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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