New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), the Jackson Heights worker advocacy group, organized a march and vigil for April 29 to honor workers who have died on the job and to rally for more worker protection.
A crowd of around 300 workers, family members and advocates began outside City Hall and squeezed over Brooklyn Bridge’s walkway to hold a candlelight vigil in Dumbo. The marchers, joined by Sunset Park City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, carried dozens of white crosses bearing the names of construction workers who have died throughout New York state since 2015.
“We want to make sure that the community knows we’re doing as much as we can to make sure workers are protected, but also remembered,” said Manny Castro, executive director of NICE.
Latino construction workers, like many of those affiliated with NICE, are more likely to die on the job than non-Latino workers in the state, concluded a January report by New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Out of the 16 workers construction workers who died in New York City over the past year, 14 of them were Latino, according to Castro.
The vigil comes after increased pressure from in New York City on Albany to increase construction industry accountability, following the death of three workers on construction sites around the city within one week in April. The mother of Erik Mendoza, a Jackson Heights resident who was one of the fatalities, stood among the crowd in Lower Manhattan.
Though NICE has several campaigns for public policy reform including, the rally focused instead on honoring the experience of immigrant construction workers. The demand that the speakers proposed was the establishment of a memorial for New York City’s day laborers and construction workers who have died on the job.
“We wanted to focus on the human side of the issue,” said Castro. “A lot of our members felt strongly like we should do something like this for years.”
The workers packed the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, chanting “Ni uno mas” – or “not one more” – forcing selfie-taking pedestrians to take notice. When they arrived at the Empire Ferry Park, they laid their crosses in a pile and gave speeches commemorating the dead.
While listening to the speeches, Lowell Barton the Vice President of Laborers Local 1010 said that two members of his union were included on the pile of crosses. He said that New York state needs legislation to put contractors who don’t provide proper safety precautions in prison.
“How many memorials are we going to have to have? It’s not just people who die. So many people get disfigured, and they can never go to work again,” Barton said.
After the speeches, NICE worked with The Illuminator, a guerrilla political projection collective, to project the faces of many of the deceased workers onto a trestle of the Brooklyn Bridge.
A slide of the projection read, “We demand safe dignified work.”
“All the time, people die in the scaffolding,” said Walter Hernandez, Jackson Heights-based construction worker, referring to the fact that fatals falls account for the top cause of construction fatalities. In New York City, 78 workers died due to falls over the past 10 years, which on average accounted for 46 percent of all construction deaths, according to NYCOSH.
“The point is that you need to protect lives. No matter if you have papers or not,” said Hernandez.