF: They were willing to spend time with our members, not just with our staff. They were willing to go to the
meetings, hear peoples concerns. They were not defensive when people raised concerns about the labor
movement. I think they were interested in a new kind of partnership also. In some ways they had a good track
record doing work with community and Latino workers in particular, because a bunch of the folks at the
RWDSU had done some greengrocer organizing.
SK: In the Lower East Side?
AF: In the Lower East Side for many years. So our members knew them because they had come and been
supportive to some of the smaller, specific workplace campaigns that we had done over the years. People had
some degree of familiarity. Mostly, it was just spending time, hearing people out, and taking seriously their
concerns and not becoming defensive and thinking about concrete things we could do as we structured this
agreement to work together to respond to those concerns.
SK: How many members does Local 2006 have now?
AF: One hundred or so. A decent size. Its certainly not big, but its nine or ten shops and I think there is a real
opportunity. Six employers are also in the process of talking with our organizers and have actually signed a
neutrality agreement saying that workers can decide for themselves whether or not to organize.
SK: So that will be six additional shops also along Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick?
AF: Yes. Theyre very small, between 3 and 11 employees.
SK: In the nine or ten shops already organized what percentage of the workers are union members.
AF: All of them.
SK: Thats good. And how are the wages and benefits?
AF: You know, the strategy has really been about doing organizing work with the workers, but also using
consumer pressure to increase or leverage the workers power in the workplace so that the employer will not
retaliate. And weve also partnered with the state– either Department of Labor or the State Attorney General–
to crack down on some of the bad practices.
The stores that we targeted for organizing were stores that were breaking minimum wage and overtime laws. So
we filed complaints with the State Attorney General who investigated the complaints and told the stores We
will take into consideration future working conditions as we assess penalties for past malpractices.
SK: So they had an incentive to raise wages.
AF: If theyre going to be spending the money anyway, its better for the workers to get it as an ongoing benefit
as opposed to a one-time, cash-out payment. Its better for the Attorney General because theyre improving
labor practices and better obviously for us in terms of what were trying to do. So thats been the strategy: to
combine state regulatory pressure with the consumer pressure with the worker organizing.
SK: Do they have a contract yet?
AF: They do.
SK. And what are their hourly wages?
AF: In the neighborhood of $8.45 or $8.65 an hour. Thats a significant increase over what they were getting.
These folks were getting in the neighborhood of four dollars an hour. Now they get overtime. They get vacation
days. Health benefits are the biggest benefit. And part-time workers get health benefits also.
Some of the new shops are so small that they might not be able to sustain the health benefits, so thats a little bit
on a case-by-case basis. But every single shop thats organized now is paying health benefits to part-time and
full-time workers. And then there are vacation days, sick days, and just-cause firing, that is a big one.
SK: To what do you attribute the community response, given that that 25% rate of respecting the boycott
was very high?
AF: Its interesting. I think that the folks who work at these stores and the folks who shop at them are
neighbors. So I think folks feel more connected and probably some higher degree of solidarity with the concerns
of the workers of the stores. I think its not charity for the poor immigrant workers. Its really: This matters to
all of us. This is about our dignity. This is about being treated with respect by all employers. I think its an
easier case to make. Its certainly more self-interested.
SK: Are you thinking about bringing this campaign to Queens?
AF: Yeah. Were really interested in trying to replicate the campaign along a commercial strip in Queens like
Junction Boulevard or 37th Avenue or Roosevelt Avenue. Were also very interested in tweaking the model a
little bit and looking at some massive employers, like the Queens Mall, which has 175 employers and 3,000
employees. They are the beneficiaries of huge tax subsidies. So we have multiple leverage points: the
employers, the parent corporation that owns the mall, city or state governments that are giving the subsidies. So
it feels like there are some exciting possibilities. Its a little bit more challenging to steer consumers in the same
way. Its a much more heterogenous shopping and working population.
SK: Would you use the same union partner there?
AF: I think we would. Its been an effective partnership. We have talked about doing partnerships with other
unions like Teamsters for Democratic Union. Were also talking to folks at Unite Here to try to use this model
of bringing consumers and community organizations together with labor unions when there are issues of shared
SK: Weve heard a lot about how the labor movement is in crisis: historically low rates of labor union
participation, unions dont have effective organizing strategies… From your perspective of having
organized workers in new ways and bringing new people into the union movement, what do you think
about this crisis in labor?
AF: I think the crisis is real. I think workers are very vulnerable and unions are also very vulnerable. At the
same time, unions are the most dynamic and powerful force on the left that weve had the opportunity to work
with. Theyre significantly stronger and richer than any community-based organization weve ever worked
with. So in some ways, the partnership has been about the strengths that they can bring to the table.
There are all these folks at the union who have been doing this work for twenty-five or more years. Sadly, Im
the person who has been doing a kind of community organizing work the longest among most of our coalitions.
People tend to stop after about ten years. So in terms of a brain trust and experience, in terms of research
departments that are well situated to look at complicated questions like the ownership of the Queens Mall and
the subsidies theyre receiving, who can actually look at this stuff seeing that kind of power being brought to
the table as we do this organizing work has been inspiring. And then the fact that the unions can actually make
an investment in doing some of this challenging organizing work that takes years.
Not all unions are willing to make real investments in new organizing that takes a long time in small shops. I
think the Knickerbocker Avenue campaign is a strategic experiment in many ways for folks at RWDSU.
SK: If you were talking to an audience of labor leaders or organizers and you had to tell them, This is
what you need to do to organize low-wage, immigrant workers. From our perspective…
AF: From our perspective, we get some of this institutional power, experience, and resources. I think from their
perspective, they get a level of dynamism on the ground, trustworthiness. They lost some of that dynamism, that
connection to folks over the past decades through union corruption, or involvement with organized crime, or
alienation in terms of demographics from newer workers, or racism. They certainly have lost the connection in
the communities where their members live.
Thats what were bringing to the table and trying to get folks in the labor movement to see as valuable: that
trust, that real understanding, not just about how to run a sophisticated corporate campaign against Wal-Mart,
but also how to understand, how to elicit the opinions and the participation of their members, how to build trust
so that folks are willing to take real risks to change their lives and build an institution like a labor union. Those
are some of the things that Make the Road brings to the equation and that are valuable and needed almost across
Obviously, there are sectors within organized labor that are really dynamic and really democratic and really
responsive, but I think that overall theyre good on institutional strength but have also evolved bureaucracies
that are not always accessible to or responsive to the needs of the workers who are organized or the workers
who theyre trying to organize.
The dynamism that I think happens here comes by opening up a space for workers to actually come together
and think strategically together and share their experiences. It takes an enormous amount of work. We have
eleven committee meetings every single week!
SK: I saw the schedule. Its unbelievable.
AF: Right. Its totally nuts. And we have childcare and food and were helping people with MetroCards. So its
expensive staff-wise and resource-wise. But I think that the benefits are incalculable in terms of helping people
find community. Its transformative in terms of how much less alienated and isolated people are, regardless of
whether or not they win anything.
But I think actually when folks come together and they feel safe and supported, issues emerge. And that is very
valuable. Its a thing that if youre trying to run a sophisticated, hard-hitting campaign, you dont think like,
Hey, lets create a space thats open for people to feel comfortable in and see what emerges over the next three
years. Obviously, were not just creating that space. Were also trying to do other things. But I think that there
is an enormous value in both personally and collectively having that space for people to come share information
and also have access to the organizers who can help them think through that information. And I think that thats
something that just never happens in the labor movement.
You know, not just within the labor movement, but in a lot of community organizing work, folks just dont have
that much face time with each other. I think thats something thats special about what happens here.
SK: Can you think of any other nonprofit or community-based organizations in the country that you see
doing that same kind of bridge-building for unions?
AF: I think that in New York City the folks at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition are doing
this work around the Kingsbridge armory development in partnership with RWDSU. ACORN and the UFT
[United Federation of Teachers] partnered to organize childcare workers here in New York City.
There is historically some distrust between community organizations and unions, on both sides. I think a lot of
the union folks think that the community-organizing groups are less serious or less effective. I think that the
community-organizing folks see unions, notwithstanding a core democratic structure of elections, as not being
very receptive to member input and participation, and much more in bed with the powerful.
But around the country through Jobs with Justice and organizing janitors in Los Angeles, some of the bigticket
stuff thats now happening around the port of Los Angeles and the folks at LAANE [Los Angeles
Alliance for a New Economy] theres an interesting partnership among unions and some community
organizations to try and find areas of common concern.
SK: What do you see as the major issues on the horizon for Bushwick, and how are you seeing the
current economic crisis play out in the neighborhood?
AF: In general, folks are also just having a harder time piecing together jobs. There is some immigration
backlash happening, so its harder for day laborers to find work. And then they often feel more vulnerable
seeking help after theyve encountered problems on a job where they get picked up along Woodside Avenue in
Queens. You know, oftentimes they dont feel comfortable going to the NYPD now, because of the poisonous
tone of the immigration debate, whereas a couple of years ago they maybe would have gone to the police.
The other thing in this neighborhood is that a lot of the light-manufacturing buildings are being replaced by
gentrifying housing. Initially the buildings that became lofts were light manufacturing or abandoned, and so
thats also affecting the number of work opportunities.
In Bushwick there is an increasingly corporate employment structure. There are fewer and fewer mom-and-pop
employers and more firms that are run by private equity, like Dunkin Donuts through the Carlyle Group, as
opposed to locally-owned bodegas. Along Knickerbocker Avenue when we started there were maybe three
stores with recognizable names to folks who dont live in a similar community. There were some low-income
neighborhood chains, like Fat Albert or something like that. Now if you go there is a Subway, a Radio Shack.
This cuts both ways. In some ways, there are some real organizing opportunities when there is consolidation;
these employers are less likely to have totally marginal practices. The 99-cent stores often will pay people $25
for a twelve-hour day stacking things outside in the street for their displays, but McDonald’s will tend to pay the
minimum wage. They[CC1][CC2] will sometimes have overtime violations. Even the companies that are
complying with labor laws are not paying health benefits, and theyre much more sophisticated in some ways
with their exploitation. So we dont have the same foothold. Its better that the floor goes up a little bit, but
obviously our challenge is getting the floor significantly higher than where the law sets it.