Unidad Es Poder- by Heleodora Vivar ( recorded by Cindy Martinez)
Heleodora Vivar is a lead member organizer for the Street Vendors Project and represents her organization on the New York Worker Center Federation (WCF) Steering Committee, a group of worker centers in the city. As a street vendor and WCF leader, Heleodora is an ideal example of who should be leading the labor movement. She has been a committed member of the WCF since it was first formed about three years ago. In this blog, Heleodora explains the purpose of WCF and the Delfino Leadership Institute (DLI), a program that expands the leadership skills of workers, and why they are so important to her and other members.
I migrated in 1987 to NYC alone not knowing much and facing really difficult obstacles, but I broke through these barriers. Little by little I brought my family together, my kids and grandchildren. I decided to bring my family, and I am happy to have them here and that we are together. I am a person who has suffered a lot, but I fight for my family, for the people who surround me, and all the people in the federation who I fight alongside.
I am a street vendor, but before I used to work in restaurants, as a domestic worker, and in factories. I am also part of a church committee, and we use this space to educate our community. We organize workshops on housing rights, immigration rights, health problems, and other things that our communities need. People have fears and because of those fears we suffer.
New York Worker Center Federation
When we initiated the New York Worker Center Federation (WCF), my purpose was to unite groups and ideas around the issues we are facing and continue to face as workers. Tener fuerza! If we are not united, we won’t have power. But if we form groups together, we can create that power. We fight for respect and dignity and to have our human rights respected.
As workers, we share our experiences with one another in our conversations and movement building within the WCF- we have many in common. We go to work, and we don’t get paid our salary. We don’t say anything because we are in a foreign country, and we are scared. We don’t think we were supposed to get paid. Years ago, I worked for three weeks in a factory and did not get paid. The first week they told me my first paycheck was put on hold until the second week. The second week I was told my checks were being processed. The third week came and still nothing. We came to work on the fourth week, and the factory was wiped clean as if it was never there. This doesn’t just happen to me, it happens to so many others. We don’t get paid, and we are threatened with immigration, deportation and by the police. Some barriers we face are not knowing English and therefore not understanding. In many cases, as workers, we have suffered many abuses. Once, when I used to rent a room, I was charged money in addition to my rent and was told it was used to protect me from ICE and deportation. That was a lie.
When we decided to form the federation, many of us shared our stories. Our bosses made us work a lot of hours, we weren’t paid minimum wage, and some of us didn’t even know what the minimum wage was. We also spoke about the police and how we get arrested – we were fined, our merchandise was taken away, and sometimes the money we made for the day was also taken. This happens to street vendors, at least.
The worker centers that make up the Federation help each other out. I teach other street vendors that there are groups out there fighting to lift the cap on food vendor licenses and that a bill was recently introduced. This could benefit them. I tell them that we do have rights as people, as workers, we have human rights because we are human. This is why we formed the federation – to teach one another- we talk about problems we are facing and how we can fix this. We have the right to come together and strategize, talk about our abuses. In the federation we learn the skills to form campaigns, organize and focus on our problems. We recently learned the RAP framework, it guides participants how to communicate our ideas and plans better and spread the information about what is happening to get others to participate. When we talk to others about the issues we face we realize it is so many of us dealing with this. The federacion guides and teach us. It also becomes a network for us. We have faced struggles together and we support one another.
For example, when street vendors were fighting to lift the caps on the food vendor licenses, WCF was there to support us in numbers and to testify on our behalf. WCF is so important. I want workers to know that WCF exists and want other workers to join. There is so many of us that have the same stories. How many workers are there who don’t get help and don’t know where to ask for help. I want them to know that Unidad es Poder.
Delfino Leadership Institute
The Delfino Leadership Institute (DLI) is coordinated by WCF. It is a series of trainings for workers that aims to develops leaders in our organization and reaches out to people who are fighting for justice. As an alum of the first DLI cohort, I continue to participate in the second cohort because I want to motivate and encourage people.
On the day of the election, I stayed up until 3:00 am to see who would be elected. My grandson was anxious and worried, and I said, “Don’t worry because even though we are suffering, we are strong and we are fighters”. Our second DLI training happened during a much needed time, post-election. We do not agree with president elect Trump’s plans and promises. People are stressed and have fears, and we talked about this during the training. You could see the fear on people’s faces as we talked about Trump’s plan and promises. This training encouraged me not to lose hope and reminded me to continue fighting. We motivated one another and saw participants encouraged and uplifted. We agreed that we would not let our communities be scared and that we would show resistance to his hate. At the end of the training, the cohort’s mindset about the election was different from when we first arrived.
As workers we organize because we have realized we have power and we have to speak up. DLI was named after a worker, Mr. Delfino Velasquez who died while working on a construction site when the importance of workers safety was ignored. Workers need to know that we can do something and we must. There are many other cases like Delfino’s and we can orient people and share the experiences and the struggles and the victories.