Brooklyn center fights for immigrant worker injured for life
Workers rally in Brooklyn. In this photo demolition workers fight for better working conditions. | Laundry Workers Center/Twitter

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—In February 2021, David Davila, a worker for Brooklyn-based Best Super Clean, a firm that sends teams to building demolition sites to clean up debris, was carrying a load down eight floors of a building that was coming down.

He wasn’t wearing a safety harness, because Best didn’t provide one. He didn’t have personal protective equipment (PPE), including goggles, gloves, and masks you need to keep from inhaling particles at a demolition site. He didn’t have the right boots to keep his grip on the stairs. Best didn’t provide them, either. The load was heavy and unbalanced. Davila fell, at least one floor, maybe more.

The father of three “injured his hip and his back and can’t walk properly,” says Rosanna Rodriguez, co-executive director of the Brooklyn-based Laundry Workers Center, which is helping Davila and 38 other Best workers in their Cabicanecos campaign, a fight for decent pay, proper PPE, available tools on the job, and respect from their bosses. She spoke in an exclusive interview with People’s World.

The center helps low-wage workers. It got Davila, an indigenous migrant from Guatemala, workers comp by helping him through paperwork, including translating it, and advocating for him. He’s undergone surgery once and needs more. It also set up a GoFundMe account to help Davila feed himself, his partner, and his kids. But he’s not the only worker who’s suffered at Best’s hands.

And that’s led Rodriguez and the center to take the plight of Best Super Clean’s workers to New York and national media. They’ve also taken it public, with their latest event being an April 18 demonstration outside the firm’s offices in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Davila’s fall is emblematic of what routinely occurs in the construction industry, especially to workers of color, such as Best’s workforce. The latest federal statistics for occupational safety and health, released last December but covering calendar 2021, show construction is still one of the most hazardous occupations—and falls are a main reason.

There were 31.4 non-fatal falls per 10,000 construction workers that year, 10 more falls per 10,000 workers than the rate for all workers. Half of the construction workers falls were like Davila’s.

The workers center’s role in aiding the Best Super Clean workers, in everything from arranging workers’ comp for Davila to helping the group with public protests and official filings, is emblematic of a larger trend that aids low-wage, exploited workers, many of them new migrants to the U.S.

Workers centers began in Los Angeles and have since sprung up in cities large and small, ranging from Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York down to Amherst, Mass. For the exploited workers, they handle everything from arranging language lessons and medical aid to legal advocacy.

Though the centers are not unions in the strict sense of the word, they help the workers exercise their rights, just like unions do. And the labor movement supports them.

Conversely, right-wing anti-worker congressional Republicans scream that workers’ centers—like the Laundry Workers Center in Brooklyn—are unions in all but name and must register and report like unions.

That means, the 1959 Republican-passed Landrum-Griffin Act mandates, that workers centers must file reports disclosing every penny of their spending, from paper clips to paychecks. That’s far more detail, all of it public, than federal law demands of corporations. Worker foes mine that data.

Rodriguez has more immediate concerns. Falls and lack of PPE aren’t the only problems the 39 workers have with their bosses at Best. While they’ve achieved some wins, conditions at Best, which sends teams to job sites around New York City’s five boroughs, are still sour.

“They were working in really bad health and safety conditions,” she says of the team sent to one of the firm’s latest sites. “There were no tools and no PPE” when they arrived. “Only after they arrived would the company ask the workers ‘Do you need a drill? A hammer? A ladder?’”

Until the workers united their voices, Best had paid them $15 an hour, New York City’s minimum wage. The area’s average wage for demolition work, depending on the borough, ranges from $22-$30. Worker unity in confronting bosses at Best got them a raise to $16 or $17, Rodriguez says.

“They’re risking their lives up there while the company is saving $17.”

Best might be saving even more than that. With the center’s help, the workers filed formal complaints to New York City worker enforcement offices about wage theft.

Best’s response was an initial brushoff. Then it fired three of the workers who organized the group. That’s illegal under federal labor law, which bans firms from firing workers who take “protected concerted action” for themselves.

So the workers took their case to state and federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Labor Relations Board. The center and the workers filed two labor law-breaking—formally called unfair labor practices—complaints with the NLRB, covering the firings, adds Rodriguez.

And City Limits reported last year the workers also contacted OSHA. Soon after, they told the paper, they started getting some PPE. City council members are also concerned about their plight.

They also contacted an unusual outside group: Progressive rabbis. The rabbis created uncomfortable publicity for Best, the center adds—because Hasidic Orthodox Jews own the firm.

Public pressure may work, Rodriguez predicts, especially in the wage theft case. “We’re going to give them [Best] a chance before we go to court,” she concludes.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.