Freedom Rides Create Local Rallying Point for New York City Immigrant Rights Activists

In their trek across the country this past September, over 1,000 immigrant workers and their allies demonstrated in 116 U.S. cities during the Immigrant Worker’s Freedom Ride demanding equal workplace rights and immigration reform.

The Freedom Rides provided New York City immigrant workers and activist with an opportunity to begin building bridges that were desperately needed among groups that serve as advocates for immigrants and the unions that represent them in the workplace.

In New York City, which has a strong organized labor movement and civil society, labor/community partnerships are viewed with skepticism by both sides. For many reasons, and with a few exceptions, these two sides don’t play well together.

In building for the Ride, New York City groups and labor unions led by SEIU Local 32BJ, HERE Local 100, UNITE, TWU Local 100, HERE Local 6, Casa Mexico, Catholic Charities, the New York Immigration Coalition, the New York Civic Participation Project among many others were instrumental in coming together and pushing for a local legislative agenda in our work towards the Freedom Ride mobilization.

The coalition worked to harness support for local laws that would strengthen immigrant rights, and to ensure that politicians and public figures did not use the Freedom Ride as just another political opportunity. The groups pushed for a local legislative agenda that they called a Immigrant Rights Legislative Agenda.

This legislative agenda consisted of two proposed bills: Bill 38 (which would enable over a million New Yorkers who speak limited English to access vital city services by providing translation services) and Bill 326 (which would prohibit police and other city employees from asking and sharing confidential information such as immigration status with federal agencies).


Another important outcome of the Freedom Ride was the way it developed leadership and activism among rank-and-file union members. Many members who had not previously been active in their unions did tremendous work in their communities and their unions to mobilize for the October 4 rally.

This mobilization and hard work made October 4 a success and brought over 100,000 people to the rally, all calling for saner immigration laws and a road to legalization for the millions of people in this country who are forced to live publicly invisible lives.



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Labor’s challenge now is to ensure that these new leaders within their rank-and-file stay engaged and have opportunities to continue to build their leadership. This is an essential step in the creation of stronger local unions and a revitalized labor movement. These newly active members are our future labor leaders, and will bring about the transition to union leadership that reflects and is directed by its membership.

In New York City, the Freedom Ride also highlighted current immigrant labor leaders and their years of contribution to both the labor movement and the immigrant rights movement. These leaders included May Chen of Local 23-25 of UNITE, Hector Figueroa of SEIU Local 32BJ and Roger Toussaint of TWU Local 100.

As with most big events or rallies, the October 4 Freedom Ride rally had some problems. One major mishap was having too few speakers in Spanish and not enough community leaders represented on stage. Many of the groups that worked hard to bring out people were disappointed with the program of the rally.

Some also believe that organized labor also missed an opportunity to talk about the importance of union organizing to the crowd. Many in attendance on October 4 were union members, but many were not, and it was an opportunity lost to emphasize that workers-immigrants or not-still fare much better when they belong to a union.


In New York City, many groups, churches, unions and coalitions are now working on post-Freedom Ride agendas at the city level to promote and protect immigrant worker rights. The New York Civic Participation Project, along with over two dozen other partners, is holding a Day of Dialogue on February 21.

The Day of Dialogue will be an opportunity for many of the partners that came together around the Freedom Ride to continue working together and continue working through the difficult issues that are raised over labor/community partnerships. These issues will not go away in a few months, or maybe even a few years, but only through dialogue and continued collaboration can we begin to make progress.

In a city like New York so much is possible - living wages, health care for all, responsible contractor provisions, equal access to all city services, local citizenship (non citizen voting in local elections), … in other words a city-wide agenda that addresses issues important to working families and our communities. This agenda can only become a reality if the city’s powerful unions, religious institutions, advocates, community based groups and coalitions work together.

Gouri Sadhwani is Executive Director of the New York Civic Participation Project (NYCPP),a labor and community partnership in New York City that organizes rank and file union members and community activist through local and city-wide campaigns to promote immigrant worker rights. It was founded by SEIU Local 32BJ, HERE Local 100, AFSCME DC 37, Make the Road by Walking and the National Employment Law Project.