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Day Laborer Organizing in the New Economy: Perspectives from the Latino Union of Chicago

B. Loewe
Date Published: 
November 1, 2008

When the economic ladder sinks, it’s the bottom rung that goes under first. As the rest of the country has recently begun worrying about job instability and uncertain benefits resulting from the economic crisis, those who have walked across deserts, ridden for days beneath the floor boards of buses, and those who have scrambled in the shadow economy to provide for themselves and their families are surely thinking, “Middle America, welcome to the rest of the world.”

At the Latino Union of Chicago, we’ve been discussing the economic crisis for at least four years as we organize among street corner day laborers: workers who are primarily, but not exclusively, immigrant men from Latin America who find temporary employment in construction, landscaping, and moving industries by gathering at public hiring sites on a daily basis. Day laborers are the canary in the coalmine for employed sectors of society. Understanding how bottom-rung workers have raised standards and exerted power during this crisis holds important lessons for the rest of the labor force as the financial ground continues to give out underfoot.

New world

A flexible labor force comes with the territory of flexible capital. We’ve seen the end of the “organization man” era where workers could expect a permanent relationship with their employer. Companies from Papersource to Sodexho are increasingly using temporary staffing agencies to provide perma-temp laborers who work at the same location for years with no job security. Even professional fields are turning toward the use of temporary workers with universities, for example, replacing tenure-track faculty with low-paid graduate students and adjunct instructors. Meanwhile, due to the free trade agreements of the past few decades, those available to work are drawn from a global pool in the largest migration of humans ever. The decline of manufacturing, rise of the service sector, and shift towards contingent labor mark a new economic landscape.

New landscapes call for new strategies, but too often we cling to old frameworks that have outlasted their usefulness. During the early 20th century, the US labor force was drastically reorganized with the rise of massive factories, but the American Federation of Labor (AFL), structured on the basis of skilled craft associations, viewed the new “unskilled” workers as un organizable. Pioneering efforts by the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize on an industry-wide basis were key to labor hitting its peak of influence in the 1940s.

Today’s labor movement must be just as creative and embracing of experimentation. How do we organize workers with no contract, no permanent employer, and no common work site? How does solidarity develop amongst those who are fired at the end of every workday and directly compete with each other, knowing only one in three will be hired again? Rather than declare corner day laborers un-organizable or campaign to eliminate them altogether, we need to look to the decades-old history of groups like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and develop new strategies of intervention and organizing.

Acknowledging that conditions of precarious employment have existed for decades allows us to anticipate dynamics as they spread to other industries. Similarly, immigrant workers struggling for inclusion and stabilization must look at the trends in African-American communities as examples of systemic responses to strong organizing efforts, regardless of documentation status. In the post-civil rights backlash, unemployment in Black communities has risen at times to 50 percent. Rather than inclusion in the economy as a workforce, African Americans are still fighting against being criminalized fuel for a prison industry and viewed by capital as an otherwise disposable population.

For low-income immigrant workers, times seem eerily similar. More than 250,000 Latino construction workers, for example, have lost their jobs in the past year while deportation and detention of undocumented workers of all nationalities has nearly doubled to 300,000 in 2008. For people displaced from their countries of origin in search of employment in the United States, unemployment and criminalization are two factors not necessarily anticipated when deciding to migrate.

New models

The Latino Union collaborates with low-income immigrant workers to develop the tools necessary to collectively improve their social and economic conditions. Women working in temporary agencies and men who seek work at street corner hiring sites, in collaboration with a former day laborer turned organizer, founded the organization in 2000 as a means of confronting workplace and immigration issues not adequately addressed by "big labor." Street corner day laborers gather at public hiring sites to seek work starting at 6:00 am and often wait until the end of the day. In cities like Chicago workers are exposed to subzero and above 100 degree temperatures. Beyond exposure to the extremes of weather, 16 percent will be wrongfully arrested while one in three will experience a serious injury on the job. For those who do get hired, another 66 percent will go unpaid for work completed within a two-month period.

Francisco Pacheco, National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) organizer for the East Coast explains that “there’s a necessity to organize day laborers simply because the abuses they face are so extreme.”

Former Latino Union Director, Jessica Aranda adds, “The forces acting on the corner are so chaotic that it’s a challenge to get workers themselves to believe that any of it can change. If we can take one factor out of the onslaught, say by negotiating a designated space where there will be no arrests, it begins to make a difference. To make that happen, we have to be adaptable.”

Drawing on the examples of 40 other organizations that make up the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the Latino Union approaches its work through a mix of popular education, advocacy, and community organizing among corner day laborers and people residing near the public hiring sites where these laborers find work. How day laborer organizing is carried out depends greatly on local conditions. In Austin, TX where there is hardly a union presence, the Workers Defense Project believes that organizing day laborers must be situated in broader efforts to organize the entire construction industry. In Chicago the trades are relatively organized in the commercial market. Day laborers are less likely to identify as part of a construction industry they're excluded from and more likely to feel part of the well-established immigrant community.    

Aranda explains that, "because of workers' fluidity and lack of stable employment, we have to take a more holistic approach, not just organizing at the workplace. Instead, the focus spills over into the home, church, and other activities. We ask the question, 'what happens at home and outside of work that informs the decisions our members will make and what campaigns they will join?’ While worker organizing is our primary activity, it cannot be done without also organizing neighboring residents and shop owners to neutralize anti-immigrant/anti-worker sentiments and build support for day labor issues by humanizing our community. By doing this, we’re also strategically organizing among the constituents of local officials who control whether police focus on wage-stealing contractors or target workers at hiring sites.”

The Latino Union's first campaigns led to a strike that shut down seventy-five temporary agencies, culminating in a hunger strike which led to the first pro-day labor legislation in the country. In 2003, the organization took over a city-owned abandoned bus turn-around and transformed it into an alternative to the street corner hiring sites where they wouldn’t obstruct traffic and workers could have greater control over the hiring process. Through twice daily press conferences and weekly marches, the organization held the land for three months in defiance of a city eviction order while demanding a permanent Workers’ Center. Since then, the organization opened the first Workers’ Center for corner day laborers in the Midwest, defeated a Home Depot initiative to displace a suburban hiring site, and participated in organizing the largest marches in Chicago’s history as part of the immigrant rights upsurge of 2006.

Leadership development

Because day laborers have become the public face of immigration, they’re both the first targeted by right-wing hate groups and one of the first sacrificed by immigrant advocates in any reform compromise. Therefore, developing strong leadership from within the ranks of day laborers is urgent, both to be prepared to defend against vigilante attacks and to force our allies to included us on our their agendas. Since day laborers comprise a transitory community in an unstable search for work, this can’t mean finding a few well-spoken members and putting them out front. Rather, it requires creating open and democratic structures that are easy for people to participate in regardless of literacy or formal education. By sharing in the decision-making, we all share in the responsibility for those decisions’ successes or failures.

Democratic processes aren't just a philosophical commitment, they're also the only thing that works with our members. Oscar, a member of the Latino Union, asserts, "As a day laborer, I don't have anyone standing between me and my employer. I wouldn't have it any other way in our organizing either."

Cristina Tzitzun from the Workers Defense Project explains that one of the differences between Workers' Centers and traditional unions is this intense focus on group decision-making and the political education to make those decisions well-informed. "The AFL now has a terrific immigration policy, but we have to look to see how it manifests in the rank and file. On local levels there can still very often be a lack of solidarity with women, people of color, and immigrants."

To make that happen, the Latino Union draws on Ella Baker's definition of a leader as "someone who develops the leadership of others.” As members get experience participating in mini campaigns that directly relate to their situation—such as organizing neighborhood clean-up days or organizing against contractors who steal their wages—they gain the skills to plan strategy, speak in public, and analyze their situation more deeply so that they are prepared to participate in broader campaigns.

Center stage

In many ways, the challenge of the previous decade was to illuminate the shadows of the economy. Responding to the immigrant upsurge of the past two years, the AFL-CIO has moved to begin supporting our national network. Where corner day labor sites have at times served as the focus of union protests against “scabs” lowering working conditions for “American” workers, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has now declared that an attack on day laborers is an attack on labor. Over the past decade, day laborers have moved their struggle from the corner to the center.

As day labor takes the spotlight, organizations in our national network struggle with building the infrastructure to sustain its growth and confront new challenges. With the crashing economy, there are far less jobs available, and far more workers competing in a climate increasingly hostile toward immigrants. With the corners at the center of right-wing attacks and feeling the brunt of the recession, the challenge for the next period will be to win hearts and minds and forge strong alliances with non-immigrant communities facing issues of police harassment, displacement, and unemployment. In doing so, day laborer organizers must find creative ways to make interventions that resonate with the base and maintain standards, drawing on Latin American organizing models that thrive without funding and resources. Oscar, who migrated to Chicago from Ecuador, explains, “In our country, the poor run things by working together across towns and holding our governments accountable. But when we get here, instead of teaching this country how to cooperate we learn how to work against each other. We don’t need foundations and all that, we need to remember how we did things where we’re from.”

B. Loewe originally got involved in social movements at the age of 15 in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC and has served as the Planning Director of the Latino Union for the past six years. He can be reached at [email protected]