On Dec. 5, two day laborers, in conjunction with the workers’ rights group Chicago Committee for the Right to Work, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago. They charged city police with systematically harassing and falsely arresting workers who gather on the city’s street corners in search of employment.
“Day laborers have been suffering from police harassment for decades in this city and it’s come to a point where we want to do something to end it,” says B. Loewe, planning director of Latino Union of Chicago, a workers’ rights organization that helped prepare the lawsuit.
In the first lawsuit filed by day laborers against the city, the two workers allege wrongful detention, violation of First Amendment rights, conspiracy to violate civil rights and malicious prosecution.
The lawsuit cites examples of police intimidation, such as an alleged instance where a police officer forced an employer and three day laborers out of a car at gunpoint, and an alleged sting operation in which undercover officers, posing as contractors, lured workers to a Home Depot to discuss employment and then arrested them for criminal trespass.
At least 150 charges and arrests have been dismissed in court in favor of the day laborers, according to the Latino Union, highlighting the tenuous relationship between the police and workers’ right to assemble on public space.
“We’ve seen workers being arrested repeatedly for nothing more than just trying to feed their families by looking for work on public property,” says Jessica Acee, an organizer with the Latino Union.
As In These Times went to press, a city spokesperson was unable to comment on the lawsuit, stating that the city has yet to be served with the complaint.
The illegal arrests and harassment have made it more difficult for day laborers, many of whom work in a fluctuating urban economy that ignores workplace injuries, labor abuses and low wages.
Nationally, at least 117,000 people are employed or looking for jobs as day laborers, according to a 2006 report by UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. In Chicago, about 800 day laborers – predominantly immigrant, Latino workers, or jornaleros, who typically work in construction, moving and landscaping – are looking for work on any given day.
“It’s unjust for the police to arrest us because we’re not criminals. We’re simply people who are looking for work,” says Quintin Moran, a day laborer who shows up six days a week looking for work on the busy Chicago street corner of Belmont and Milwaukee Avenues. “They treated us like we were robbers, like we were delinquents, threatening us with their police sticks.”
Day laborers in the Midwest suffer the most police abuse in the country, according to the UCLA study. Of the day laborers surveyed in the Midwest, 34 percent reported that police forced them to leave the area where they sought work, 24 percent were photographed or videotaped, and 27 percent had their immigration status checked. But day laborer organizers see the harassment as more than a violation of a First Amendment right to gather on public property. (Chicago city ordinances prohibit citizenship inquiries.)
While Chicago doesn’t have laws or ordinances prohibiting day laborers from seeking employment in public places, officials in other cities have tried to pass measures to curb them from congregating.
In April 2006, federal judges prohibited police in Redondo Beach, Calif., from arresting laborers seeking work on the street. And in November 2006 in Freehold, N.J., officials agreed – after a three-year court battle – to allow laborers to seek work in public places without fines. Also that month, a federal judge ruled that city officials in Mamaroneck, N.Y., discriminated against Latino day laborers by stepping up police presence, closing a hiring site and fining contractors who approached day laborers.
Despite these federal rulings, however, local officials have continued to push anti-day laborer measures in cities like Escondido, Calif., where members of the city council are attempting to pass an ordinance to keep workers from soliciting jobs on street corners, and in Herndon, Va., where the town closed a workers’ center in September after ignoring a circuit court judge’s ruling that it should remain open.
Still, with the help of various workers organizations, the jornaleros believe they can find a solution by meeting with police and city officials.
“I hope there will be a day when we can have negotiations with the city so that we will be able to find work in peace and keep this corner without any bad will toward us,” says David, a day laborer who preferred to be identified by his first name only. “We have nothing against the police or businesses. We just want them to treat us like human beings.”