Immigrant day laborers organize, make alliances

A potentially momentous development is occurring that has boosted the struggle for immigrant rights and could help revive the U.S. labor movement. Thousands of day laborers, among the most oppressed and exploited U.S. workers, are standing up and fighting back.

The workers and their supporters have set up some 140 “day-laborer centers” in 31 states, providing a variety of

services. These range from worker advocacy to English classes; workers’ rights education; access to health clinics, bank accounts, and loans; and more. Workers often vote on center decisions involving wages and operations. A decade ago, only four such centers existed.

The initial organizing efforts have taken place outside the traditional U.S. labor movement. But the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborers Organizing Network, which was founded in 2000 and represents some 40 of the day-laborer centers, has recently linked up with the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the AFL-CIO and is seeking more such alliances.

The stated mission of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network is to “strengthen and expand the work of local day laborer organizing groups, in order to become more effective and strategic in building leadership, advancing low-wage worker and immigrant rights, and develop successful models for organizing immigrant contingent/temporary workers.”

A common sight

Day laborers have become a common sight in many U.S. cities and towns in recent years. On any given day, about 117,600 of these workers—most from Mexico and Central America, a majority undocumented—gather at hiring centers, on certain busy streets, and in parking lots of large hardware stores seeking work. The work they get is most often in construction, landscaping, food service and various odd jobs. Such hiring sites now number more than 500 across the country, according to a study released in January by researchers from UCLA, the University of Illinois, and New School University in New York and the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty.

Besides putting up with no assurance of being hired, no benefits and onerous working conditions, day laborers often experience outright abuse. The study found that almost half of the 2,660 day laborers interviewed said they had been cheated out of pay in the previous two months or given no food or water. More than a quarter reported being abandoned at a work site. Some 20 percent reported injuries on the job.

On top of all this, day laborers have come under attack by anti-immigrant organizations such as the Minuteman Project, and some cities have passed ordinances seeking to banish them. These workers are also, of course, subject to being picked up at any time by la migra (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement police), held in detention camps and deported.

Fighting back

In response, day laborers are organizing for better pay and working conditions and have joined the struggle for


Day laborers at an anti-Minutemen protest, Alhambra, Calif.
Photo: Ian Thompson

immigrant rights. For example, the day laborers’ network has tried to enforce a $10 to $12 minimum hourly wage at many hiring centers.

In Agoura Hills, Calif., 120 day laborers who solicit work in this town outside Los Angeles have set their minimum at $15 an hour. “What they have here is the essence of a union,” says Pablo Alvarado, national coordinator of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who supervised the workers’ roadside vote. (Wall Street Journal online, July 14)

Aware of the negative image day laborers have in many areas, the same workers have acquired trash cans and set rules of conduct. In one spot, according to the July 14 Wall Street Journal article, they chain a can to a tree that provides them with shade. The last day laborer to leave the site each afternoon takes the garbage. Card-playing, drinking and drugs are prohibited. “If you don’t abide by the rules, you leave this spot,” says Jorge Santos, one of the laborers. The workers themselves enforce the rules and the $15 per hour minimum wage.

In Fairfax County’s Culmore neighborhood, the Aug. 10 Washington Post reports, “men waited for work yesterday outside a 7-Eleven, where organizers with Tenants and Workers United have helped day laborers set a $10 minimum wage and record employers’ license plate numbers.” The latter activity may deter the common practice by employers of stiffing (not paying) day laborers and other abuses.

Struggle for immigrant rights

Thanks to organizing efforts and widespread publicity, thousands of day laborers participated in the immigrant rights actions that took place earlier this year, including the massive “Day Without an Immigrant” national boycott on May Day. “Not a single worker showed up here on May 1,” Luis Cap, a Guatemalan immigrant in Agoura Hills, proudly reported.

Network national coordinator Pablo Alvarado and his staff have also been holding classes to ensure that the day laborers stay abreast of the struggle over immigrant rights. On a recent Saturday in Los Angeles, about 70 men gave up a day’s work for a U.S. civics lesson. In Spanish, Alvarado engaged the workers in a discussion about the branches of government, the two main political parties and pending immigration legislation. A similar four-hour lesson took place in several U.S. cities.

Alvarado, a native of El Salvador, worked in factories, construction and gardening after crossing the border from Mexico 16 years ago. He became a legal permanent resident of the U.S. after marrying a U.S. citizen in 1997.

He developed his skills as an organizer in the 1990s, first as a volunteer filing wage claims for day laborers and then as a staffer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights.

In cities and towns trying to ban day laborers from soliciting jobs in the streets, Alvarado helped the workers file lawsuits based on their First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

The first such lawsuit—filed in 1998 against a Los Angeles county ordinance—enabled the Agoura Hills day laborers to remain at their location. Before the workers won that case in 2000, they were often chased by cops, who used helicopters and patrol cars to hound them and then arrested, jailed and fined them.

Linking up with the broader labor movement

Most recently, Alvarado and his team of organizers have steered the day-laborers’ network toward alliances with the

broader labor movement. We need as many alliances as we can to fight back,” he told the Associated Press.

Participation in the mobilizations for immigrant rights earlier this year no doubt encouraged the day laborers to take this initiative. The massive turnouts of immigrant workers and their supporters also made labor leaders, many of whom have been presiding over a steady decline in union membership and clout, sit up and take notice.

In June, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents construction workers, announced it would collaborate with the day-laborer network to create hiring sites, lobby for immigration reform, and protect day laborers’ rights. “Employers abuse immigrant workers because of their status and bring down wages for everyone,” Yanira Merino, the union’s immigration coordinator, told the Wall Street Journal. “They can less easily manipulate organized workers.”

The largest U.S. union federation, the AFL-CIO, announced Aug. 9 that it had agreed to work with the day-laborer network to improve wages and working conditions. The agreement has particular significance in the Los Angeles area, whose estimated 25,000 such workers make it the nation’s day-laborer capital.

The agreement, formally adopted in Chicago, deepens the involvement of the 9-million-member AFL-CIO in the national immigration rights debate. The federation and its member unions have called for the eventual legalization of undocumented workers.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said the partnership would “strengthen our ability to promote and enforce the workplace rights for all workers.”

Pablo Alvarado said the alliance would help ensure that undocumented immigrant workers “come out of the shadows.”

The partnership calls for the network’s worker centers nationwide to affiliate with the federation and receive representation on local labor councils. The AFL-CIO also stands to gain significant membership in the future if these immigrants move into represented trades.

In recent years, the Service Employees International Union has organized a growing share of immigrant workers. Nationally the union represents 1.8 million janitors, public employees, and healthcare workers, many of them Latino.

Mike Garcia, president of Los Angeles-based SEIU Local 1877, applauded the latest agreement as a positive step for workers. “We’re all for it. It’s a good thing,” he said.

Initial signs promising

It remains to be seen how powerful this emerging movement can become and what its ultimate impact will be on the U.S. labor movement and the struggle for immigrant rights. But the initial signs are promising. In view of the militancy and collective initiative already displayed by these workers and the expanding role of the immigrant and contingent work force in the increasingly services-based U.S. economy, the potential impact is momentous indeed.

As Pablo Alvarado said in a statement, “The growing worker center movement shows that the fight for change at work has never been as vibrant, varied and urgent. Yet the end goal remains the same: to ensure that the rights and freedoms of workers aren’t reserved just for a few, but extended to the many—regardless of where you were born, the color of your skin, your gender or migratory status.”

Related Articles

Back to top button