Ricarda Mosso spent years trying to get management at Sunshine Shirts Laundry Center in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY, to address her by her own name. Instead, she was mockingly referred to as “Richard” by her bosses. As a laundry worker, she experienced routine wage theft, physical abuse and skin burns from broken and unsafe machines.
After years of these illegal and dangerous working conditions, Mosso and her coworker María García took a stand. On Feb. 16, the workers, along with 85 of their community allies as well as friends at the Laundry Worker’s Center, gathered in protest at Sunshine Shirts to submit their demands for fair wages and safe working conditions. This has been a winning combination. Mosso and García, the only two workers at Sunshine Shirts, have since won a raise, some benefits and better working conditions. They are now fighting for back wages.
As Mosso explained, “I am an immigrant woman and mother of two, and I cannot support my family with this miserable salary. I have worked for 15 years under physical abuse, without ventilation during the summers and no heating during the winter. I have not been paid a minimum wage salary nor overtime. I will not remain silent anymore, and we demand better wages and better working conditions. I want to be treated with respect and with dignity like a human being.”
Empowered by community support
Management, including boss Sharon Chen, quickly retaliated. They cut the worker’s hours, changed their schedules, and imposed false work quotas. But the workers persisted.
After several actions outside of the Sunshine Shirts and after hours of negotiations, the workers won $14.28 an hour, a guaranteed set schedule of 35 hours per week with lunch breaks, reduced workload and an improved work environment with proper heating and protective gear.
García explains, “We talked to the employer about improving the working conditions, and he responded to us by laughing. Today, we are empowered with the support of the community. We are not alone in this struggle; it gives me the strength to continue organizing for change.”
To prepare for this campaign, García and her coworker trained with the Instituto La Cuadra Progresista (Progressive Block Leadership Institute), a program created by the Laundry Worker’s Center which helps empower workers to know their rights and gain skills to organize their workplace.
It is the same program that helped Juana and Nicholas, workers at TYS laundromat in East Harlem, fight back and make gains against similar conditions last year. TYS also employs just two workers.
Co-Director Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran, explained that the similarities between the two campaigns match up with the extensive research that LWC has done on conditions in over 400 laundromats across the city. “It’s a real confirmation of what we found when we made the research. For us, it is not just in writing–it’s happening.”
She continued, “This is part of a bigger picture and a big issue for our organization. We are really looking to change the conditions in the entire industry. It’s more about raising consciousness about what the workers are going through and how we can change the industry as a whole.”
Next step: Winning back pay
The next steps in both campaigns, at Sunshine Shirt and TYS, is negotiating for the back wages that the workers are owed. At TYS, the company first made the offer of $20,000. Rodríguez-Aran describes this offer as “a joke” compared to the estimated $200,000 in back wages that they owe. The slow pace of these negotiations and the retaliation experienced by the workers has led LWC to hold weekly Thursday night actions in front of the store, passing out flyers to community members encouraging them to pressure the bosses to pay what they owe.
In Bay Ridge, things are moving more quickly, but the LWC is still laying the grounds for broad community support. Rodríguez-Aran reports, “We want to continue building the community in Bay Ridge–reach out to different groups in the neighborhood and build solidarity. It’s part of the strategy. For our case, if something happens, it takes an hour for us to be there. We want to be in the community so that if something happens to the workers we have the support and we can respond immediately.”
In addition to the active campaigns at TYS Laundromat and Sunshine Shirts Laundry Center, the Laundry Worker’s Center is currently preparing to launch a third campaign, which is still underground. They also organized a presence at a major March 8 activity, the International Women’s Strike, which highlighted some of their work.
Rodríguez-Aran explains that their presence there was important because “we are representing women of color, immigrant women in the laundromat industry… Ricarda and Maria, leaders of the Bay Ridge campaign, came and spoke for the first time in front of a group of activists and organizers. It was very powerful for them.”
The Laundry Workers Center is a not-for-profit, member-led organization that provides community-based leadership development to improve the living and working conditions of some of the most vulnerable members of the working class–low wage laundry, warehouse, and food service workers in New York City and New Jersey.