Pablo Alvarado is executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) — a group dedicated to building a movement among low-wage workers, most of them immigrants and many of them undocumented. The 49-year old Alvarado, who came to the United States in 1990 from El Salvador, views NDLON as both a workers’ rights and an immigrants’ rights organization. It has been an important player in campaigns to win local minimum wage laws and to stop the exploitation of immigrant workers, many of whom survive in the shadow economy as day laborers, housekeepers, gardeners, restaurant workers and janitors.
We recently spoke with Alvarado in his small office at the Pasadena Community Job Center in Pasadena, California, one of some 70 worker centers in 21 states connected with NDLON. He is a whirlwind of activity, typically working 12 hours a day, running a national organization while engaged in the daily activities of the Pasadena center — counseling workers, organizing demonstrations, negotiating with city officials, raising money and supervising staff.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us about your life in El Salvador before you came to the United States.
I came to the U.S. in 1990 when I was 22. My mother was a housekeeper with nine children. Three died while they were small. My father was a peasant who worked the land. We lived in a village called El Nispero, surrounded by coffee plantations. There was no running water. We had to go to the city to carry the water. My father had oxen and we would bring water in barrels. My mother never went to school. She learned to read and write from the newspaper that wrapped the rice or beans. My father went up to third grade. He was right wing and a very smart man. He could talk you about communism and the Cold War, or almost anything.
You went to university and received a B.A. in social science in El Salvador. How did that happen?
My family was one of the first in the village to send their kids to high school. My brother was nicknamed “Bachiller,” what they call you when you graduate from high school. He went on to university and got a degree to be an elementary school teacher. He needed hundreds of hours of community service so he came back to the same village and started a literacy class for peasants. His method was based on the ideas of Paulo Freire (the Brazilian educator who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
I went along with him to the classes. Even though I was only 10 years old, I began to understand the Freirian methodology he was using. You don’t just teach the syllabic meaning of the word. You also teach the social meaning. It was fantastic. I remember the thick voices of the older men who were picking coffee during the day, repeating the vowels. It was music to my ears at that age.
Were you politically active in El Salvador?
Some of the residents of my village included powerful people in the military, including members of the death squads. If they didn’t like you, if you spoke up for your rights or complained about the government, they could torture or even “disappear” you.
There was a soccer field in the village, the only flat property in the village where young people could play. But it was bought by a powerful person in the village, who was close to the military and their death squads. He closed the soccer field and began preparing the land to grow corn, disregarding the people who had played there for decades. One day he brought in his oxen and farm equipment and began preparing the land, disregarding a prior agreement to lease it to the soccer team.
Now, my father was a right winger aligned with the military. But he was also the president of the local soccer team. That afternoon, when all the peasants were coming from work, he led a protest and demanded that the owners negotiate with them to keep the soccer field open. He never would have called it an occupation, but that’s what it was. We were so close to having a massacre right there. My father was the balance, the mediator. He stopped a massacre. If he hadn’t been present, there would have been a lot of dead people.
I was there, watching it all happen. That was when I began to understand some of the basic concepts of justice and the power of organizing.
Why and how did you come to the United States?
It was my last day of college. When I got home I saw the whole family was meeting. My younger brother (had) received death threats because he’d join(ed) the (anti-government) armed struggle in the village where we grew up. He was 16 at that time. My family ask me to accompany him to the United States the next day. It cost us $3,000, each, for coyotes (smugglers who help people cross the U.S.-Mexico border). We were very vulnerable. Even the Mexican police robbed us of our money.
At the time, the (U.S) border control wasn’t as tight as it is now. The coyotes put five people in the trunk of a Toyota Corolla. My brother was ahead of me and was about to go in another car. I grabbed him and we waited for the next car. That was lucky, because the border patrol stopped the first car and caught the people trying to get into the United States. My brother and I took the next car.
What did you do when you arrived in the United States?
I worked as a day laborer from 1990 until 1995. First I worked at a party rental store from Fridays through Mondays when the business was good. I helped set up and take down parties. But on Tuesdays to Thursdays I went to the day labor corner. I did that for eight months. Then I got a job in a factory in Chatsworth (a Los Angeles suburb) where they made shampoos. I hated that job so much. There were two Salvadorans and about 25 Mexicans. My first job there was to wash the barrels of Vaseline. That was the worst job. Nobody wanted to do that job. But with my work ethic, I washed them well, so that was my job for a long time.
My sister worked for this rich man who made dolly carts used to move film equipment. She got me a job there in North Hollywood. I worked there for nine months. I would grind the metal to make the parts for the carts. The workers at the factory included Armenians, Central Americans and Mexicans. During the 40-minute break we’d play soccer. It was unhealthy, socially, the Mexicans versus the Central Americans. They would just go at each other. So I initiated the process to form a soccer team to play on weekends. Everyone was included in the team. Things changed because we would be playing on the same team. The Central Americans and Mexicans started to get along because they played with each other instead of against each other.
Also, at the factory, there were four people I worked with who didn’t know how to read or write. I began to teach a class in that factory. In the nine months I was there, they learned to read and write.
Later on, I established a class in Pasadena and one of my students was an older man. One day he came to class in pain because he fell from a tree at his work. He was pruning a large tree. Even though he didn’t drink, that day he was drunk. He drank to survive the pain. When I took him to the hospital with a broken shoulder, the nurses didn’t want to care for him because he was drunk. As I was talking to him and other workers, I started to think about my own experience as a worker, both in El Salvador and in the United States. I had never heard the words “health and safety” with regard to work, but I realized that a lot of immigrant workers work in dangerous jobs and needed some protection, and it wasn’t going to happen unless they were organized and demanded better working conditions.
How did NDLON get started?
We officially started NDLON in 2001 during the first convention in Northridge (an area of Los Angeles). NDLON was the first national organization to take up the cause of day laborers — not only to organize workers but also to protect them and help them integrate into their communities. Though not all are directly affiliated with our network, NDLON has helped to open more than 70 day labor offices in 21 states. Thousands of workers go to these job centers across the country every day. Nationwide these centers have about 300 employees. Most of them work as organizers. About 30 percent of organizers were former day laborers. We also have a few lawyers on the staffs of these local worker centers. Our national office is in Los Angeles (and) has a staff of 25, including organizers and lawyers as well as finance and development staff.
Each of the centers is autonomous and operates independently, but we have some common goals and strategies and we shared the same principles. In these centers we do all kinds of projects and provide services. We do wage claims, ESL (English as a Second Language), job skills training, deportation defense.
The job centers are hiring halls. It’s like the streets but more orderly. The centers bring transparency to the contractual agreement between workers and employer. There is clarity about wages and working conditions. If employers are not satisfied with the work, they know where to go. Sometimes when workers mess things up at the workplace, the folks at the centers send a crew to fix the mistake. The centers also advocate for and organize workers who face wage theft and other problems. They also help immigrant workers become naturalized and fight deportation. We organize to change public policy, like the minimum wage and immigrant rights. The centers have become more than hiring halls. They are worker and immigrant rights institutions. They are community centers.
What is the relationship between NDLON and the U.S. labor movement?
In the past, NDLON had a very contentious relationship with labor unions. Back in 1998 or 1999, the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) had their convention in Los Angeles. A group of 50 day laborers went to check it out and they were kicked out. Some of the union delegates were chanting “scabs, scabs.” For many years the major unions weren’t interested in organizing immigrant workers. That’s begun to change, at least in certain unions. And the labor movement has changed its tune on immigrant rights. We’ve shifted the way that the labor movement thinks about migrant and low-wage workers.
How did your relationship to unions change?
At first they didn’t understand what we do. They thought we were scabs — like in 2001 when the janitors in L.A. went on strike with SEIU. The janitorial companies went to the day labor centers to hire workers. But we had educated our workers about the strike so instead of workers going to work for the employer, they joined the strikers. At the big march down Wilshire Boulevard, there were 250 day laborers walking with the janitors.
Our workers were charging $15 per hour for their services and this was in place before the Fight for 15 began. So one day we asked some progressive labor leaders to come and check out what we do. We took 20 labor leaders to one of our corners in Agoura Hills. That day the workers were insisting on getting a minimum wage of $120 a day, which was $20 more than they’d been paid before. Most of the workers came from the same indigenous town in Guatemala. Before they demanded a higher wage, they discussed what impact it might have. Will we lose employers? It went back and forth. But after that discussion, they decided to insist on the higher wage. And they did.
The Fight for 15 is not a fight that starts with the employer. It is a fight that starts with the workers themselves, when they decide that they are worth the money and more. The time for voting came up after a 90-minute discussion and the workers in Agoura Hills voted 85 – 15 for the pay increase. This was in early 2006. The main leader at the corner drew a line on the dirt floor and then he asked those that voted no to move to the other side of the line. He stood in front of them and said, “I want the 85 who voted in favor of increasing the minimum wage to look at them. They are not our enemies. But if we are not vigilant, they will drag down our wages and working conditions. And we want to know who they are and we want them to look at our faces and know that they have the same needs we have.” The labor leaders were watching in surprise. They said, “this is the way my grandparents started their union.”
So that was the moment when some labor union leaders understood that there were new kids on the block and that we should be allies, not adversaries. They understood that it was time to open up. A few months later, we signed a partnership agreement with the AFL-CIO.
What does NDLON do for immigrants’ rights?
We played a big role in the fight for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). We had been pushing for administrative relief for a long time, even when the mainstream immigrant rights groups said it was too narrow, that we have to fight for comprehensive immigration reform. Citizenship or nothing, they said. And they didn’t even ask undocumented folks what they wanted.
Before DACA, we conducted about 20 ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) shutdowns with civil disobedience across the country. People put their bodies under the deportation buses. Day laborers chained themselves to the White House gates because President Barack Obama’s administration kept deporting people and breaking up families in record numbers. When it was clear that comprehensive immigration reform wasn’t moving forward, we worked with the “Dreamers” to push for DACA. Our litigation director, Jessica Karp Bansal, helped make the case that President Obama had the authority to carry out DACA.
The mainstream immigrant rights groups were primarily focused on federal laws, but the struggle goes on in localities — at city halls, at neighborhood meetings, at schools and in courts. Every time we open a job center we are legalizing people from the bottom up. I call the day laborer centers, “street level immigration reform.” Day laborer centers are sanctuary institutions. Every time we push a locality to adopt sanctuary measures, we are achieving immigration reform.
We have to build immigrants’ and workers’ power at the local level and then we’ll have a stronger voice when we go to Washington. So far, Congress has been hijacked by the extremists, so they’re not going to pass anything soon. But we will continue to push localities to be more friendly to immigrants while we push for administrative relief at the federal level. There are multiple layers of uncertainty for immigrants. And we have to build multiple layers of protection everywhere in the country.
I think both the Republicans and a segment of Democrats want to have immigration as a wedge issue rather than accomplishing a solution. It works for both of them: The Republicans appease their increasingly nativist voters and the Democrats keep making progress to turn Latinos into a permanent Democratic voting bloc. The more to the right the GOP becomes, the less the Democrats have to do to be different and satisfy Latinos. If we want to win rights for people, we must delink our struggles from partisan politics.
What have been some of the big issues at the local level?
We’ve mostly struggled against anti-immigrant and anti-day labor laws at the local level. We’ve worked with other groups to push back against local police cooperating with immigration officials. Now about 350 localities have laws drawing a line between immigration agents and local police.
We’ve also fought against local laws that prohibit day laborers from gathering in public places to wait for jobs. We won a big victory in 2012 when the anti-day laborer ordinance in Redondo Beach (a Los Angeles suburb) was ruled unconstitutional. (The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law, aimed at cracking down on day laborers, is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.)
Have worker centers faced hostility from conservatives and anti-immigration groups?
Yes, of course. Every day, we work with undocumented workers. In many cities, we get funding from the local government. So right-wing groups, like Judicial Watch, are constantly targeting us. They try to get local governments to withdraw our funding. They try to get officials to arrest and deport the workers we serve.
But we push back. The number of worker centers is growing. We now have centers in Tucson and Phoenix. We opened a center in Alabama, where there’s a growing number of immigrant workers. We are moving into Utah, Las Vegas, North Carolina, etc. People have a right to have a space of their own. Everybody knows that these workers’ centers are quintessential sanctuary institutions and, as such, they are the target of racist groups. They have orchestrated legal attacks and coordinated demonstrations across the country. They wanted to provoke workers into violence. But we have responded peacefully. For every person they mobilized to demonstrate against our center, we had 15 defending our community. So far, we have won this fight.
You play several instruments — the bass, conga, guitar — and play in a band, and use music in your political work. How did that happen?
I was 14 when I began teaching myself to play guitar, and then I played in the local choir where faith-based liberation theology was preached. We would sing “La Misa Campesina” songs. One of the things that I’ve learned is that you can turn every significant act of oppression into a practice of liberation.
For example, in 1996 we were organizing day laborers in the City of Industry (a working-class suburb of Los Angeles). This was right after Prop 187 (an anti-immigrant proposition that denied public services to those without documentation) so the situation was very hostile and the sheriff called the immigration agents who came into a parking lot where mobile HIV testing was taking place. After everyone ran away, one of the workers, Omar Sierra, wrote a ballad about what happened that day. We had an emergency meeting that afternoon and about 50 men came and he brought his guitar and he began to sing his song for everyone, “The Ballad of Industry,” and that’s how the day labor band was formed.
After this experience, we asked Omar to bring his guitar and sing rather than giving speeches about the lives of workers. We began to go to other corners to look for other day labor musicians. We didn’t go to school to learn music. Most of us taught ourselves. Our band, Los Jornaleros del Norte, (Day Laborers of the North), traveled up and down California playing at marches and rallies. We’ll play anywhere where there’s a struggle for workers’ and immigrants’ rights — a parking lot, outside of L.A. County jail, a park or a concert hall. The band’s membership is fluid. But we share the same political views. We have three albums. You can find some of our music on our website.