New Bedford has a long history of receiving immigrant workers to staff the many industries that have made the city prosperous. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, New Bedford businessmen employed significant numbers of young Azorean and Cape Verdean men to work on whaling ships. Many of these men settled in New Bedford following whaling voyages that could last up to four years, and were later joined by their families. The constant flow of new immigrants through this city meant that many of New Bedford’s residents, were not land or ship owners, and that New Bedford was a prime location to establish a manufacturing industry. As in Lawrence, Lowell and Fall River, Massachusetts, the textile industry developed along the city’s waterfront. The industry generated enough jobs to attract attract additional migrants from England, Poland and Quebec.
New Bedford has since seen a steady decline in the textile industry, as manufacturing becomes increasingly inexpensive abroad. The city has once again turned to its water front as a source for job opportunities, and has turned the town harbor into the country’s most profitable fishing port.
For many years, New Bedford workers dealt well with the changes in town economy. Workers enjoyed union representation following the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 and the New Bedford Textile Strike of 1928 which made workers aware of their ability to mobilize and improve working conditions. In recent decades, however, workers rights are threatened as seafood processing plants and other industries turn to temporary agencies to meet the demand for labor. Through a temporary agency, one might work at a single company for several decades and never receive benefits because of temporary status. These losses in New Bedford’s industrial work environment led many to seek employment elsewhere and the demand for labor is once again being met by newcomers.
After decades of civil wars in Central America, many Central Americans sought stability and employment in urban settings throughout the United States. Strong Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran communities were well established in Providence, Rhode Island when New Bedford’s seafood industry became less appealing. Today, a majority of the workers who process the seafood that comes through the port of New Bedford are workers from Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Honduras, and significantly, indigenous peoples from Guatemala.
In 2007, our community was galvanized by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid. The Michael Bianco factory on New Bedford’s South End was raided by ICE and 361 workers were detained. This factory had received Federal grants to manufacture parachutes and backpacks for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sought to further increase its profits by forcing workers to work up to 80 hours per week without overtime pay. Many workers in this company kept quiet about the abuse because they were undocumented Central Americans who wanted to maintain a low profile. Workers were thus appalled to see that after years of withstanding exploitation and hazardous conditions, the Federal Government would choose to enforce the law in way that further oppressed and marginalized them. It was then that a group of workers who had experienced the ills of the work at the Michael Bianco factory decided to organize and seek the support from their community to ameliorate work conditions. Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT) grew out of this small group of workers and was founded as a response to exploitative and unsafe conditions in many of New Bedford’s industrial workplaces. As an organization, we recognize that many local industries have undone the many accomplishments of workers who were here before us, and we strive to continue their legacy.
In 2009 CCT became an independent organization, and in 2012 obtained tax-exempt status. To this day, its board and staff are comprised entirely of working class immigrants. CCT’s members work in the local seafood processing, garment, and recycling companies, many through temporary employment agencies. Since 2009, CCT has worked to combat the flagrant abuses of workers’ rights such as wage theft, health and safety violations, discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation against employees who seek to organize. CCT seeks to bring immigrant workers out of the shadows where exploitation and abuse thrive and assist them as they navigate the American legal system. We believe that a healthy community and economy should allow all individuals to access the benefits provided by the law, and that the voices of those who power the economy should have weight in a truly democratic society.