PIPS Piece: Off The Clock, Off The Line: The Role of Legal Services in Workers’ Organizing

Editor’s Note: As part of its Fall 2009 Public Interest Practice Section (“PIPS”) series exploring the role of legal services in worker organizing, the New York City Law Review conducted the following interviews with Nadia Marín-Molina, [FN1] Executive Director of the Workplace Project, and Jaime Vargas, [FN2] Organizer, on September 23, 2009, at the organization’s Long Island office in Hempstead, New York. Ms. Marín-Molina has worked for the Workplace Project for thirteen years, and Mr. Vargas for seven years. The following is an edited transcript of the interviews, conducted by PIPS Associate Editor Jonathan Harris and Managing Articles Editor Shirley Lin.


Q: Tell us about the Workplace Project. When was it started? How did it begin? What kind of community needs does the Workplace Project serve?

A: The Workplace Project started in 1992. It was created as a response to a need that Jennifer Gordon [FN3] identified while working with the Central American community. Many workers had complaints related to wages. Many workers were Central American. Workers were being exploited; they were being mistreated or didn’t get paid wages. It was too much for the community of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Mexicans. So, from that moment an organization began to form.

First, the focus was on labor rights, not only wages and overtime, but also problems of discrimination, workers’ compensation, problems with unions, the collection of unpaid wages, and unemployment insurance. These are the basic categories of labor rights violations. But, in addition to labor rights, the Workplace Project found that the community was suffering violations of other rights, such as civil rights, so the organization had to get involved in counseling about civil rights and other community needs.

You asked how this work was being done. At the beginning, it was individual assistance, like lawyers’ assistance. Each case was treated individually; an individual showed up, she or he was heard, and a solution was sought either directly with the employer or through the mediation of a government office. Then the individual was assisted in submitting a complaint for unpaid wages, and in following up on the complaint. But, in any case, it was at the individual level.

As the number of people seeking help for their complaints increased, individual assistance was no longer enough because we didn’t have enough staff to take all the cases. So, then, a committee and a basic workers’ rights workshop were created. This way, workers who call or come in person are referred to a weekly orientation session, which meets on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. There, each worker is required to fill out a form stating their name, the name of their employer, and a basic description of their problem. They get an explanation about the Workplace Project and how a membership organization operates. Then, each worker is referred to one of the committees. The organization has established three committees. The first is the unpaid wages committee, which reaches out to construction workers and landscaping workers. Another is the Alliance for Justice, which includes restaurant, car wash, factory, hotel, and retail workers, as well as workers in other industries. The last committee is the domestic workers committee. There is also a subcommittee of Alliance for Justice for janitors employed at the commercial level–that is, janitors working in buildings and malls. This group also includes a committee on emergency issues at factories. This means that many times a large group of workers from a particular factory shows up and we need to schedule a separate meeting with them.

The committee structure has a process. The first step is for workers to come to the information workshop. Here, we talk about the organization, its benefits, the members’ obligations with the organization, and the workers’ basic rights. After that, the workers tell us which of their rights have been violated. Then, we split into groups and all workers deepen their understanding by exchanging stories about their different problems and ideas to solve them. So, for example, if there are ten different cases, then ten different workers learned about ten different problems in the workplace. This accomplishes an organizational and educational mission much broader than at the individual level, like when you tell me about your problems and I tell you, “Let’s do this.” Instead, under the information workshop format, workers express their problems and other workers have an opinion about what would be their own solution to the problems raised. This strengthens the workers’ organizational and educational skills, and makes them learn more. Through this process, workers become comfortable with making public presentations, speaking out, and expressing opinions. This educational development of workers wouldn’t necessarily happen if they were only working with lawyers.

The second step for workers is to agree to get involved in the solution of their own complaints by participating in the committees, joining the organization, and committing to attend a labor rights workshop with a broader curriculum. This ensures that information on workers’ rights, civil rights, financial education, and other issues can be transmitted to the workers’ communities and households, and spread among their co-workers. This way, workers know that when they need to submit a complaint, there are community-based agencies who will help them regardless of their immigration status.

The committee system is important because it is the way workers start learning about how to speak to their co-workers and gradually get involved in other workers’ problems. These committees allow for the emergence of leaders who become members of the organization and, later, at the assemblies and members’ meetings, can become members of the Workplace Project’s Board of Directors. The Workplace Project is a membership organization, and the Board is elected by the members.

[FN1]. Nadia Marín-Molina, Esq., graduated from New York University School of Law in 1996.

[FN2]. Before joining the Workplace Project, Jaime Vargas founded El Vocero, Long Island’s first Spanish language newspaper.

[FN3]. Jennifer Gordon, Esq., graduated from Harvard Law School in 1992 and is now Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University Law School. Ms. Gordon founded the Workplace Project and served as Executive Director until 1998.

13 N.Y. City L.Rev. 195 (2009).

Copyright (c) 2009 New York City Law Review; Nadia Marín-Molina; Jamie Vargas