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How Sandy Clean-Up Brought Day Laborers Out of the Shadows

6:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(El Centro de Immigrante)

Originally published at In These Times

When Sandy hit last October, the Northeast shoreline seemed to freeze: people were stranded in flooded homes, businesses shuttered, downtown Manhattan’s lights went eerily dark. But the paralysis wasn’t total—the area began buzzing immediately with invisible workers. The day after Sandy was just another day of honest work for the “casual” manual laborers who would spent months cleaning, gutting and rebuilding homes and businesses across the stricken area, often in grueling conditions with little protection from collapsing walls, toxic mold and other hazards.

A study published late last month by researchers with the City University of New York’s Baruch College reports that after Sandy, many of these day laborers—a workforce that is typically dominated by Latino immigrants and considered a “casual” or irregular part of the construction trade—were unnecessarily put in harm’s way amidst the haphazard recovery process.

Based on interviews with workers and advocacy groups in New York and surrounding areas, the researchers found that while demand for day laborers spiked post-Sandy, working conditions sank even lower than usual. Flooded areas were quickly awash in contractors and desperate homeowners seeking quick, cheap labor to fix their property damage, which led to a perfect storm of risks, ranging from injuries and toxic exposures to wage theft by crooked subcontractors.

The researchers note that many day labor sites belied major safety threats, such as “industrial cleanups involving warehouses that stored pharmaceuticals and in hospitals.” And in many cases, homeowners who informally hired day laborers for immediate clean-up did not understand the complex hazards involved with clean-up, demolition and rebuilding, leaving workers even more vulnerable. Read the rest of this entry →

Imagining a ‘Just Recovery’ from Superstorm Sandy

8:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Fleshman / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Three months have passed since Hurricane Sandy battered New York and trashed the New Jersey coastline, and she hasn’t left. She’s still stalking the landscape strafed with mold and broken homes, and local activists worry that the government’s promises of tens of billions of dollars in federal funding will flood the storm-battered regions with further political turmoil.

Beyond the initial trauma of power outages and waterlogged houses, longer-term struggles still loom over communities like the Rockaways and the Staten Island coast. With recovery funding finally trickling down from Capitol Hill after weeks of gridlock, activists hope the resources won’t be exploited by predatory businesses and politicians, but rather channeled toward creating more inclusive, healthy communities.

In some ways, the grassroots recovery advocates have gotten a head start. Many of the early relief efforts have been radically volunteer-driven, and the Occupy Wall Street offshoot Occupy Sandy has often proven more effective and efficient than the bumbling “official” response by FEMA and other authorities. But how will the Occupiers fare in the impending scramble for contracts, grants and loans while businesses, organizations and government agencies all try to impose corporate visions for reconstruction on the storm-ravaged landscape? Read the rest of this entry →

At ‘Urban Uprising’ Conference, Activists Reimagine the City Post-Sandy

10:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

“occupy sandy. 520 clinton avenue.” (bondidwhat via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Disaster has a way of concentrating the mind. And Gotham has always had its share of it: whether it’s a slow-burning disaster like the epidemic of income inequality, the endemic scourge of police brutality and racial profiling, or the chronic deprivation of healthy food in isolated neighborhoods. Superstorm Sandy churned all of these elements of urban chaos. But in its wake, the storm has laid bare new pathways for innovations, and new frontiers for struggles against inequality.

The undercurrent of these contradictions ran through a conference this weekend dedicated to “designing a city for the 99%,” a possibility made more real and urgent in the storm’s aftermath. Urban Uprising, held at the New School and the CUNY Graduate Center (where this reporter is also a graduate student), brought together academics, legal experts, organizers and urban ecologists to broach fresh questions about organizing communities: how to harness the energy of Occupy and channel it into direct, localized campaigns; how to balance environmental renewal with economic development; and how to reorient debates on food policy away from apolitical consumer interests and toward the connection between food justice and fighting poverty.

The post-Sandy recovery process colored discussions of one of the main themes: “reimagining the city,” which focused on cultivation, both literal and figurative, of a new urban landscape.

David Harvey, a City University anthropology and geography scholar, has long argued that the Left must learn to organize at the level of the city. His work on the links between urbanization and capitalism helped invigorate the “Right to the City” alliance, one of the groups that organized the conference. During the conference, Harvey noted the ways in which community initiatives like Occupy Sandy are reclaiming urban space for popular struggle. “In a way,” Harvey said in an interview with In These Times, Occupy Sandy is “spreading a political message by a different route. And therefore, Occupy has not gone away. It’s moved into the boroughs… It is therefore a commitment to a different kind of lifestyle, a different kind of on-the-ground politics which in the long run may be just as important as the symbolic politics of Zuccotti Park.”

A broader political backdrop to the discussions was the looming security state that has crystallized over the past decade, putting communities under both economic and political siege. Groups like the Immigrant Defense Project and the Los Angeles Community Action Network described struggles against the militarization of policing around the country, as well as the growing transformation of local police into agents of immigration enforcement, counterterrorism and drug wars. Read the rest of this entry →

Post-Sandy Relief Workers Toil in Tough Labor Conditions

4:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

ConEd employees and other relief workers in New York City face dangerous environmental conditions and exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (Dan DeLuca / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

More than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, residents of storm-battered communities from Coney Island to Long Beach are still living with darkness, squalor and a growing sense that they’ve been abandoned by official response teams (notwithstanding valiant grassroots volunteer efforts).

But as public frustration mounts, the emergency responders, manual laborers and utility workers on the front lines have their own frustrations. Many are laboring under precarious work conditions while their own neighborhoods still struggle to recover from storm damage.

In places that are still lacking utilities–including many public housing units that had their services preemptively shut down as a protective measure–a wave of anger is beginning to crest. The Long Island Power Authority in particular has come under fire for leaving tens of thousands customers still powerless as of November 12. And New York Daily News‘ Denis Hamill recently reported on the lonely struggle of Far Rockaway residents. When asked about the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) providing clean-up assistance, Cynthia Torres complained,“They never came once to see how we were doing when we were living for 10 days in the pitch dark with no phones, no hot water, no heat, no cable, sometimes no drinking water or food, no nothing. Two NYCHA guys came today for the first time since the storm.”

Storm-hit New Yorkers have voiced frustration at the “chaos” of ConEd’s response, particularly poor-to-nonexistent communications with customer service.

But the workers leading the power restoration are similarly frustrated by what they see as an underlying crisis of an eroded, overwhelmed workforce. Following the storm, Local 1-2, the utility workers union that led a groundbreaking labor standoff at ConEd last summer, issued a statement suggesting that exasperated customers should understand that the damage exceeded official estimates and was far beyond workers’ capacity in the immediate term: “if you think a repair crew is slow to get to your area, please keep in mind that we are just like you, and that we are seeing things that have never happened before. It is that serious.” Read the rest of this entry →

In Sandy’s Wake, New York’s Landscape of Inequity Revealed

2:15 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Flood damage to the subway system will disproportionately affect the lower-income New Yorkers who use it the most, worsening structural inequality. (MTA / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Originally posted at In These Times

The shock of Sandy is still rippling across the northeastern United States. But in the microcosm of New York City, we can already see who’s going to bear the brunt of the damage. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, floodwaters have a way of exposing the race and class divisions that stratify our cities.

Though some bus and subway service is returning, many neighborhoods dependent on public transportation remain functionally shuttered. Not surprisingly, recent surveys show that Metropolitan Transit Authority ridership consists mostly of people of color, nearly half living on less than $50,000 a year in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

It’s true that Sandy’s path of destruction was to some extent an equal opportunity assault, pummeling the trendiest downtown enclaves and blighted neighborhoods alike. But residents’ levels of resilience to the storm–the capacity to absorb trauma–will likely follow the sharp peaks and valleys of the city’s economic landscape.

Even before the storm, inequities arose in the city’s disaster preparations. Many public-housing residents who stayed behind in evacuation zones were preemptively blacked out, left without elevators, heat or hot water. Meanwhile, once again, in a repeat of Hurricane Irene, the city was criticized for shamelessly denying the incarcerated at Rikers Island an adequate evacuation plan. Read the rest of this entry →