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On December 4, Latino Union celebrates 15 years of empowering low-income immigrant and U.S.-born workers around Chicago. Latino Union helps hundreds of day laborers and domestic workers each year find dignity on the job by improving their working conditions, developing their leadership and building a larger movement for immigrant worker rights.

Celebrating 15 years of empowering low-income workers: @LatinoUnionChi in the words of its volunteers

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Latino Union couldn’t continue to do its work without an incredible team of members, board members, staff and volunteers. Here, in their own words, are just a few of the people who help make Latino Union what it is.

 

Aurelia Aguilar

Aurelia Aguilar is a domestic worker from Guatemala and a newly elected member of Latino Union’s Board of Directors.

“The greatest help that anyone has ever given me is helping my niece get released from an immigration detention center. Her name is Mari.”

Aurelia Aguilar with her niece Mari

 

“There is not enough work available where Mari lives. There is not enough food for her family to eat. Her younger sisters and brothers cannot afford to attend school. So, when Mari was 17 years old, she tried to come here–so that she could support her family, so that her brothers and sisters could continue their education and so that her mother would be able to buy food.

But she came without thinking about what was going to happen as a result of her trip. She was caught at the border and detained for several months.

With the help of Latino Union, we were able to get Mari released from the detention center and her case was transferred here to Chicago. Latino Union helped find lawyers who can help her with her case.

Latino Union has also helped me find a job–honest work with fair pay. I worked before, but the pay was very low. I was earning $7 to $8 an hour, less than minimum wage.

Many times, immigrants don’t know that we have rights. We let our bosses abuse us or take our work without paying us our salaries. People don’t know that there are organizations like Latino Union that can offer support.

Today, I have joined my voice with others who have decided to put an end to these injustices. When Latino Union has meetings, I invite others who also need support. When one of my friends was mistreated on the job, and her employer didn’t pay her for hours that she had worked, I told her that she could come to Latino Union to get help. I’ve joined the Board of Directors to support Latino Union through fundraising–because Latino Union supported me, and so many other people. Together, we are creating social change.”

 

Mechthild Hart

Mechthild Hart is a longtime volunteer with the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, a project of Latino Union that empowers nannies, house cleaners, home care workers and personal care assistants to pursue respect, equality and dignity for their work.

“The story of why I volunteer with Latino Union begins in 1948, the year I was born. It begins with my mother.”

Mechthild Hart

 

“I grew up in a small village. It was right after the end of the Second World War, and Germany was in shambles. We were very poor but had enough to eat because we had a garden for growing all our vegetables and fruit. My mother cooked, baked, cleaned, washed and ironed clothes, gardened, knitted, sewed and sang to us when we were sad. She not only knew how to make do with very little, but also how to seize any occasion, big or small, to celebrate life.

She lived for us the many meanings of care work. My mother respected and enjoyed each of her four children, and she let each of us find our very own way of being in this world. She modeled the importance and value of care work and showed us that it is hard, demanding work, but also that it thrives in the presence of creativity, mindfulness and the joy of living.

When I became a university student I first studied literature but then became more interested in understanding the reasons for existing social and economic inequalities. And I wanted to find out why the work my mother did was so vital for our wellbeing, but had no social or financial value. It also caught my interest that many immigrant women did this work so they could support their families.

Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a local community organization, asked me to write about Latina domestic workers in Chicago. I learned Spanish, went to parks, talked to nannies and found out about their dismal and exploitative working conditions. At about the same time domestic workers were organizing in New York, and I wondered whether something similar was happening in Chicago. I did not find anything, although I contacted many local labor and immigrant advocacy groups.

I finally met a volunteer who had started a women workers’ group, and most of the women turned out to be domestic workers. We formed a domestic workers’ collective, became members of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance (NDWA) and went to domestic workers’ conferences together.

NDWA asked us to participate in a national survey of domestic workers, but in order to do so we needed a fiscal sponsor. We connected with Latino Union, became members—and the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers grew out of that partnership.

In June 2014 I retired after 27 years of teaching at the School for New Learning, an alternative college program at DePaul University. My skills and past training have now become resources for the struggle to improve domestic workers’ labor conditions. I contribute to organizing efforts, to designing and conducting workshops, and to getting the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed. I was also asked by the workers to initiate research on domestic workers’ experience of sexual violence in their workplaces.

Since I retired, I have more fully reconnected with what my mother modeled for me from the time I can first remember. Participating in the domestic workers’ movement to gain rights, dignity and respect is no longer volunteer work. It is my life’s work.”

 

Tom Long

Tom Long is a longtime Latino Union volunteer and board member.

“When I moved to Chicago, I was looking for ways to get involved. I first learned about Latino Union when I was taking a Spanish class at Instituto Cervantes. I had already taught ESL as a volunteer in California, and I thought I would call them up and do the same thing.”

Tom Long

 

“Really, when you teach, you learn a lot more than what you actually impart. My classroom philosophy was that we are all equals and we all work together. The only rule was that students had to tell me if they had a question.

We covered all the normal workplace vocabulary. What are the safety measures? What is the pay? Check or cash? The normal things. We talked about wage theft and workplace hazards–and what happens to workers if they have an accident on the job, the employer disappears and they are left holding the bag. Of course, during the World Cup we switched to talking about soccer vocabulary. I looked forward to class every time I came.

Each class was always unique because some workers would be out working and others would be attending class for the first time. So I just had to adjust.

Sometimes, new students were nervous. But I told them that there was no reason to be–there weren’t going to be any exams or grades. For me, the best atmosphere is a relaxed atmosphere where there is give and take. They taught me Spanish too. It was a mutual learning experience.

Gradually, I got to know a little bit of their stories–what they went through to get into this country. They had this constant fear of immigration officials and deportation. Eventually, I visited the Southwestern U.S. border. I saw the desert people had to cross, and the place where people who were being deported were taken.

I realized that the way our country is treating immigrants is just not right. I’ve marched several times for immigration reform and when there was an immigration raid at the street corner day labor street corner hiring site at Foster and Pulaski, I attended a press conference in protest.

[My activism] all started with my experience teaching English at Latino Union. I got to know immigrants as human beings who are just here to work hard and to feed themselves and their families. If you respect people, you can talk about anything, and you can learn. I don’t know who learned more–my students, or me.”