Uneasy Reception for Portland Day Labor Center

Portland’s new day labor center opened in June to a hectic scene. Laborers and members of the media crowded around the site, a modest trailer in a city-owned parking lot.

The city-supported center brings mostly immigrant and sometimes undocumented workers off of crowded city street corners and into a hiring hall that sets a wage floor for landscaping, construction, and odd jobs.

After years of negotiations with the city and local businesses, the opening capped an uphill battle by the center’s sponsor, VOZ, the Workers’ Rights Education Project, to gain support—especially from local labor.

“The reaction from the building trades has been mixed,” said Jason Sheckler, an organizer with the Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. “The rank and file in the unions are split. Some are not happy with the center.” Building trades unions have feared that the use of day labor in construction undercuts union gains.

According to the 2006 National Day Labor Study, on an average day 117,600 workers in the U.S. look for temporary jobs in construction, landscaping, and other industries. More than 60 day labor centers have sprung up across the country to organize the largely immigrant day labor workforce.

MIXED REACTIONS

While some union members in Portland resisted the center, others backed it vocally. Day labor organizers say that unions—and city governments—should support day labor centers because they help raise wages closer to the union scale.

Indeed, the new center has already increased wages for temporary jobs. When day laborers met to discuss what they wanted out of a hiring center, they decided to set a minimum wage of $10 an hour. For skilled jobs, the center requires $15. Previous wages varied widely, starting as low as $6.

The Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council initially released a statement asking the city not to fund the center, on grounds that city funds would be spent to support undocumented immigrants.

The Northwest Oregon Labor Council, which represents many unions in the area, followed suit.

But Sheckler said that his union’s previous relationship with VOZ helped draw connections between union members and the center.

Last year, for example, the Carpenters had showed VOZ how to put a lien against a condominium developer that was not paying day laborers. This practice, common in building trades unions, makes it impossible for the company to sell a property until it deals with wage claims.

“We’re all workers in the same industry,” Sheckler said. “If you let contractors get away with this, they’ll be able to hurt all construction workers.”

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Unions can benefit from the relationship, too. VOZ will notify the Carpenters if contractors that the union has targeted for campaigns are picking up laborers at the center.

OFF THE STREETS

After years of working with day laborers on street corners, VOZ realized the only way to get contractors to agree to consistent wages and basic labor laws was to open a hiring hall where day laborers could set the standards. They asked the National Day Labor Organizing Network, a coalition of centers and support organizations, for help.

“We spent a lot of time talking with city officials and educating them on the abuses day laborers face on the corner,” explained VOZ Executive Director Romeo Sosa. City officials were reluctant to support the center because they didn’t want to be seen as supporting immigrants, especially undocumented ones.

Sosa pointed out that officials couldn’t control immigration at the local level—but they could help to put a decent floor under wages and working conditions in Portland.

The city agreed to help fund the first two years of the center, even though officials weren’t clear on the concept. They first tried to lump the center in with initiatives for the homeless, until advocates convinced city officials that the two groups’ needs were different.

To hire workers from the center, employers must agree to the wage and to basic labor rights, such as break time, Sosa said.

To get hired, workers fill out paperwork that helps match them with employers who need certain skills. A raffle is used to give everyone an equal opportunity at the basic-skill jobs.

Within weeks of opening, the center had 70 to 90 workers a day signing up for jobs, with about 15 to 30 finding work. VOZ hopes the number of contractors and employers who use the center will increase as news of the center spreads and more workers come each morning.

“Some people still congregate on the corners. It’s not been easy to break 10 years of culture to move from the corner to the center,” said Sosa.

As the controversy swelled within Portland’s labor community, conversations were initiated among VOZ, building trades unions, and the local Jobs with Justice (JwJ) chapter that helped change minds—and positions.

The Building and Construction Trades Council rescinded its statement.

“The trades are starting to understand that it’s not the threat that they thought it was,” explained JwJ staffer Eliana Machuca. But union members remain divided, with many still saying that day laborers are a threat who should be shunned, not supported.

Comments

Portland person... (not verified) | 01/07/09

The tension between unions and the day labor center is certainly understandable, but raising wages for day laborers ultimately seems to be in the best interest of unions. Actually, I don't think it's in anyone's interest to have completely unregulated day labor except for those businesses looking to exploit it. This seems to be a pretty good compromise for all involved.

nickfromavvo