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Willets Point workers protest CUNY outreach bus

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Anger and respect collided last week at Willets Point, where LaGuardia Community College was greeted with bullhorns and protest chants as it attempted to begin outreach to the area’s 1,700−member workforce.

Dozens of Willets Point workers, touting signs and a faux black casket, descended on LaGuardia’s CUNY on Wheels mobile classroom Oct. 1 to decry the city’s partnership with the educational institution, which began work to help retrain and relocate workers who could be displaced by a proposed plan to redevelop the area.

“We are trained as auto technicians, we don’t want to be trained to mop the floors in your new development,” Arturo Olaya shouted into a bullhorn.

Olaya, head of the Willets Point Defense Committee worker coalition, was quickly drowned out by a parade of trucks from area business owners who surrounded the CUNY mobile classroom and blasted their horns in support of the workers, briefly blocking traffic.

Several workers laid a black casket at the foot of the CUNY bus with the words “Justice for Willets Point” scrawled on the front as the crowd began chanting “OlÉ OlÉ OlÉ OlÉ, Willets Point is not for sale” steps from the New York Mets’ new home, Citi Field, on 126th Street.

Oct. 1 marked the first day LaGuardia had visited the area with the mobile classroom, which it hopes will serve as a functioning educational and information facility.

The school signed a contract with the city earlier this year to form the Workforce Assistance Plan, which would provide workers at Willets Point with free training, education and job placement services in the event that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to transform the area into a sprawling $3 billion residential and commercial neighborhood gets approval from the City Council next month.

LaGuardia received a bristly welcome, however, because many workers in the area see the school’s efforts as a method of shooing them out of their businesses, many of which have operated in the area for several decades.

But what began as a fiery protest turned into a heated personal discussion as leaders of the Willets Point Defense Committee met with leaders of the Workforce Development program inside the mobile classroom.

“In reality I don’t need to go to school, I’ve already gone to school for many years,” Julia Sandoval, who owns an auto repair shop in Willets Point, said during the discussion. “I need to work. I need to provide for my family.”

“If you don’t want the training, if you don’t need the training, that’s fine, you don’t need to take it,” said Sandra Watson, LaGuardia’s dean of Workforce Development. “We’re not forcing people to do anything.”

She added: “We have no intention of saying to people, ‘OK, you’re going to be a chef now.’ We’re taking this on a case−by−case basis. That is a disservice, that is an insult to an educational institution that is working hard to help people move forward.”

“This is an insult to the people here,” Olaya jumped in. “You should know more about this place before you come here.”

Watson and Jane Schulman, Adult and Continuing Education vice president, said the workers’ fight was with the city, not LaGuardia. Although Olaya and Sandoval said they respected the institution, they pushed back, contending the two could not be mutually exclusive.

Following the meeting, Olaya reiterated his displeasure.

“This is a lie,” he said. “Where is the justice for Willets Point? We don’t need retraining.”

Watson, meanwhile, said the school’s mission remains unchanged, but she empathized with the workers.

“They should continue to fight, they need to continue the good fight,” she said. “But there are some people that don’t want that fight and we’re here for them.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, ext. 138.

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