This Was Our Vision from the Beginning…
An interview with Hilary Stern of Casa Latina
By Mike Andrew
Casa Latina has come a long way since its start in 1994. Beginning in a trailer sitting in a Western Avenue parking lot, it now occupies a beautiful complex of meeting rooms, classrooms, and offices on Jackson Street.
While Casa Latina’s development has been stunning, it hasn’t surprised executive director Hilary Stern. “This was our vision from the beginning,” she told me. “We still have the drawings from 15 years ago. At the time, though, it seemed like a pipe dream.
“At the start we didn’t have the resources to do more than we were doing. We provided what we could with the smallest amount of money.
“And after a successful 10-year capital campaign, we’re still raising money,” she added. “We have an elevator shaft, but we still need money to install the elevator.”
While the big bright buildings are Casa Latina’s visible proof of success, the numbers tell an even bigger story.
Last year, almost 9,000 jobs were dispatched through the center. More than 900 workers attended workplace safety and skills trainings. More than 300 attended ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Eighty-five attended computer classes.
“We started out working with a very particular group,” Stern explained, “day laborers who were homeless. “They were the most vulnerable. Many were recently arrived, they were poor people out on the street, mostly men of color. The neighbors didn’t like them.
“They were very difficult to organize. They worked for so many different employers – it was the opposite of organized labor – and it was a perfect situation for driving down wages.” Now, however, Casa Latina workers have set their own minimum wage – $16 per hour – $1 above the City of Seattle’s minimum.
The minimum wage was one of the issues taken up at a Thursday morning assembly at which the workers themselves set policy for the center, including wages and rules of conduct in the Day Worker Center.
While Casa Latina’s earliest members were almost all men, women began to come in increasing numbers, Stern said. Today 30 percent of Casa Latina’s members are women.
On Friday evenings the women’s leadership group Mujeres Sin Fronteras (Women Without Borders) meets. Topics of trainings and discussion include civil rights, domestic violence, women’s preventative health care, and household finances.
To foster leadership by the workers, Stern relies on popular education techniques she learned when she worked for Nicaragua’s Ministry of Education.
Like Casa Latina, “they really emphasized adult education,” Stern recalls. “You can’t change power dynamics unless you give education to the poor.”
Stern believes that Casa Latina’s success may offer a model for organizing other low-wage workers as well, not only immigrants.
“It seems like that’s the direction we’re going – a gig economy, project work,” rather than workers being permanent employees of a single company, she says. “And that’s not just for immigrant workers.”
The replacement of permanent fulltime employment by as-needed hiring would make life more difficult both for workers and for the unions that want to organize them.
“The union model has worked, but it’s not a growing model,” she says. “Factories are moving overseas [along with the manufacturing jobs that used to be the bedrock of organized labor].
“Now our problem is, ‘How do we organize the businesses around us?’ Maybe we organize guilds. That’s the way we organized when we used to organize small businesses.
“The problem is how to finance that in a sustainable way. And we haven’t figured that out yet.”
Stern is the granddaughter of immigrants. On her mother’s side the family were Eastern European Jews “who took a 20-year detour through Wales.” On her father’s side, they were Russians who escaped from Siberia, and landed in New York’s Garment District.
Federal immigration law has become much more restrictive since her grandparents arrived, Stern says, but she thinks that public opinion is growing more accepting of immigrants.
“Things have changed, and the nice thing is that they’re continuing to change,” she says. “My kids don’t see the logic behind discrimination – which is great! Younger people don’t see immigrants as a cultural threat.”
Hilary Stern is a PSARA member