Work Space

Day laborers fight for a corner of their own

Brian O’Grady

—Any other Labor Day, this sleepy residential neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side would be bustling with late-summer picnics and volleyball games. But on this rainswept holiday, the only Albany Park residents spending time at Gompers Park are a hardened group of jornaleros, mostly immigrant day laborers, and a handful of supportive neighbors.

The workers are gathered, as they are every morning, waiting for contractors to pick them up for temporary work doing light construction and manual labor. And the neighbors are here to kick off Community Day Laborer Watch, putting volunteers at the site, to document civil rights abuses by the police. The watch, organized by the Latino Union of Chicago, is another barb in an increasingly hostile standoff between Albany Park day laborers and the city.

Until a week earlier, the laborers had been using an abandoned bus turnaround at another location to wait for work. The site, called the Juan Diego Workers’ Center (JDWC), offered space for the workers to gather around organized meals and pickup soccer games; workers had access to grills and a portable outhouse. The circular driveway gave contractors a place to pull their cars off the roadway and negotiate with workers. And laborers had erected a crude plywood shack serving as a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe and a shelter from the elements.

But on August 25, while Latino Union organizers and day laborer leaders were negotiating for a permanent site with Chicago Human Services Commissioner Ray Vasquez, city workers, accompanied by police, closed the Center, dismantling the shrine, and posting new signs announcing the workers’ center had moved to a Kmart lot more than two miles away.

José Landaverde, executive director of the Latino Union, is the driving force behind the organizing effort. A United Methodist minister, he wears black work pants and a starched collar to the site and opens press conferences with biblical passages and bilingual renderings of old labor songs. His training is not in labor organizing, but Salvadoran rebels adopted José and his brother when the military razed his village and left them orphaned. For Landaverde, organizing day laborers carries the undertones of an insurgent military campaign, with life-and-death consequences.

During the ’90s he organized day laborers in Houston, honing an aggressive style of labor organizing and pioneering the drive for democratic workers’ centers there. The Houston workers’ centers—models for what organizers hope to achieve in Chicago—offer English and labor rights classes, job training, direct services for workers and a space for laborers to negotiate with contractors before piling into their cars. Centers in Los Angeles, run by the city, offer similar services.

The raid on the JDWC happened as negotiators were apparently making progress. Organizers decried the “unilateral” efforts of the city to throw the workers out of the neighborhood. But city officials claimed that there was simply no space for a permanent workers’ center at the original site located in the city’s 35th Ward.

But, Landaverde and Jessica Aranda, a Latino Union organizer, see the bus turnaround as a space that can serve as a pilot for the city. Opening a permanent workers’ center in the 35th Ward is crucial to the campaign.

According to estimates by the Latino Union and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs—a primary contributor to the drive—90 percent of day laborers at the site live in the 35th Ward.

The Latino Union has targeted a dozen locations in the area, which they hope to turn into permanent hiring halls with the cooperation of the city. One of these is the Home Depot lot in the nearby town of Cicero, a natural draw for laborers.

Nationally, forty percent of corner day laborers look for work at or near home improvement stores, according to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Home Depot’s policy, which reflects a mainstream distrust of laborers, is to keep workers off its premises. Some stores have hired private security to keep men off the lots. But at least one Home Depot, in L.A., has established a permanent hiring hall on its premises. Landaverde is in negotiations with Home Depot to open such a center in Cicero.

In Albany Park, pressure on the city and Alderwoman Margaret Laurino, who has been particularly hostile towards Latinos in her ward, seems to be paying off. Seventeenth District police have been hesitant to arrest workers for loitering or ticket contractors for blocking traffic since the Day Laborer Watch began, and Laurino has agreed to meet with organizers for the first time since June.

Corner day labor is a growing national issue, tracking the rise of the immigrant population and the souring economy. While Houston and Los Angeles have already found some viable solutions, other cities will have to recognize that temporary day labor provided by immigrant workers is an integral part of local economies.

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