Make the Road New York (MRNY) is a New York-based community organizing group focused on immigrant communities with ties to immigration expansion and labor union movements that receives substantial funding from government sources. The organization is notable for close ties to the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and other left-wing city leaders, most notably Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan), dating back to before de Blasio’s mayoralty. Since the election of President Donald Trump, Make the Road has been credited with orchestrating demonstrations against the Administration, most notably at airports after the issuance of the controversial Executive Order 13769, which barred the entry into the United States of nationals of certain Muslim-majority countries before it was halted by court order.
Make the Road has close ties with the left-wing organizing group Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), with one of MRNY’s co-founders and current board members, Andrew Friedman, serving as CPD co-director alongside another former MRNY co-director, Ana Maria Archila. Javier Valdes, co-director of Make the Road New York, chairs the board of CPD. Make the Road New York is related to an advocacy group, Make the Road Action, through which Valdes has served as a national delegate to the Working Families Party convention.
In addition to its alliances with other organizing groups, MRNY is close to labor unions, most notably the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) labor organization, an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers international union. MRNY has also received substantial financial contributions from the United Steelworkers labor union, which has sought to organize car-wash workers with assistance from MRNY.
In addition to labor unions, Make the Road New York receives substantial funding from liberal foundations, notably including the Robin Hood Foundation, Ford Foundation, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Controversially, Make the Road New York receives a substantial portion of its revenues from government grants and contributions. On its 2014 tax returns, it disclosed receiving $5,030,867 in government grants among its $13.4 million in total revenues, meaning government grants contributed approximately 37 percent of the group’s revenues in that year.
Despite its close ties to labor unions and New York state labor regulators, Make the Road New York has been accused of federal labor law infractions. In late 2016, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) investigator found merit in an alleged unfair labor practice complaint by a MRNY employee; MRNY, the employees, and the NLRB made a settlement agreement in April 2017.
Make the Road New York was founded in Brooklyn, New York in 1997 as Make the Road By Walking by Oona Chatterjee and Andrew Friedman. The group began organizing immigrant welfare recipients in the wake of the welfare reforms of the 1990s.
Friedman came from a family of leftist activists; his grandparents were reportedly members of the Communist Party, according to a profile in the New York political magazine City Limits. Chatterjee, a transplant to New York from the Philadelphia area, was a student activist. The two founded Make the Road by Walking while they studied New York University law school.
In 2004, Make the Road began to partner with labor unions on worker organizing, forming an agreement with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a member of the UFCW. Make the Road provided support to RWDSU efforts to organize shoe retailers in the group’s home borough of Brooklyn. The organization also participated in demonstrations against border security provisions in proposed bipartisan immigration reform packages in the mid-2000s. The group was also active in voter registration and activation, claiming turnout increases of 25 percent in neighborhoods where it was active.
In 2007, the group took on its present name and form by merging with the Queens-based Latin American Integration Center.
Labor and Employment Activism
Make the Road New York has become a key cog in the operation of the labor unions in New York City and the state at large. In 2009, Make the Road New York along with several union locals and other community organizing groups received what the New York Post called “an expedited line [to] the [New York State] Labor Department’s enforcement arm” to report labor law violations. MRNY was also a player in New York City’s campaign for a paid sick leave mandate.
Recently, Make the Road New York has been involved in pushing a highly controversial New York City carwash regulation law that was recently enjoined by a federal judge for illegally promoting unionization. The law would require non-union carwash owners to carry a $150,000 bond while allowing unionized carwashes to carry only $30,000; a judge ruled that the system unfairly pressured employers and employees to unionize the shops.
MRNY has been credited with writing the language that became the law on behalf of the RWDSU. Reports filed with the Department of Labor from 2012 through 2016 show the RWDSU contributed between $50,750 and $74,000 to Make the Road New York annually.
Make the Road New York has longstanding campaigns advocating for higher levels of immigration and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The group has also backed bills granting illegal immigrants substantial public benefits and voting privileges in state and local elections. MRNY advocated for the Obama administration to scrap a federal reporting database of immigration violations and also released a report demanding New York City increase its funding of immigrant priorities.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, MRNY has escalated its immigration-related activism. The group co-sponsored a march of immigrant activists on Washington the weekend before Trump’s inauguration. In the 2017 New York State legislative session, MRNY backed a proposal to compel all New York police departments not to cooperate in the enforcement of federal immigration laws, making New York a “sanctuary state.” (As of July 2017, the bill had passed the Democratic-controlled state Assembly but had not been acted upon by the state Senate, controlled by a Republican-led coalition.) The group has also vehemently opposed deportation efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, participating in workshops with other immigrant advocacy groups on assisting illegal immigrants and tracking ICE enforcement actions.
Orchestration of Demonstrations against the Trump Administration
Make the Road New York has taken an aggressive posture in leading the “resistance”-branded public demonstrations against the Trump Administration since the election. In late January and early February 2017, MRNY was credited with organizing demonstrations shortly following the election and the allegedly “spontaneous” protests at airports opposing the controversial Executive Order 13769, which barred the entry into the United States of nationals of certain Muslim-majority countries before it was halted by court order.
Make the Road, the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) to which MRNY has close ties, and the associated 501(c)(4) lobbying organizations of both entities have reportedly been infused with up to $80 million in support from liberal donors for anti-Trump administration organizing and state legislative campaigning.
Make the Road and CPD most notably have partnered on a campaign targeting so-called “Corporate Backers of Hate”—companies that are thought to align with elements of the Trump Administration agenda or be hostile to union-backed legislative efforts. MRNY and CPD demonstrated at the New York offices of some of these companies during May Day protests against the Trump Administration.
Local Political Involvement
Make the Road New York is notable for its relative closeness to the left-wing Working Families Party-aligned leadership of New York City in the era of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). During de Blasio’s tenure as Public Advocate, he worked with MRNY to oppose a federal immigration detention center in Queens. After de Blasio’s election, de Blasio’s office reportedly invited MRNY to help stack the mayor’s first town hall rally in 2015. The Wall Street Journal listed MRNY as one of several city “antipoverty groups” which were treating de Blasio with much less intensity of criticism than they did his predecessor, neoliberal former mayor Michael Bloomberg (I).
De Blasio has appointed at least one MRNY alum to a departmental-level city post: Lorelei Salas, formerly litigation director at Make the Road New York and a withdrawn Obama Administration appointee to head the federal Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, was appointed Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs in 2016.
Make the Road’s brass, through Make the Road Action, MRNY’s associated political arm, are involved in the Working Families Party, which pushes New York state Democrats to adopt union-favored left-wing policies. Javier Valdes, who serves as co-director of both MRNY and Make the Road Action, served as a 2016 national delegate of the Working Families Party. The WFP was instrumental in de Blasio’s ascension to Gracie Mansion, helping secure the Democratic nomination.
Teachers Union Ties
Make the Road New York has financial and coalition ties with New York City’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (American Federation of Teachers Local 2). UFT provided MRNY with $10,000 in contributions in 2015 and 2016. MRNY has also been associated with teachers union-led coalitions such as the Campaign for Better Schools and New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, both of which were criticized for putting union power ahead of student success.
Make the Road New York has been a major player in efforts to change policing practices in New York City, both before and after the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement in the early 2010s. During the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, who largely continued the “broken windows” policies that his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani (R) employed to combat the 1990s crime wave, MRNY organized marches against “stop and frisk,” a tactic by which police would stop and detain individuals to search for illegally carried weapons. Make the Road would later become part of a coalition that received funding from the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundations called Communities United for Police Reform that led the effort to abolish the tactic.
Make the Road’s opposition to the New York Police Department (NYPD) goes beyond stop-and-frisk. When in 2015 New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a longtime ally of MRNY, proposed commissioning an additional 1,000 officers, MRNY opposed the move.
Funding and Grantmaking
Make the Road New York receives substantial portions of its revenue from foundations and government agencies. The group has disclosed occasionally a list of its financial supporters as part of its annual report; the most recent available on the group’s website was from 2014.
Given MRNY’s high level of political involvement, government funding of the organization has been controversial. In 2014, MRNY reported receiving $5,030,867 in government grants and contributions from a total of $13,428,724 in revenue; fully 37 percent of MRNY’s revenue came from government. In total, since 2002 the group has reported receiving over $20 million in government grants and other contributions from state, federal, and local sources.
Foundation, Union, and Nonprofit Funding
Make the Road New York reports support from numerous foundations. Tax returns show the largest contributions coming from the Robin Hood Foundation, the Hagedorn Foundation, the United Way of New York City, Surdna Foundation, Ford Foundation, Foundation to Promote Open Society, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, Pinkerton Foundation, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, New World Foundation, New York Community Trust, Ayco Charitable Foundation, and RTS Family Foundation.
Make the Road has received funds from labor unions other than the RWDSU. Most notably, the United Steelworkers provided $314,200 in funds to MRNY, principally for “contract training.” Other unions providing funds to MRNY include multiple arms of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—the Workers United Joint Board and Local 32BJ—and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
MRNY has received contributions from other nonprofit organizations. Among the largest sources of Make the Road’s identifiable outside funding is Single Stop USA, which has provided over $500,000 to MRNY in multiple years. The group has also received contributions from UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), Center for Popular Democracy, the Advancement Project, and New York Communities for Change, which is a successor to the New York office of the controversial defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) network.
In recent years, MRNY has made grants to other progressive nonprofit groups. In 2014, grant recipients included immigrant support organizations like Central American Refugee Center and Catholic Migration Services as well as liberal organizations involved in so-called “non-partisan electoral engineering” like Center for Popular Democracy, Make the Road Action Fund, and New York Communities for Change.
In 2017, a New York City Spanish-language news group, QueensLatino, discovered that Make the Road New York had posted an advisory under the authority of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) telling employees that the organization would not interfere with MRNY employees’ rights under labor law including the right to form a union. The media organization filed an open records request with the NLRB for case documents; it discovered that employees of MRNY had filed complaints and at least some had been found merited.
In April, MRNY, its complainant employees, and the government reached a settlement requiring the posting of the NLRB rights notice in MRNY headquarters. A QueensLatino source reportedly alleged “un ambiente de intimidación [an environment of intimidation]” that led to the Labor Board complaints and settlement; MRNY denied wrongdoing, claiming the complaints were withdrawn. QueensLatino found that two NLRB case reports had advanced, complicating MRNY’s denial.
Javier Valdes is co-director of Make the Road New York. In addition to his role with MRNY, he sits on the board of the Center for Popular Democracy and has served as a delegate to the Working Families Party national convention. The Obama administration declared Valdes a “Champion of Change” for his work to liberalize immigration and pursue left-wing policy goals.
Deborah Axt is the other MRNY co-director. She too sits on the board of Center for Popular Democracy. Prior to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Axt and another MRNY staffer wrote an op-ed vowing “large-scale protest and civil disobedience” in order to “stop [President-elect Trump] in his tracks.”