Fuerza Laboral Executive Director Heiny Maldonado is one of the leading Spanish-speaking voices in Rhode Island’s labor movement, and a key player in the effort to build a more dynamic organizing culture in the Ocean State. I asked Autumn Quezada de Tavarez, associate professor of history and program coordinator for the Latin American and latino studies minor at Roger Williams University, to conduct an interview in Spanish with Maldonado, and she graciously agreed.
This is the second half of the interview. You can read the first part here.
Translation by Spanish by Access Consulting Services and reviewed by the interviewee. — TEH
Autumn Quezada de Tavarez: After you moved to the US, how did you start to get involved in social activism?
Heiny Maldonado: It started when I began volunteering in the United Workers Committee.
I worked as a volunteer for about two and a half years. Twenty hours a week. I enjoyed those hours. It was great to be there. There was a change in administration. The organizer and the director went to work somewhere else. The person that used to be the researcher became the director. They opened up a new position, but I did not apply because I did not feel that I was prepared enough.
Then the director submitted my resume along with a letter to the applicant selection committee. I really did not know. I was taking English classes there in Progreso Latino. The director came to the classroom where I was and told me he needed me to go to a job interview. I asked him, “A job interview, what do you mean?” He told me that without my permission, he submitted my CV because he believed I was the right person for this job as I had worked with them already.
I said to him, “I still do not feel prepared for this.” Then I said, “How am I going to go to this interview looking like this?” He said, “No, no, that is not important. It will be quick. Anyway, just try.” I went to the interview and since I was familiar with the work, they gave me the position as an organizer. Then I left my factory job and came to work as an organizer.
Autumn: When was that?
Heiny: Around 2003, more or less.
I started to work there, but with time we faced the problem that all such organizations face, which is sustainability. There were some financial problems with our host organization and more resources were needed. We did have funding coming up, but it was not available immediately. I got laid off because there were no funds available, and they could not pay me. The organization closed our program due to not having funding on time.
Then we got together and thought, why not open our own organization? Other leaders from the workers committee were also worried that this project was going to be lost, and we decided to open a new organization. One organization that helped us a lot is called the George Wiley Center. They were our fiscal agent while we continued to get organized. They also let us have our membership meetings on their premises. That was in early 2006. I got laid off in October 2005, and we got the idea to open up our own organization in 2006. We did not have our own space, so we met in the library. When the weather changed, we met in the park.
The Providence Diocese found out that our worker center had closed, and that we continued working. The diocese administrator, Mr. John Barry, met with us and asked us about our plans. We told him about our plans to open an organization and that we had no money to do it. He told us he could give us $15,000 dollars for 2006. He also offered us a space to meet at a reduced price at 398 Dexter Street. That was a pretty space where the immigration office used to be. The immigration office got transferred to Providence, and this space was empty. They gave us this place at a lower cost, so we could start working. We decided to change the name of the organization to Fuerza Laboral, and Gregory Pehrson and I founded the organization.
We still had to do a certificate of incorporation. Then we had to have a president and vice-president. We did all that. It was in 2006. Fuerza Laboral was launched on October 6, 2006. But we were already operating and keeping up our membership since January. In September 2006, we made it official and launched it.
Autumn: What is the situation now that 10 years has passed by? And what is your position?
Heiny: I am the Director and Co-Founder. Initially I was an organizer and my partner was the Director. We had always been attentive to what was happening in our community. I think we are like a big community ear because what we do is listen to the problems our community has.
Back then and as of today, one of the problems our community faces is wage theft. That has been sort of like our banner program because it is a big problem in which bad or unscrupulous employers steal the wages of our community. Now wage theft is not only a problem affecting low-income families, but it is an all-encompassing problem.
Another program is the Injured Workers Committee. This is another problem that our community faces due to lack of safety in the workplace. People do not have or wear protection, do not receive trainings, and there is a lack of communication in the appropriate language. People do not understand many of the safety instructions because they are not given in their language.
Also dishonest employers put our community members in high-risk situations. They do not give people the necessary equipment or trainings, and then people end up facing a bigger problem, like having an accident in the workplace. And it is not only a physical problem but also one of exposure, as they make people work in places where there is lead and asbestos.
That exposure causes silent diseases that start developing in your body. When you realize it, you already are unable to work because your health has deteriorated. Also our community is facing physical stressors which can cause fractures. People do not understand because they do not see a physical problem where there is no blood; they do not pay attention to these internal injuries.
Another problem is constant repetitive work. Constant repetitive work wears you down and in response, people self-medicate to be able to produce and work the next day. People do not see the connection between constant repetitive work and self-medicating. Also by not connecting the work they are doing with their symptoms, they will never get worker’s comp.
Our community lacks knowledge of their rights — people assume that in this country people’s rights do not get violated. That is a big fallacy, because people’s rights get violated daily here. So we have a popular education program because people need to know their rights and how to act to defend them. What we are doing is responding to a need.
Autumn: How did you bring about change with the worker's problems? Do you bring lawyers to talk to them, how does that work?
Heiny: Twice a month we have open labor clinics. If a group of workers comes to our office seeking help for a work problem, we identify the problem, who is the target (the person causing this problem), how to get access to the target. We analyze all those details. We have a process called “the direct action clock” which is a certain order in which we take these steps.
So we have the group of affected people; we have the problem. The people experiencing the problem are the ones with the answer. We ask them, “What do you want to get out of this?” We are not giving them the answer. They are the ones answering that question. Then they say, “We want this.” That is why I say we have a big ear. Then we do an action plan to lay out what we need to do.
In the course of 10 years we have established relationships with unions, community members, other organizations, churches, so we can deal with problems on a bigger scale.
We ask, "Who is causing this problem and why?" We can also see if the problem is caused by a bad policy. These are things we have to determine at the beginning of the process so we can plan how we are to bring about change to the situation. But the workers are the ones making this change, not staff.
When you take people to different levels, people grow. People say “Wow, I was able to do it!” I had that experience with my co-workers. It creates elation and is emotional. There is a transformation-- that is the correct word. The first time someone comes here, they are a fearful individual drowning in problems. When they achieve change he or she says “Wow, we did that,” and they are stronger. That is called empowerment. We have empowered a group of individuals. They believe in themselves and have learned with this process.
I did not learn to organize in college. To be honest, when I got to this country, I did not know what organizing was. For me organizing was a day to day learning process along with other organizations that have the same guidelines. And what you have to do is put it into practice. For me everything is like a lab. Every action is new because the elements are never the same. I did not go to college to learn to organize. I learned from other strong leaders.
It is important in my consultations on how to organize, how to bring about effective change to ensure that people are clear about risks, because each action you take brings a reaction. And it’s important for this reaction not to have an unexpected negative impact on people. People need to know what they are and will be facing. I do not like to deceive people to obtain personal gain. It is concerning, because we expose our already high-risk community members without knowing what will happen to them, the negative impacts it could have in their family. And a negative impact could be devastating to their family.
Autumn: What do you want Rhode Island workers to know about your organization? Not only the Spanish speaking ones because you normally work with Latinos, but what do you want white workers to know about your organization?
Heiny: Everything we have just been talking about with regard to unions. At this moment, the laboring class is composed in its majority by immigrants. It is important for me that our movement be open, that unions hire people that understand our culture. For union staff to understand the workers’ language is important, that they be bilingual, not only bilingual in terms of translation but also in terms of cultural understanding. For instance, we can speak the same language but there are many factors that have a different influence in other cultures. For example how do people from the Dominican Republic think? How do Puerto Ricans think? There are some similarities but they are different. How do people from Central America think? There are some cultures that are open and there are others that are more reserved. How to channel our differences while seeing each other as equals. Because we do have something in common: we want good benefits, we want our wages to be respected.
We are not asking for charity. We want to be offered the position we deserve. To be respected in the workplace. To be valued as equals, not to be considered slaves.
We are 100% pro-union. We call ourselves a “community union”. We are not a union, but that is the approach. Because the only way we can bring change in the workforce is via unions.
Workers feel protected because people can enforce their rights without having negative consequences. If you are not part of a union, you have very few rights because the labor laws are not enforced.
Laws are titles, or headlines. They need teeth. There is an open community anxious to be a part of unions because we know that the capital of the workers is their labor.
Too many employers grow their company, buy machinery, and pay a miserable wage. We do not want a starvation wage. We want wages that help our families to grow, our kids to go to good schools, have clothes and nutrition. That is why we are working very hard. People want to invest in their kids’ education. We have a holistic sense of what’s possible when there is an interest in organizing immigrant communities, because that is the future of this nation.