Solidarity Episode 17January 20, 2022

17: Aim high! A Victory for New York’s Undocumented Workers  

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

When the pandemic brought New York’s economy to a shuddering halt in 2020, there was a safety net for workers – if they were US citizens. But over half a million undocumented workers in the state weren’t included and faced a sudden collapse in income. Strength & Solidarity returns with this close look at the “Fund Excluded Workers” campaign which used both street-level activism and behind-the-scenes advocacy at the state legislature to win a staggering $2.1bn in pandemic relief for workers without legal status. And in the Coda, queer Malaysian activist Henry Koh reflects on poetry and music as solace for LGBTI people in their country, forced in a conservative, religious society to remain closeted. 

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The Interview

‘We have nothing else to lose. So we might as well fight’

Workers without legal status in New York state perform critical services as cleaners, in restaurants, in the care industryproviding delivery service,  and in so many other roles, and – contrary to popular belief – they pay taxes.  Yet, as undocumented workers, they are not entitled to access state benefits. Faced with earning no money to buy food or pay rent due to the Covid lockdown in 2020thousands across the state joined the campaign for assistance, supported by a coalition of more than a hundred organisations. 

The Coda

Being Queer in Malaysia: ‘A little bit out but – still not out’

Queer rights activist Henry Koh reflects that in their home country Malaysia, the only space where queer people are acknowledged is on screen  in flamboyant characters played for laughs. They reflects on growing up gay in a society that expects you to stay in the closet. 

Transcript

Akwe Amosu: And we’re back! Welcome once again, to Strength & Solidarity.

[Music]

I’m your host Akwe Amosu here with Episode 17 of the Strength and Solidarity podcast and a slew of new interviews and Codas. As always, we look for insights and reflections on the tools and tactics of human rights work and how activists are thinking about their strategies. Later in this episode,

  • A queer activist from Malaysia talks about what it’s like to try and live openly in his conservative Muslim country.
  • But let’s start out in New York City…

[AUDIO CLIP] “We just led the way in establishing a multi-billion dollar program that puts cash directly in the pockets of those who need it, cash directly in the pockets of those whose labor saved lives, who over the course of this pandemic delivered food, cleaned homes, took care of our families, and that is what people power does. That is what good organizing, damn good organizing and direct action does. And they could not say no to people who are giving everything of themselves, because when you have nothing left in your body, all you have is spirit. And that spirit is what brought home this win.”

AA: That’s New York city activist Angeles Solis celebrating one of the most extraordinary grassroots campaigns New York has ever seen – resulting in the state government last year, allocating $2.1 billion to support workers not covered by official pandemic relief. And above all, the beneficiaries were the state’s undocumented immigrant workers. When COVID brought economic life to a shuddering halt in 2020, American workers got help from the government, but workers without legal status had no access to the social benefits and faced catastrophe. Bianca Guerrero is with Make the Road New York, a campaigning organization that supports immigrant and working class communities. Throughout 2021, she coordinated the campaign by a broad coalition of organizations to demand what they dubbed a “Fund for Excluded Workers”. Before finding out how they went about building that campaign, I asked Bianca how the idea first came up.

Bianca Guerrero: My understanding of how this coalition came to be is, a lot of the organizers who were pivoting to do direct service and mutual aid, hearing and seeing like, “Oh my God, our, our membership, the workers that we organize have absolutely no other option,” and knowing that charity was not gonna be enough to get them across the finish line, folks from Make the Road, New York Communities for Change, The National Day Labor Organizing Network, New York Immigration Coalition, and a few others came together and said, “We need to push and fight for something big in order to address this problem.” Because of past campaigns, like the Green Light Bill campaign, which helped get undocumented workers access to driver’s licenses and The Dream Act and all these other New York state campaigns that are focused on undocumented immigrants, there are sort of a network of worker centers and immigrant organizations that were able to come together and say like, “This is a real problem, and we need a solution to this.” And eventually that solution turned into our campaign, the Fund for Excluded Workers campaign to get concrete, economic emergency payments to the undocumented community. It’s called the ‘Fund for Excluded Workers campaign’, not ‘The Fund for Undocumented Workers’ to sort of make it clear that like these folks are being intentionally excluded from these other programs. It’s like a choice by the policy system, and by the government to exclude these workers and leave them in this position,

AA: I’ve read that the volume of money that would be required to keep all those workers supported through the pandemic was something like three and a half billion dollars.

BG: Yeah. Our original demand was three and a half billion dollars. Deb Axt, the former executive director of Make the Road, when she was still at the organization would tell me, “When we started saying this number, people were like, “Good luck. That’s a pipe dream. It’s not gonna happen.'” 

AA: It is a huge number.

BG: It’s a huge number. And like, you know, there are not many campaigns where people are saying, we’re demanding billions of dollars, but I think the scale of the problem, and also like, the clarity that organizers had around like, these are workers that are paying in into the social safety net. It’s a big number on its own, but when you think about the amount of money that New York state spent on unemployment insurance for everybody else, it is a mere fraction. It’s a mere fraction of the pie. In the same vein, or on a parallel track, we’re seeing reports left and right of how much money Amazon is making during the pandemic, how much money all of these huge, huge corporations were making. And the disparity between like, if DoorDash is making profits off of all of these delivery workers who have nothing but the like paltry wages they’re making during this, that sort of injustice justifies the amount of money that we are asking for, right? We’re not asking for more than everyone else receives, but we are asking for parity. We didn’t land at parity, but we did land at 2.1 billion – which, you know, it’s a big amount of money – it wasn’t enough… but I’m sure we’ll get to that later. <laugh>

AA: So I mean, as you say, you did actually get $2.1 billion for this program, and I really want to dig into how that was done because it’s kind of astonishing. But before we get into “the how” of raising such an enormous amount of money, I’d just like to stop for a moment and just think about how that conversation unfolded between you and your coalition allies. I mean, you know, a lot of the time what one is told in activist politics is “be strategic,” “pick a number that you can really get,” “pick a target that, you know, you can win.” Did other people support the idea of asking for $3.5 billion?

BG: So I wasn’t there for when they defined this demand, but I do know that there was very clear math that went into the $3 billion, right? If you take the average of what other people were receiving and multiply it by the percentage of undocumented workers that we thought were facing unemployment, given trends we’d seen in other like economic crises, then it would lead to, we need 3.5 billion in order to secure basic parity with what other new Yorkers had received. And then sort of other calculations went into it: Past research had shown this is the amount of money that undocumented workers had paid in taxes, um, to sort of beat back some of the expected questions, like, “Wait, why are we paying so much for a population that didn’t pay taxes?” And it’s like, well actually they do pay taxes and it’s to the tune of this number.

AA: But even if the number was justified, I guess I’m asking at a tactical level, you know, weren’t you and the allies that you were working with pretty daunted at the idea of raising that money. Wasn’t there an argument for trying to go for a lower number just because you might be more likely to win it?

BG: I mean, there probably was, but we also knew that like, if we go for less money, it won’t be enough; there’s gonna be like people who won’t  be served, right? And if we at least go big and pair this with a really strong organizing plan, then maybe we can win it. I mean, none of us expected – all of us were kind of surprised that even we landed at 2.1. – but I think like the scale of the problem, and also just the desperation  that people were hearing from members, we were like, “let’s just go big, or go home.”

AA: Okay. So let’s go into that then: What was the organizing plan? What was your strategy for trying to get a skeptical legislature and even a skeptical population on board?

BG: So, as I mentioned, everything sort of started with, like food pantry lines, direct services, where undocumented workers were just clearly showing, like, they have nothing to rely on. There’s membership meetings with organizers where folks are hearing even more of those stories firsthand. So in 2020, there had been connecting with all the different organizations that had been in previous coalitions to tell them what we were up to. There were marches across bridges. There were phone banks. There was fast outside of Jeff Bezos’ house in Manhattan to get people going and give workers an outlet for the injustice that they were facing. At that point, there were workers who were like, “Okay, we think we can win this.” And I think that that gave even more reassurance to organizers of like, “All right, we have a base of people that actually really wanna fight for this.”

AA: So it sounds like the people who were doing this campaign work, who were on those marches, who were fasting outside Jeff Bezos’ house, they were the undocumented workers. Is that right? I mean, they were leading this process –

BG: Yeah. It was completely impacted communities that were stepping up and, and taking part in these actions – with support from the nonprofits and organizers that they’ve been working with over the past few years. As those direct actions are happening, like sort of coming, working with our legislative champions and, and the legislators who have drafted the bill for what this fund would look like, there’s Senator Jessica Ramos, she has one of the most diverse districts in the entire state and has a really strong relationship with the nonprofits that I just mentioned. She’s like a real progressive champion. And on the Assembly side, someone named Carmen De La Rosa, who had carried past legislation for undocumented workers and has been a champion for immigrant rights for a really, really long time. So two people that our coalition organizations already had relationships with who developed legislation in advance of the legislative session. And then eventually we pivoted from direct action to gear up the base to legislative meetings, to talk to legislators about what the issue is, to say, “This is a scale of the problem. We need a solution. The solution has to be at this scale, and this is what it needs to look like-“

AA: Okay, so that’s the legislature. What about the then governor, Andrew Cuomo, not known for being a progressive…

BG: The governor in the past helped Republicans control the state legislature in order to buffer his own power. And so, at the same time that we’re moving the legislature through these meetings, doing more direct actions to sort of show the governor like, this needs to be a priority in the executive budget because now is the time, and we can’t really wait. So there were some groups that would like go do house-hits on legislators’ homes to really escalate if they weren’t being responsive to what we were asking for in our meetings. There were continuous phone banks. They were lots of rallies and marches. I think sometime in March we had shut down the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. So the biggest thoroughways in New York City at the same time. And then eventually we know the budget is decided in the beginning of April. We know we have to go really, really big because we’re asking for something that has never been done anywhere else before. And the governor is not really budging and we have some support in the Senate and the Assembly – but definitely not enough. And workers are again, really dedicated to this cause. And again, there’s not left to lose, so might as well just go big – Um, there’s a decision to launch a hunger strike in New York City, and in Westchester. And that hunger strike lasted 24 days. And basically every day of that hunger strike there were also actions every single day in order to ramp up the pressure: a press conference, or some other type of event; invite legislators to that to really just up the ante and provide sort of something for the press also to follow and to highlight in order to get this across the finish line.

AA: So who was hunger striking? Who was going without food for 24 days?

BG: There were members of Make the Road in New York City, Make the Road New York Communities for Change, The Street Vendor Project – And a few members from ‘Desis Rising Up and Moving’, who either were undocumented or had some level of documentation, but wanted to help – a vast majority were undocumented workers themselves. And all of them were immigrants. 

AA: And how many people are we talking about who are fasting?

BG: It grew over time. And I think in New York City it was around a little more than 50 people, I think. And then there was a parallel one happening in Westchester led by a couple of other organizations. And those folks, I think had, I wanna say like 30 to 40 people participating. And for their hunger strike I think there were a lot more allies who were joining that – that were citizens, but also wanted to support the cause.

AA: And do you think it was this, as you say, ‘go big or go home’ kind of strategy that really pulled people in the legislature around? Is that how you got the thing across the line?

BG: There’s like a couple things, cause like, for the state legislature, I think it was definitely the relentlessness of our actions; the emotional tenor of our actions; and the strong worker leaders who were giving testimony and just saying like, “Look, we literally have no other options.” Plus we were hustling very hard internally to make sure that legislators’ questions were addressed. We knew who the problem legislators were, so we were blowing up their phone lines with phone banks and stuff like that. The two tracks of things I think really made legislators turn the tide. And there was a point in time where we learned that there were some legislators who were actively organizing against the Fund and were gonna come out with like a letter or something publicly in order to say, like, “We should not be giving money to undocumented immigrants.” And we had a choice of like, do we acknowledge this? Like, what do we do about this? Our response was, we’re gonna show up outside of these folks’ office on Easter Sunday and hold a rally with excluded workers and their allies. And like, we made that decision in like two hours flat and got everyone up there and mobilized very quickly. And it’s like, “Okay, if you’re gonna talk poorly about this project behind closed doors, we will find out about it and you will be called out.” And it was more of like a social media moment than it was like a press moment. But the pressure was still felt on those legislators to change course on what they were doing because there was accountability. And then, you know, the legislature was crucial for making sure this made it into the budget because the governor did not put it in himself. The way it works is the governor comes up with a budget. The legislature can add things to it or take things out. And then the governor, the majority leader of the Senate and the Assembly speakers come together to decide what the final budget is. And so we also had to put a lot of pressure on Governor Cuomo to actually get this thing in. And there were a lot of factors outside of our control. This guy was like, mired in scandals for the first half of this year that made him more politically vulnerable than he ever has been before. And in order to deal with that vulnerability, he was a lot more flexible when it came to progressive groups’ demands than he ever was before. And that political stuff was completely out of our control,

AA: But you used it –

BG: Yeah, it was absolutely crucial for getting this across the finish line. I’m not sure that we would’ve won had that political context not been there, you know?

AA: So fascinating because what it says is that when you are building a campaign and you are planning your tactics, there is a sort of a subset of factors that, as you say, you can’t control and you need that luck.

BG: You have to be willing to take advantage of the opportunities, right? Cause there was no guarantee that Cuomo was gonna resign or that he was gonna leave office. And I think it was a choice that we made to add to that fire instead of taking more of a more fearful route of, “If he doesn’t leave, then this might screw us over in the long term, so let’s not poke the sleeping bear,” or whatever, right? Like there was a willingness to be antagonistic and take advantage of the opportunity that also was really crucial.

AA: And take the risk,

BG: Take the risk.

AA: You mentioned a couple of times this point about allies for the undocumented workers. And it’s interesting, you know, I think for somebody listening from far away and who doesn’t know the situation, they might be saying, “well who is going to be the ally of these workers, given that everybody else is struggling too? Everybody else desperately needs money too?” I mean, there must have been quite a lot of people who were saying, “hey, you know, these guys, they took their chances. They came here without documents – we are the ones who actually are here. We are the taxpayers, prioritize us!” So how did you get allies for these undocumented workers?

BG: So it’s very interesting, I think. Important context is like, we just had four years of Trump with like enormous xenophobia and a lot of groundwork around like, ‘immigrants are crucial members of our community’ came out of that time period, or was really solidified during that time period, particularly in white wealthy communities. Right? So there are a lot of groups, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Indivisible, but there’s sort of like people who were not activated before Trump that sort of got involved in progressive politics through being politicized by that administration. And a big, big part of that again, is, is protecting and fighting for immigrants, whether that’s refugees, people affected by the Muslim ban or whoever else. Then there are also – given past campaigns – a lot of organizations who have just been around the block and know how their communities depend and rely on the labor that undocumented and immigrant communities overall provide. So for example, there’s a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. And they’ve been working for years on a campaign to provide care jobs- whether that’s caring for older people or disabled people, or for whoever- that are well paid, dignified jobs. And through that campaign, they’ve built relationships, not only with their base of predominantly or all Jewish folks who have either domestic workers or other care workers in their homes, and also the workers themselves, right? So whether there are care cooperatives or groups like Make the Road that are organizing undocumented immigrants, that organization pretty much realized like, “Oh, our base, our standard of living and how we move through this world is inherently linked to how this population moves through the world.” And so that helped build out allyship there as well. There are faith leaders, one in particular, Adam Brooklyn, who have been very involved in like the sanctuary movement to create safe spaces for undocumented immigrants not to get deported. There are labor unions who have been trying to organize these industries that are very hard to reach and want to see traditionally non-unionized labor get worker protections because it makes for a stronger labor union overall.

AA: So quite a broad coalition really.

BG: Yeah, and you know, different groups engaged to different amounts, but there were a lot of ally groups who would do phone banking, would help support marches by doing security, um, who had good relationships with legislators that would meet with those legislators on their behalf, because if a legislator doesn’t think that undocumented workers are their constituents, then they’re not gonna to listen, um- They carried the torch for us in places that our workers couldn’t necessarily go safely. And it made a huge difference. It made a huge difference.

AA: So what is the main lesson that you take from this, uh, pretty phenomenal victory? If you look at the full arc of this campaign – I know it’s still continuing- but what did you learn that you hadn’t known before?

BG: Um, there’s so much. This was the first ever advocacy campaign I’ve worked on and it’s been quite the whirlwind. I think the first thing is like, “We should demand big things, right?” Like we shouldn’t be cowardly about what we’re fighting for. If we know that the scale of the problem is really big, we need a solution that actually addresses the need. And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by sort of asking for smaller things if we have ambitions for bigger things, right? Don’t lowball it. And if you’re gonna say it, like, say it with your entire chest, right? Like be very firm and, and adamant about what you’re asking for. I think I’ve also learned a lot of things just about like how to run a campaign in a good way. Um, transparency is really key in making sure that folks are really plugged into what’s happening, even when things are moving really fast, and when it’s much easier just to make a decision on your own. Sticking to the values of being transparent goes a really long way in the long term healthiness of a coalition in a campaign. And you know, I think you have to make things fun. Even if you’re organizing around something that is not enjoyable or is really sad and tragic, you have to find a way to make things moving emotional or fun to engage with, so that people are not just thinking about our problem logically, but like actually forced to feel what you’re talking about. And to make that a little bit more concrete, there was one event where we planned a foot-washing ceremony where elected officials washed the feet of the hunger strikers and everyone, including myself, left that event in tears and committed to what we were fighting for because it was such an engaging- it was like nothing we had really experienced before. I think doing things on that level really helps to solidify conviction for whatever you’re demanding and also just make things not boring. Like press conferences can be boring. <laugh> Phone banks can be boring- That, that event was not boring.

AA: Do you think the terrain is different now for Make The Road in future campaigns? I mean, is there something left from the overall arc of the campaign that changes the way you’ll be able to work in the future?

BG: So, and I guess this is more for the coalition than it is for Make The Road, but we won $2.1 billion that is going directly into workers’ pockets. It’s thousands of dollars that workers are getting in one shot. Um, and so there are a lot of organizations that have helped people apply and all of this stuff that are now engaged in this fight that had nothing to do with creating the Fund. And now, as we’re going back to fight for more money and to find other solutions for excluded workers, the base of the organizations that we have is much larger than it was before, and puts us in an even better and stronger position for whatever fights we go forward. I think there are new alliances and new friendships that’ll be very pivotal for other campaigns. And that this campaign in particular really busted open the doors of what can we win and what, what can we demand going forward.

AA: Bianca Guerrero of Make The Road New York, coordinator of the campaign to Fund Excluded Workers. You can find a transcript of our conversation and suggestions for further reading on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org.

[Music]

AA: For our Coda, we ask someone to tell us about something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. Henry Koh leads ILGA Asia, an LGBTI rights organization headquartered in Bangkok, but with member organizations in nearly 40 countries. He wanted to share a sense of what it’s like to be gay and closeted in his home country of Malaysia. So he turned to non-binary music student Ratu Yousai and their poem about how the dominant culture treats queer people. Ratu chose to write it in a traditional literary form called a Sajak. Here’s Henry on why they used that form.

HK: Traditionally sajak is something that is so conservative, that is so orthodox, that is so traditional, and getting in touch with Ratu Yousai, we thought like, why not let’s just add the queer element to it because we exist as well as people here. So our voice matters. Our story matters.”

Ratu Yousai is a talented youth singer songwriter, and also composer. I was really in awe of the fact that a 19-year-old music student like Ratu Yousai is really able to see the queer politics that’s going on in our country right now and also the struggles and continuous fight that we need to come together and really take a coordinated response as a community. A lot of us are still being oppressed. A lot of us still couldn’t come out.

Seekor Gajah Sarkas

Mata mereka hanya tampak seekor gajah sarkas berdandan,

senyap di dalam sangkar hingga masa untuk menghiburkan audiens.

Terbahak-bahak mentertawakan karenah warna-warnimu

Nan meriuhkan keadaan, mengubati jiwa lesu.

Namun…

segalanya dilupakan

apabila kamu mengungkit kemanusiaanmu.

Wahai, penjulang pelangi berusia!

Masihkah tidak sedar?

Bahawasanya kamu dianggap pendosa oleh mereka yang masakan terima

hakmu untuk terus ada,

bercinta dan berkeluarga,

serta tetap bangga.

 

 

A Circus Elephant

Their eyes only saw a circus elephant dressed up,

silent in the cage until it was time to entertain the audience.

Laughing out loud because of your colors,

As you enliven the crowd, curing their lethargic souls.

However…

everything is forgotten

when you leverage your humanity.

O old rainbow raiser!

Art thou still unaware?

That you are considered a sinner

by those who deny your rights

to exist,

to coexist,

to love,

to have a family,

and to remain proud.

 

HK: To the rest of the society here, we’re often reduced to symbols of tokenism. On TV, on media, you often see that there’s a flamboyant male character or queer character, only for the sake of comedic value. Hence Ratu thought of the analogy of a circus elephant, where in circuses there is a reputation of mistreating animals. However, when they need the elephant to perform and entertain, the audience would often clap without showing any empathy or an ounce of respect. And to our society, I think that is very similar to onscreen gay or queer characters. When one is being reduced to a side caricature, you’re like a jester in my court to entertain me. You may somewhat exist in stereotypes, but you are not respected to be who you are really are or deserve to be.

HK: There is also an aspect of homage paying to the community elders in this poem. Community elders among the queer community have often fought for us to be where we are today to be a little bit out, but we are still not out.

HK: Growing up as a queer person in a small town in Malaysia, I lost my dad when I was 14 and I was often bullied in school for being an effeminate person. And, you know, just really taking on a lot of this toxic masculinity in the society that teaches you that you couldn’t be so who and so – But I had the opportunity and privilege to really learn music. I was a trained classical pianist as well as a violin teacher until I went to law school. And during those times, music was the only thing that gave me solace. Music was the only thing that really accompanied me. That one thing that is really able to comfort me as a teenager, closeted queer growing up here.

HK: There are those who are willing to stand up and to be radical, to fight for our rights. But there’s also another bunch of people who are not willing to put down their own privilege and join the rest of us in this fight.

HK: I wouldn’t want to speak for Ratu, but I believe very much that this will connect an avenue, a bridge to those to finally listen, for them to actually understand that we are equal human beings in the community, in the society. We are part of you. We are part of your family too.

 

[Song- Khalwat by Ratu Yousai]

 

AA: That’s Khalwat, a song by Ratu Yousai. They are the author of the poem that Henry Koh shared for the Coda. Our thanks to both of them. Further reading on our website.

AA: And that wraps up episode 17 of Strength & Solidarity. If you want a heads up about future episodes, you can sign up on our website for updates. Just go to strengthandsolidarity.org/podcasts. And if you’re just discovering this podcast and feel like some binge listening, there’s plenty of good stuff in our past 16 episodes, all available on the website or even easier, subscribe via your podcast app and you’ll find all our past content queued up for easy access. As always, we welcome your feedback and suggestions. Send us an email. The address is pod at strength and solidarity.org. Finally, thanks to Jeremy Rye and Cate Brown for production help, and a salute to Peter Coccoma, our awesome producer. I’m Akwe Amosu, thanks for listening.