During a labour tour of the USA I visited the Centro Obrero de Detroit (Detroit Worker’s Centre). Maria a young 23 year old mother, pregnant with her third child, was visiting at the same time.
I heard how Maria’s former job at a small parts car factory, which supplies the larger car factories in Detroit, was demanding and devoid of workers rights. It sounded more like a prison, electronic door permanently closed, poor lighting, wet floor, no hot water, no drinking water and no protective gloves when working with fibre, sexual harassment and discrimination, the list was endless.
Maria was aggrieved because she had been “fired” from her job without a weeks pay. “This is a regular occurrence” she told us, the boss could hire and fire as he pleased and he often fired without paying the worker. She was owed $247 (approx £130equivalent)
Young workers like Maria cross the Mexican border with hope for a new future and she attempted several times before being eventually successful. She showed us the fading scars of dog bites on the upper part of her back sustained while trying to enter the US. She explained how those trying to escape a desolate life, had to crawl on their bellies to avoid the sensors and an armed militia patrolling the borders.
Stories like this are not new to the women at the workers centre. They are privy to personal accounts of raids, deportations and racist attacks experienced by a large Latino workforce hardly making a living. Jessica, Elena, Carman and Marisela are fearless advocates who bear witness to the hardships of these workers. Elena makes the point “they are mostly young vibrant workers spending the best years of their lives in ‘sweat shops’”. She explained “these workers are often caught up in industrial accidents. We have reports of workers going home as a burden to their families having lost limbs and fingers facing a life of isolation and poverty”.
A decision was taken by all present in the workers centre to visit the small parts factory in pursuit of this young woman’s unpaid wages. Six women, including Maria and I piled into a six seater vehicle and headed to her former work place. Despite her advanced pregnancy she wanted and needed to work.
Post industrial Detroit looked grim. The neglected crumbling roads made way for a bumpy ride at times but the spirit of the women was determined and jovial despite the seriousness of the venture. Finally we reached the factory which looked derelict. We drove around the isolated building with razor wire topping the surrounding walls. We saw a young Latino woman driving a fork lift in one of the yards.
As we walked towards the entrance of the factory a large Alsatian dog leapt towards us. Maria had learned survival techniques, despite bearing the scars of dog bites, she moved quickly towards the dog, petted it and held it at bay while the rest of us filed past. Just like humans, dogs can detect empathy as well as fear.
We were not expected. A short heavy set man in his early 40s, rushed towards us. He had been standing observing the workers. Maria looked anxious she knew that unlike the guard dog her former boss would not understand empathy. “We are here to collect Maria’s unpaid wages”. He asked if we were attorneys and “if not get out of my factory”. He attempted to pull Maria towards him and said he would speak to her alone. The oldest trick in the book, isolate the worker. Isn’t this how many political settlements are fostered, separate the leaders from the masses?
With the mindset of the bully, this boss was everything the capitalist system produces. He told us we were “nobodies and nothing” and he wouldn’t talk to us. Being a member of the National Union of Journalists, I produced my International press card and asked him a number of questions. With six determined women standing around him he didn’t get far with his plan, he was left in no doubt that his ‘bully boy’ tactics would not be tolerated and we were not leaving until this young woman was paid for her labour.
The land of the ‘brave and the free’ - free to exploit and dehumanise hard working human beings. One does not have to be close to the Mexican border or visit the US to witness this dreadful mistreatment of workers. This happens in our own back yard despite our own dreadful history of exploitation.
During the short bartering period I observed the surroundings. The warm sunshine out side couldn’t reach the colourless atmosphere and cold concrete floors. A young work force, mostly women, no doubt ruled by fear kept their heads down. I have read about ‘sweatshops’ I have heard about ‘sweatshops’ now I was in one. I could almost feel the presence of my own ancestors in this ‘Ghost ware house’ called a factory
Finally he relented and paid Maria cash in hand. As we left she silently wept, I guessed, not just for herself but for the workers she was leaving behind.
This whole experience further demonstrated for me the evil of capitalism and the need for international solidarity. Workers rights, regardless of orientation must be upheld. It also highlighted for me the power of women because it’s not the first time women took the lead in a much needed fight back.
Since my return to Ireland I learned that the entire work force was dismissed after our visit. The boss told the workers that Maria informed immigration they were ‘undocumented’
‘Splitting’ is another ancient trick, manipulate worker against worker to excercise power over them. However the women from Centro Obrero de Detroit reached the workers and told them the truth. It will be women like Jessica, Elena, Carmen, Mariesela and Maria who will organise workers to fight for the right to work and be free of the chains which bind them. Documentation and workers rights for all – No worker is illegal.
I feel confident that I was present and part of a birth of something new.
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