CALL TO ARMS: During a Nov. 19 open house, the executive director of the Consortium For Worker Education, Joseph McDermott, said the occasion was not one for “self-congratulation,” but “a moment of hesitation or rethinking” as automation and the gig economy threaten the nature of traditional employee-employer relationships.

As a young girl in her native Puerto Rico, Limary Montijo would trail her grandfather as he went on carpentry projects. She might not have known it at the time, but she was building on her future. 

More than 20 years and an arduous apprenticeship later, Ms. Montijo earned a more formal entry into the construction trade. She did so through a program administered by Nontraditional Employment for Women, a city-based not-for-profit that partners with major trade unions to provide training for 350 to 400 women each year and then assists alumnae in securing unionized jobs in construction, transportation, energy and other trades and fields.

‘Many Benefit’

Before being accepted into the competitive program on her second try six years ago, Ms. Montijo was working three jobs—at a fast-food restaurant, at a package-delivery service and as a cleaner—to earn her keep.

She completed a six-week training course that included technical-skills courses and classroom instruction, and then was hired by International Laborers Association Local 79 as an apprentice.


FOUNDATION: Limary Montijo was working three jobs before being accepted into a program administered by Nontraditional Employment for Women, a city-based organization that partners with trade unions. Following a training course, she completed an apprenticeship with International Laborers Association Local 79 and has been working in construction ever since.

She’s been doing mostly demolition work since then, but also branches out into other aspects within the trade.

“I love the fact that I’m able to experience other trades,” said Ms. Montijo, now 38, and married to the woman—one of her former Dunkin' Donuts customers—who convinced her to reapply to the NEW program. “It’s amazing. I’ve got my hands in a lot of things.”

Ms. Montijo, who lives in New Jersey, was speaking Nov. 19 during an open house in TriBeCa hosted by the Consortium For Worker Education. NEW is one among 46 worker-service-center programs, community organizations and unions partnering with the nonprofit.

A Variety of Services

CWE, founded in 1985, provides a range of programming, training and services to city workers, many of them displaced or about to be. Funded through a mix of city and state monies, CWE, the workforce-development arm of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council, serves about 70,000 New Yorkers annually.

NEW’s assistant vice president for programs, Erik Antokal, said CWE has been instrumental in sustaining the organization’s efforts. “Without CWE, we couldn’t do what we do,” he said.

At the open house, representatives from community organizations and labor unions joined with elected officials to celebrate success stories such as Ms. Montijo’s, and to discuss and distill their education and training programs with one another.

“We all do it...because it’s a good thing,” CWE Executive Director Joseph McDermott said to couple of hundred people in attendance. “We all do it practically because so many benefit. We actually do it selfishly because it feels right to use our authority to better the lives of our union members and our neighbors.” 

A Cautionary Note

But he noted that the occasion was not one for “self-congratulation” or a fundraiser, but “a moment of hesitation, of rethinking.” Darker clouds, in the form of automation and the gig economy, threatened to severely disrupt the employment landscape, he said.

Firms are forcing workers from traditional employer-employee relationships to contingency status, with an attendant loss of benefits, rights and protections, Mr. McDermott said.

Although workers need technology and tech employers, “the destruction by gig will be elaborate,” he said.

So what were the hundreds gathered in this elegant, 10,000-square-foot West Broadway venue to do? he asked.

“Workers need to self-sense their worth, increase skills and challenge their treatment,” Mr. McDermott said. “The reality for this room is to increase our mandate from advancement to worker protection.”

He also called on legislators “to make every worker an employee.”

“If we can’t do this and it fails and Bezos is still alive, then workers need to form their own associations,” he said, referring to Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos. “Then maybe we can say with conviction, workers know their own work, and eventually will not let it be taken away.”

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