The Workers’ Rights Center turns 10 years old this week and Director Patrick Hickey is very excited about the progress they’ve made over the past decade. However, he knows there is still much work to be done.
“I think we’ve seen some improvements — particularly because employers realize that somebody is keeping an eye on them,” Hickey says in an interview with The Madison Times from his office in the Villager Mall on Madison’s south side. “But, we always have our work cut out for us. As we’ve been thinking about things leading up to our 10th anniversary event, we remember that we were launched because of the issues of workers being exploited due to their immigration status and that has been our theme in our 10 years. There are workers who continue to have their wages stolen and they continue to be threatened and they continue to work in unsafe work environments. Until the immigration law is fixed and until workers have a way of adjusting their statuses, it’s going to keep going. There are always new employers that will come along — bottom-feeder-type employers who will come in and try to take advantage of workers.”
The Workers’ Rights Center (WRC) is a community center dedicated to educating and advocating for worker justice. The center is committed to empowering workers but also focuses on training people in the community as advocates to assist others in resolving workplace problems. By its work and advocacy, the WRC seeks to affirm the dignity of work and the dignity and respect that should be afforded to all members of our community, as expressed in the social teachings of many faiths.
The WRC will celebrate its 10th anniversary Thursday, Jan. 31, at the Villager Community Room. Mark Pocan, Wisconsin's 2nd District U.S. House Representative, will keynote the event and speak on the importance of protecting workers and worker rights.
“We’ve had so many great volunteers over the years and we’re trying to get them together at this event,” Hickey says. “It should be a great event. We are really looking forward to it.”
In 2000, the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice (ICWJ) of South Central Wisconsin launched a study of actual workplace conditions in Dane County through the Latino Worker Project. The Latino Worker Project fact-finding delegation was a collaborative effort of faith community representatives, union leaders, workers, and local social service providers. The final published report, “Can’t Afford to Lose a Bad Job,” highlighted the difficulties and barriers these workers face.
“What people kept talking about over and over was that Latino immigrants were facing a ton of worker issues — workers being taken advantage of in various ways, unsafe working conditions, workers being mistreated,” Hickey says. “So, at that time, the group said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s look at working conditions for Latinos in Dane County and pull together resources that already exist and work with existing community organizations together to gather information and put together a fact-finding delegation that will then make recommendations to the board about what should be done.’”
WRC is born
One of the recommendations of the delegation was the establishment of a Workers’ Rights Center to address the needs of low-wage and immigrant workers and to have somebody advocate on their behalf. “It wasn’t necessarily a new concept … there were worker centers all over the country,” Hickey remembers. “They hired their first director, Sarah Shatz, to contact those other worker centers to find out how they ran their operations and how they managed it.”
The ICWJ recognized that many of the workplace problems that were identified affect all low-wage workers, regardless of ethnicity, and hired a full-time staff person to help fulfill this recommendation. Using resources and best practices from successful faith/labor initiatives around the country, the ICWJ researched and developed a plan for a local Workers’ Rights Center.
It’s changed in a number of ways over the decade. In 2007, WRC spun off as its own non-profit 501c3 when the ICWJ Board determined that it was time for the WRC to become a stand-alone organization.
“Each year from 2002 to 2007 it was growing and the Worker’s Rights Center started to grow bigger than the ICWJ,” Hickey remembers. “Its mission was starting to get a little bit different — it was really focused on assisting workers directly with their workplace issues whereas ICWJ was more about mobilizing the religious community to speak out on economic justice issues.”
The ICWJ and WRC still share office space and work closely on numerous campaigns, but now each is able to pursue its mission with a greater focus. WRC sits down with between 500-700 people a year. Their headquarters are a place for workers to go for information, education, legal referrals, and reflections on workers’ rights focusing on searching for solutions and organizing for change.
“We also do a lot of community trainings getting information out to the community in both English and Spanish,” says Hickey, who has been director since 2004. “We just present people with basic information — these are your rights when it comes to wages, health and safety, discrimination, etc..”
Is Hickey surprised how often people who come in have no idea what their rights are? “Yes, it’s pretty dramatic. And somewhat understandable for people from another country,” he says. “If you’ve just gotten here, it’s different. And there are some people who are shocked how little protections there are in the United States. They come here and assume it will be better [than in the country they came from] and soon realize that it’s not the case.”
Partnerships in the community are key to the agency’s success —the Workers Rights Center works closely with Centro Hispano, Centro Guadalupano, Bridge Lakepoint, Vera Court, and many of the different congregations around town. They serve a clientele that is about 70 percent Latino. “There are just not a lot of places like this in the state so we will get people coming from far away like Beloit, Stevens Point, Fond du Lac,” Hickey says. “So, one of our long-terms plans is to hopefully expand to other parts of the state to do this work.”
Since there are plenty of employers who are great employers in Madison and since 25 percent of the workers that come to WRC are restaurant workers, the WRC, in partnership with ICWJ, started the Just Dining Guide that focuses on working conditions in central Madison restaurants. This guide rates 139 central Madison restaurants on how they treat workers. It awards up to seven stars based on factors such as starting wages, health insurance coverage, sick pay, and working conditions for people who cook, prepare, and serve food. It highlights employers who are going the extra mile to provide good quality, family-supporting jobs in the community. “Our research showed us that things were better than we thought it would be … I was expecting to find a lot more problems,” Hickey says. “But it still was not as good as we’d like to see.”
The guide, launched in December, makes it easy for customers and workers to be able to compare and contrast the various restaurants in downtown Madison. “Through the process we actually had some of the employers who adjusted their policies and we’ve seen some positive things,” Hickey says.
As WRC approaches its 10th birthday, it’s fair to say that Hickey and his staff have seen their fair share of worker abuse — some of it that can be pretty sad.
“One thing that is always very heartbreaking is when you see female workers exploited, threatened, hit on or told that, ‘unless you give me sexual favors, you’re going to lose your job,’” Hickey says. “We’ve heard stories of women who are married to U.S. citizens who are in abusive relationships and, in one instance, the woman ended up divorcing her husband and then he turned her in as undocumented and told her he would apply to keep the kids and get her deported.
“We have workers who will come in to work one day and see a piece of paper stating [the business] had closed down and that the two months of pay that we owe you is gone…. You’re outta luck,” Hickey adds.
But it’s the positive things that keep Hickey and the WRC going — the individual fights for self-respect, the resilience, the pride of not wanting to be abused.
“The most exciting thing for me is that the people who come here are the people who are willing to fight,” Hickey says. “We hear the hard stories, but these are people who are in very difficult circumstances who are willing to say, ‘You know what? I’ve got respect. I’m not going to be treated this way. I recognize that there are a lot of dangers in stepping out and speaking up for myself, but I’m going to do it anyways.’ That always inspires me.
“There are many examples of people who come in who are not only doing things for their paycheck — which is reasonable — but doing it for other people,” he adds. “They do it so others don’t get taken advantage of, too … they do it for the bigger struggle. To see those kinds of things are what really makes us happy at the Workers’ Rights Center.”
There are many challenges moving forward for the WRC. In particular, funding is always a struggle for non-profits. “The kind of work that we do will occasionally tweak and annoy employers and will bother some of the more mainstream funders,” Hickey says. “The workers that we deal with haven’t been paid and have often just lost their jobs, so it’s not a situation where we can ask them to make large donations to help fund an organization. So, we’re constantly having to figure out ways to raise money. We don’t have the resources to have a big as staff as we’d like to, so there are lots of volunteers.
“A pipedream for any non-profit is to become financially stable, so we’re trying different ways to achieve that,” Hickey continues. “We rely way too much on grants. We’d love to have more community supporters so we could spend time doing more of the direct work rather than raising money all of the time.”
Hickey is keeping a close eye on the ongoing issue of immigration reform that has come back on the radar for Congress. “If we can actually get a comprehensive immigration reform bill through that provides some kind of path to citizenship or regularizing people’s status for the 11 million people that are undocumented, that would be a sea change for us,” he says. “If those workers could actually comfortably speak out without the fear of being turned in, deported, and threatened, it would really change the dynamics in quite a few workplaces.”
The WRC will celebrate its 10th anniversary Thursday, Jan. 31, 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the Villager Community Room, 2300 S. Park Street. Mark Pocan, United States Representative in Congress (D-WI) will keynote the event and speak on the importance of protecting workers and worker rights. If you are interested in volunteering at the WRC or would like more information, contact them at (608) 255-0376.