More than 50 hispanic immigrants sit quietly on folding chairs, all eyes on a rakishly handsome man with an animated face. “We’re here to fight because our bosses don’t pay minimum wage or overtime,” says Marcelo Moncayo. “By joining together here tonight, we can make change.”
At 48, Moncayo is no stranger to the mistreatment of which he speaks. Since emigrating from Ecuador in 1981, he has worked in “at least 20” different factories in Brooklyn, most of which, he says, failed to pay him minimum wage. His most recent job, at the G.I. Finishing factory in Ridgewood, Brooklyn, ended in March with bruises on Moncayo’s chest. Tired of tailoring sweaters for less than $4 an hour (minimum wage, he reminded his boss, is $5.15), he demanded overtime pay for his own work as a presser, and legal wages for all his colleagues. Calling him a troublemaker, his boss promptly told him he was fired, then grabbed him by the neck and whacked him in the chest with a plastic thermos.
A few weeks later, Moncayo reported for his first meeting of Workers in Action, organized by the community group Make the Road by Walking in Bushwick. He quickly became a leader there, and his case has been a focus of the group’s activism. “When he first came here, he was worried and a little quiet,” says Nieves Padilla, a Make the Road organizer. “But as the group has supported him, he has grown into someone who is showing real leadership.”
Of course, activists are not usually born overnight, and the incident at the G.I. Finishing factory was not the first time Moncayo had been fired for speaking out–on another occasion, his supervisor canned him for asking why he wouldn’t call in a doctor to help an injured worker. The physical abuse from his bosses at the sweater factory, however, particularly infuriated him, and pushed him to do more than just look for another job. On June 22, with the help of an attorney at Make the Road, Moncayo filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Manhattan seeking back pay and damages for his beating and firing.
His status as a legal U.S. resident doesn’t hurt his newfound activism, either. “Practically all the factories are staffed by the undocumented,” he says. “They won’t say anything about the low wages because they fear that the owner will report them. That’s why when I got my documents, I realized how much impact I could have.”