Members of Sunrise Cooperative, a group representing employees and owners of small automotive businesses, announced a hunger strike to protest displacement under the first phase of the massive redevelopment of Willets Point.
Inside shops and standing in the pouring rain Monday morning, determined workers urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to allow the businesses to stay at Willets Point for at least a few extra months to allow them more time to secure a Certificate of Operation for a new location in the Bronx.
According to a press release by Sunrise Cooperative, a deal would relocate 17 Willets Point businesses to Leggett Avenue in the Bronx. It was expected that the new shops would be ready, but as June 1 came and went, they were still waiting.
Single mother Julia Sandoval has been working in the Willets Point automotive industry for 17 years to support her children.
According to Sandoval, her doctor advised against participating in the hunger strike due to her diabetic condition, but she decided to participate to show how serious she is about saving her job.
“If they are going to close my place, what am I going to do?” Sandoval asked. “We don’t know what to do.”
Marco Neira, president of Sunrise Cooperative, said all the owners want is more time. Neira is confident the hunger strike will continue until the mayor’s office responds to their requests.
Pedro Estevez, president and founder of the United Auto Merchants Association, spoke on behalf of many workers, most of whom only speak Spanish.
Over a year ago, Estevez found an 85,000-square-foot site in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx with the intention of relocating the businesses displaced by the first phase of the redevelopment. Reluctantly, most business owners agreed to make the costly move, seeing no other options.
But without the Certificate of Operation, the shops were unable to move by the June 1st deadline.
Estevez said the location was deemed suitable for manufacturing by the Department of Buildings, but the certificate did not specify auto repair uses.
“Honestly, they are trying to do the right thing,” Estevez said of the displaced business owners. “They are trying to be independent and to independently fulfill the obligation of supporting their families. They don’t want to be dependent on government hand-me-downs.”
by Francesca Campione