Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.
“I’m 33. I was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the U.S. in December 1983. My family first came to New York and then we settled in Hyattsville, Maryland. I have been doing construction since I left high school in 1995. I did general labor, demolition, asbestos removal, whatever. Being out there in the field, I was exposed to a lot of the injustices that people in the work force deal with, things like poor or no pay and mistreatment. I am fortunate because I am bilingual, so I could speak up for co-workers who didn’t speak the language. There were a few times when I would be let go for speaking up, but the way I look at it, I am not going to let anyone disrespect me or my co-workers.
“My whole time in construction, I was never in a union. I don’t have a pension or insurance, none of that. With my health, I always just crossed my fingers. I got hurt a few times and always had to pay out of pocket. Back then, I didn’t know about the unions. It’s not like contractors were telling us about our rights. Their bottom line was making money. The last thing many of them wanted was for us to have the knowledge that if we joined with our co-workers, we could have what they had — a contract. No job gets done in this city without a contract, yet we never had one. Part of that may be that union density in D.C. is not like New York. Here, there isn’t that mentality where your Dad and Granddad were in the union.
“When I was given the opportunity be an organizer, I said, ‘Heck, yeah.’ Now I’m able to give back. I spend a lot of my time in the field talking with people. I have been in their shoes, so I know how to relate to them. I think that it’s important to even the playing field. If you want your community to thrive, you need to give your community the resources and options. Without options, people unfortunately turn to other means. Continues after the jump.
“With Small businesses, Minority contractors, and Advocates for Reform Today (SMART DC), we represent workers, whether they are black, Hispanic or white. The problem is usually the contractors who aren’t held accountable. A lot of these construction companies get a contract and claim to want to boost the local economy and hire local labor, but we find that many of them get the contract and pull out the rug from under D.C. workers. Right now, one of our projects is holding Clark Construction accountable for their development of the new Homeland Security building in the old Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Ward 8. Each project and contract is different, but there are terms that discuss the percentage of local workers to be employed. A lot of times, though, these contractors sub the work out to people in Maryland or Virginia instead of hiring directly from here. In the past, part of the reason was that some companies hired undocumented workers and brought them to construction sites. Look, if the contract said hire D.C. residents, hire D.C. residents. There are plenty of folks here who want to work; they just need an opportunity to do so. As a community, we need to stand together on this.”
Learn more about SMART DC, including their work to bring more jobs to D.C. residents, here.