In Chicago, Desperation’s on the Corner

Stephen Franklin

CHICA­GO—Because they are so hun­gry for work, com­pe­ti­tion on the street cor­ner is down­right tough.

So when a van pulls up, the day labor­ers race up to it, and try to shove their heads into the win­dow to let the con­trac­tor know they will work hard and long and espe­cial­ly cheap.

You name it: Con­struc­tion. Car­pen­try. Demo­li­tion. Gar­den­ing. Paint­ing. No ques­tions are asked about dan­gers and no requests made for safe­ty equipment.

Hire me. Hire me,” they shout.

It’s an instant mob of loud­ly scream­ing men, push­ing and claw­ing each oth­er aside to get clos­er to the van.

Some even force their way into the van and sit down, before they even start bargaining.

They would nev­er have done that when there was work.

Before, the rule on the street was that you don’t climb into a van or leap onto the back of a pick-up truck with­out set­ting your wages for the day.

But that has changed in the months since work dried up here on one of the busiest street cor­ners in Chica­go for day labor­ers: Bel­mont and Mil­wau­kee avenues, in the city’s north­west side.

Before the work dis­ap­peared, the street cor­ner most­ly belonged to immi­grants with­out papers. But now, as the vet­er­an day labor­ers say with a frown, even the Amer­i­cans are here.”

And the hand­ful of so-called Amer­i­cans wait­ing glum­ly in small pock­ets by them­selves on the cor­ner say they used to work in fac­to­ries but they lost their jobs, or their blue-col­lar jobs paid so lit­tle, that they would rather take their chances on the street corner.

But because there are so many day labor­ers – about 150 wait­ing just after dawn on a good weath­er day – the wages are not what they used to be.

Before, you didn’t take less than $10 an hour for the most basic job. But now, men are tak­ing $8 an hour. And one day not long ago, some­one pulled up in a car late in the morn­ing, offered $5 an hour, and two des­per­ate guys took the job.

Can you imag­ine that?” asks a mus­cu­lar, mid­dle aged-work­er who hasn’t put in a full week’s worth of work in months. That’s not even min­i­mum wage.”

As the time drips by, there’s noth­ing to do but wait.

Then a sta­tion-wag­on pulls up and a large num­ber of the men rush toward it. But there’s no scream­ing this time.

The sta­tion wag­on is manned by some folks from a local church, who come by every so often to offer a hot meal.

The men lounge on the side­walks as they swal­low down the food. But the ten­sion has gone out of them. They don’t seem to wor­ry any­more about stay­ing ready to jump.

There’s no more work today. And who knows when there will be.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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