From Street Corners to Congress- Day Laborers Are Organizing

In a few months, day labor groups around the country will see their grassroots organizing work take the national stage. Congressman Luis Gutierrez’ (D-Chicago) planned introduction of the federal Day Labor Fairness and Protection (DLFP) Act will be, in the words of Portland organizer Pedro Sosa, “the first time a bill has been developed on the streets, not by lawyers or organizations.”

Modeled after Illinois’ day labor legislation, this bill addresses the basic rights violations day laborers face and pushes for the development of workers’ centers designed to help these workers find permanent employment.

William Collette, building trades and construction organizer with the AFL-CIO, believes it to be an important piece of legislation, one that “codifies what the people in labor believe in.”

TWO KINDS OF DAY LABOR/TWO KINDS OF ABUSE

Sosa’s group, “VOZ,” is made up of “jornaleros,” day laborers who wait on street corners for work and get paid in cash. They regularly face individual employers who refuse to pay them and harassment for “loitering.” (See “Workers On the Corner, Organizing for Power” in Labor Notes #225).

Other day laborers, such as Ricardo Montalvo of Holyoke, Massachusetts seek temporary work through agencies which act as middlemen between the workers and companies looking to hire. Such workers often encounter significant abuse from these agencies.

Montalvo recently found himself blacklisted by one such agency, Labor Ready, for participating in actions that were a part of the Anti-Displacement Project (A-DP)’s Slaver Ready campaign against the international day labor giant.

He expressed frustration that Labor Ready workers do not get paid fairly or for overtime: “That’s stealing from me! If I rob them, I go to prison, but they have a liscence to steal. I’ve worked all my life for peanuts. I want equal pay for equal work! If it’s a $6 job, I want $6. If it’s an $18 job, I want $18.”

He added, “I’m not only doing it for me but for other people who are coming through there, so they can’t take people as slaves. No one works for free. Slavery is out of style.”

The DLFP act addresses violations against both kinds of day laborers. It bans day labor agencies from charging fees for transportation to the worksite, health and safety equipment, and cashing paychecks. It requires “providing written notice to and obtaining the written consent of day laborers asked to perform work that would expose them to hazardous materials or conditions and ensuring that motor vehicles used to transport day laborers are registered and meet basic safety requirements.

It also prohibits day labor agencies from “[dispatching] a day laborer to any worksite where a labor dispute exists. (See “Strikers Go After Providers of Scabs” in Labor Notes #273.)

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STREET CORNER ORGANIZING

Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) explained that when first introduced a few years ago, the bill “had some limitations... It protected day laborers working for temporary agencies, but joranleros issues are different.” NDLON held 35 roundtable discussions around the country where laborers identified the patterns of abuse they knew from personal experience. Through these discussions, workers reviewed the legislation and made revisions that addressed their concerns.

NDLON relies on the “popular education” organizing model in which workers themselves, not staff organizers, identify problems, and suggest solutions. Sosa explained, “We don’t need a lawyer or professor to help us face issues on the corner. We know it. We can do it. In popular education ...everyone participates.” Annie Toro, senior legislative aide to Congressman Gutierrez, attended some of the roundtable sessions and observed, “The people who have worked on [the legislation] really put in what they want.”

Attorneys from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) helped put the bill into legal language. Currently, jornaleros groups around the country are reviewing the bill to verify that it truly represents their demands. The NDLON will then return the bill to Gutierrez’ office for a final check before it goes to the Congress floor.

THE WORKERS’ CENTER MODEL

The DLFP act includes a $10 million “demonstration grant” for community groups, day labor groups, and unions to set up “workers’ centers” in five states.

Here, workers can get help eliminating barriers to permanent employment, barriers the labor agencies do not address. One self-funded workers’ center, the Casa de Maryland, participates in direct actions and also provides a variety of services, including legal aid, job referrals, job training, and ESL classes.

The A-DP’s Steve Dondely envisions “a new institution that truly addresses the needs of low-income workers... owned and operated by the workers.” He said that day laborers in the Slaver Ready campaign are extremely excited about developing a worker’s center.

For Montalvo, organizing towards that dream came with a price: “I got kicked out. I can’t work for Labor Ready ever again. Right now, I’m on welfare.” But when asked about the workers’ center, he replied, “That’s why I’m in it. I got involved with Steve and I went all the way. I lost my job, but that’s alright. I know things will get better.”

THE BILL’S PROSPECTS

According to Sosa, the jornaleros will undertake a huge lobbying effort to educate both legislators and the community about the DLFP Act. Phillips explained that “getting legislation through Congress is often a three to five year process.”

“We are aware that maybe it’s a dream,” said Sosa. “If we ask for $100, they’ll give us $10. We ask for a lot. We ask for what we want.”