A Crisis at a Center for Day Laborer Rights
Last month, we posted a translation of a La Tribuna Hispana article on day laborers that mentioned the Workplace Project (Centro de Derechos Laborales, in Spanish). In an April 10 article for La Tribuna Hispana, Francisco Manrique uncovered some turmoil brewing within the organization, which for 20 years has fought for the rights of day laborers on Long Island. The article ends with a plea for accountability.
The Workplace Project – or Centro de Derechos Laborales as it is referred to in Spanish — is definitely one of the most active and representative Hispanic social organizations in the struggle for workers’ and immigrants’ rights; in its 20 years of existence, it can point to major successes in support of the less privileged. Still, all that glitters is not gold. Something is happening right now and this center, located at 91 N. Franklin St., Suite 207, is in the eye of the storm.
[Earlier this month], during the celebration of Holy Week, the Board of Directors, made up of center members who are elected every two years, met to tackle a thorny issue — the imminent dismissal of Carlos Canales, one of the center’s best-known staffers.
The dismissal was proposed by Executive Director Omar Ángel Pérez, setting off an unprecedented internal crisis and one whose solution has become difficult because of the proportions to which it has grown. The delicacy of the subject and the imminence of Easter resulted in everyone agreeing to postpone the meeting and to keep the question confidential. Nonetheless, the bad feelings on the board were so great that one director got in touch with the editors of La Tribuna Hispana USA and told us that several of the board members wanted to talk about the situation, though some asked to do so anonymously.
“Things have reached such a state that we don’t know what can happen,” one director, who did not want his name published, told us.
According to this source, Pérez the current executive director, who replaced the well-regarded Nadia Marin, asked for Canales’ head, “claiming that he was not doing his job well.” The same source said that Canales, in his own defense, said that it was Pérez who had limited his duties, eventually including forbidding him contact longer than 15 minutes with day laborers on street corners, and accusing him of not carrying out the directions given to him by the executive director.
According to another source on the board of directors, the malaise is heightened because Canales has a 14-year history of work at the Center, and is very well-known in the community.
“How is it possible to want to throw someone out who has a proven record of working during all this time, and he’s fired by someone who hasn’t even been there two years yet?” this source said, referring to the executive director. “He even did this with another employee he fired, and the man ended up going and founding another organization.”
“It’s a fact that the center’s image has declined, and this man has shown us nothing in almost two years working as executive director,” he said. “As a member of the Board, I have never seen a financial statement or a report on how he’s managing the organization.”
Divided Opinions and a Tense Wait
In the meantime, both of the protagonists in the crisis, Omar Ángel Pérez and Carlos Canales, prefer to keep a prudent silence. The former excused himself to LTH, saying that he was not authorized by the board to make statements about the internal affairs of the center, while Canales said he does not want to hinder a case that must be decided sooner or later.
When we consulted other members of the board, they all agreed, saying that the situation is an internal issue and that they prefer to deal with it behind closed doors. [Board member] Simeón Yáñez explained.
“The problem affects us, but we do not want scandals; we’ve never had any,” he said. “The problem is only between two individuals in a dispute; they are under contract to the center, and the board can decide whether or not they will continue. We will make the decision we have to make; for the moment we ask of the community only that they support us in the May 1st March.”
Another board member, Rafael Vélez, said the subject will be dealt with this week at the board meeting, but that he considers this a strictly internal affair. “When there is something we want to say, we will say it to the press, or call a press conference.”
A Moment of Uncertainty
One of the center’s members from the Farmingville Committee in Suffolk County, who preferred to speak anonymously, told LTH that they are experiencing this uncertain moment from a distance, and that it is not only physical but also mental.
“I understand that in general, we are going through a hard time in this country, which has resulted in a lean budget for the center and its activities, but here we feel further away than ever, since we get hardly any support,” he said. “We even lost the office we used to have, and now we all work from home, but we always had direct contact with Carlos Canales, with whom we coordinated the work we do here in Farmingville.”
We asked Saul Linares, elected chairman of the Workplace Project’s Board of Directors last November, for his reaction to what has been happening at the center.
“As a Board, we do not yet have an opinion,” he said. “The situation is a difficult one, and if there is a crisis, we can’t cover the sun with one hand, but we will resolve this internally. So I cannot offer anything since in such cases we must be guided by the bylaws, and we must adhere to the codes of confidentiality.”
We asked him about reports of a lawsuit to be filed by Canales charging Pérez with arbitrary dismissal, and he said that even if they do not yet know the details, the board must meet this week to analyze the case and come to a decision.
“There is a process for all of this which must be followed,” he said. “I understand that there has been a short circuit in the hierarchy and the case has not followed a normal course, which is why even some members of our board are confused and do not understand very well what the process is, but as I say, it has only been a little while since this began and we’ll have to wait and see what comes, but what is clear is that our board will be able to resolve this. I am not authorized to make declarations on this case; if any of the board members have done so, I am sure it was in the heat of the moment that are experiencing at the center, but there is an agreement that it will not go beyond this fact.”
Linares added that there are differences of opinion about the case on the board, which is normal for any organization.
“We have listened to all the arguments,” he said. “Some are valid, others debatable, but it will be our board that makes the decision in this case.”
Finances in Question
The organizational structure of the Workplace Project makes the general assembly, consisting of the members, the highest authority. They in turn elect a board of directors every two years. The executive director is hired by the board, and he in turn supervises the work of the staff and has the power to hire and fire employees as necessary.
Some voices, as if to churn up the center’s present crisis even more, have questioned the institution’s financial management, even calling for an audit going back to the administration of the previous executive director, to clarify how $60,000 of Nassau County funds (signed over by Tom Suozzi just before he left office in 2009) was used. It was earmarked for a Worker Center in Hempstead for day laborers. There was another grant of $17,000 from the unclaimed campaign funds of former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy.
In this context, what both the board members and the officers of the Workplace Project must understand is this: this is not an internal problem which they can deal with behind closed doors. Rather, they must explain to the community how a sum of money intended to improve the difficult conditions of day laborers’, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, ends up paying bureaucratic and office expenses.
Who will explain this serious charge? What is clear is that at the same time as they are in the eye of the storm, the limited presence of the Workplace Project in the community is noticeable. At the recent press conference held on the steps of the Village of Hempstead’s municipal building to announce the May 1st March, only a few people were present, and most of those were employees of the center, while at other [past] events, there were greater numbers of laborers and volunteers. This can perhaps illustrate what is happening at the center, as described by a board member:
“Not even the day laborers on the corners pay attention to us anymore!”