A Home for Work

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A community organizer named Juan Valentín walks up and down Roosevelt Avenue in Queens on a June morning, handing out leaflets that he carries in his leather satchel and speaking to groups of Latino men. “We live here. We pay rent here. We buy food here. We are part of the community. They’re saying we are vagabonds on the street,” he says. “Let’s not just wait for Immigration to come and take everybody away.”

The half-dozen men around him, many wearing the baseball caps and backpacks that mark them as day laborers, seem to be half listening. A couple of them turn and look across 69th Street, where a white SUV has pulled up to another clump of jornaleros. Work! But it’s too late. A police car pulls up to ticket the driver for stopping in the middle of the street. The jornaleros across the road walk away, pretending to be doing something else. A week earlier, police arrested as many as 12 day laborers for obstructing traffic just a block down. Two of them have not returned to the strip since. The rumor is that la migra took them away.

Unaware of the drama across the street, Valentín continues: “Get to know your fellow workers. Get their names and cell phone numbers. When you get a job, make sure you get the name and phone number of the boss. Get the address of the building where you are working. You will need all that information if you don’t get paid.”

The crowd of men around Valentín is dispersing. Some have heard the speech before. Others are not likely to ask the patr”n for his name and telephone number: Most of these jornaleros are in this country illegally, and deportation is a bigger fear than not getting paid. Few know what rights they have. They don’t know that their boss can’t charge them for driving them out to the work site, that they deserve a lunch break, that they are, whatever their legal status, entitled to workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries. What they do know is that their fellow day laborers, the ones whom Valentín is saying they should get to know, are their competition.

Valentín is aware of this. “The people with experience can ask for $100 a day, or they ask for $100 and the contractor offers $80,” he says. “Then a bunch of new people come running over shouting, ‘$60, $60. I’ll do it for $60.’ And the contractor says, ‘Okay. Let’s go.'” He adds, “In winter I hear some workers going for $20 or $30 a day.”

But building solidarity among the jornaleros on Roosevelt Avenue is just the start of what Valentín hopes to do. Eventually, he and the nonprofit organization he works for, the Latin American Workers’ Project, want to create a workers’ center, a kind of clearinghouse where day laborers can wait and contractors can come to make hires in an orderly and regulated–if still illegal–way. A center would get the day laborers off the streets and keep the SUVs and vans from blocking traffic. A center could require contractors to provide their names and numbers, and also establish a floor for the wages that will be paid, no matter how high the supply of workers.

The Latin American Workers’ Project already runs a center like this in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which it put together in a mere five months. But if any place in the city needs a workers’ center, it is the area along Roosevelt Avenue, probably the largest site for day laborers in the city. As many as 300 show up each morning and stand in the shadow of the Number 7 elevated line between 63rd and 74th streets. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway brings contractors from as far away as Long Island, and jornaleros from all parts of Queens and northern Brooklyn.

They have no bathroom other than the bushes alongside the expressway. As morning turns to day, some of the workers who have not gotten jobs begin to drink. Women complain they get harassed when they walk by.

Workers’ centers elsewhere around the country have proved to be simple, if imperfect, solutions: places where workers can expect some minimal respect for their rights, and communities can keep their streets clear of double-parked vans and loitering workers. Yet Queens, New York City’s capital of day labor, doesn’t have a center. Nor is it likely to anytime soon. Elected officials, churches and community organizations are highly aware of how the day-labor trade affects their community, but they’re not much interested in getting involved. So far, none has helped Valentín secure the most obvious necessity of all: a space for the center itself.

And truth be told, the founder and executive director of the Latin American Workers’ Project, Oscar Paredes, likes keeping politicians at a distance. He knows government officials are a prime source of funds and real estate, but he doesn’t want to cozy up to them. He prefers to have workers themselves, not politicos or community development corporations, take the lead in making a center happen. His six-year-old organization carries on in the tradition of Latin American leftist political movements, down to its socialist-realist logo of a thick-armed worker carrying a banner emblazoned with “P.T.L.A.,” the acronym for the Project’s name in Spanish. His stated aim is to educate workers about their rights, raise their consciousness and then let them determine for themselves what they want. “We can do nothing if the workers do not want to do it,” Paredes says. “The workers have to be their own leaders. We are just facilitators and coordinators.”

Paredes, a tall thin 42-year-old who wears a knit cap in the colors of the Pan-African flag, was a construction worker in his native Ecuador and began community organizing at the age of 13. He is intensely protective of his turf. He openly criticizes advocates with whom he has worked in the past and officials he will need to work with in the future. “I don’t trust anybody,” Paredes declares. If Woodside does get a workers center, one thing is fairly certain: It won’t happen tomorrow.

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Workers’ centers started in this country not to help laborers, but to get immigrants off the streets of Southern California. The first, in Costa Mesa, opened in 1988. They were the product of desperation: aggressive law enforcement had already failed disastrously. Once, police from the city of Orange arrested hundreds of work-seekers on petty charges and turned them over to border agents, only to see new day laborers return to the same street the following day.

The city convened a task force, which came up with a two-pronged response: pass an ordinance against hiring workers off the street, and establish a center where contractors could find the people they needed. “As long as there is a demand for work in our city, people are going to come here for work,” says Gabe Garcia, who as the city’s community services manager oversees Orange’s workers center. “We are not going to change the labor trend. We needed to address the problems our city was facing.” California is home to a vocal anti-immigrant movement, which loudly criticized Orange for helping illegal immigrants. Locally, however, few people objected, and the center is still in operation.

Now the city of Los Angeles alone sponsors six centers at an annual cost of $70,000 to $150,000 each. Other publicly financed sites operate across the country, including in Houston; Denver; Silver Spring, Maryland; and, as of last October, Freeport, Long Island. “The cities that invested in day labor had already used all the means they thought they had,” said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. “They already used police on horses. They already chased the workers in helicopters. They sent in the INS twice a month. Some have gone as far as criminalizing the act of looking for work, and all of these actions failed.”

New York hasn’t seen anywhere near that kind of conflict in the streets. What it has experienced is a surge in the number of people looking for work in public places. On any given morning now, as many as 8,300 men and women look for work at various shape-ups–places where laborers congregate, waiting to be chosen for work–in the New York metropolitan region. Polish cleaning women gather in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Sikhs congregate in Richmond Hill, Queens. But most day laborers–about 95 percent–are Latino men.

Police, for the most part, leave them alone: There are no ordinances against loitering or soliciting work on sidewalks. But occasionally–last August, and again this June–laborers have reported crackdowns, with NYPD officers arresting workers on minor charges such as obstructing traffic. Police deny they changed tactics.

Police also made numerous arrests of day laborers in the fall of 2001 in Bensonhurst, workers say. In the months following 9/11, tensions in the neighborhood were high–enough that they galvanized community leaders to come up with a solution. A City Council candidate, Joanne Seminara, distributed letters promising to rid the neighborhood of day laborers by bringing in federal immigration agents. In response Paredes held a press conference denouncing racism in the southern Brooklyn neighborhood.

Around the same time, the area’s then-state senator, Vincent Gentile, started meeting with a local religious leader, Rev. Terry Troia, and a few day laborers to figure out a more constructive response. Paredes later joined them in Troia’s church basement. They decided that a workers’ center would be what Gentile called a “win-win”: a way to advance laborers’ rights while making sure vans and job-seekers weren’t a nuisance on the streets.

Gentile secured a piece of city-owned property at the dead end of a street, about a mile from 18th Avenue. The Independence Community Foundation–which came on board after the manager of Independence Community Bank’s 18th Avenue branch called seeking money for a portable toilet for workers who waited outside–kicked in $25,000 for operating costs. By March 2002, the Latin American Workers’ Project opened its center on a fenced-off piece of asphalt right on New York Bay.

Getting the jornaleros to move down to the waterfront wasn’t as hard as getting contractors over there, too. That is where the police became invaluable allies. Once contractors learned they couldn’t stop to pick up workers without getting ticketed for double parking or parking in bus stops, they would come down to the center. Or at least, many did. “Some of them went to different locations,” recalls Gentile. “I have to be honest that we lost some contractors.” The transition hasn’t worked perfectly; day laborers still show up on 18th Avenue. But organizers say the roster of members keeps growing, and now tops 400.

The jornaleros get work on a first-come, first-served basis, and otherwise sit in a tent where they get occasional lessons in English or workers’ rights. Those who do not get work–sometimes half or more do not–are put at the top of the list the next day, so long as they show up by 6:15 a.m.

When SUVs pull up, no one runs into the street or haggles over wages. Workers are paid according to a set scale: $75 for a full day’s work, more for specialists such as bricklayers or electricians. Even at those rates, contractors are paying well below union wages, and get to hire on the spot. But those contractors who use the center are likely to be the more scrupulous ones, since each has to give a name, telephone number and license plate number to the center’s coordinator. Contractors planning to rip off jornaleros can see if anyone is still standing on 18th Avenue, or, for that matter, Roosevelt.

Day laborers are notoriously hard to organize–they move on and off the street as they get jobs. The Latin American Workers’ Project started off along Roosevelt Avenue in April 2002, at first sporadically. Since May of this year, Valentín has been coming here every day, handing out information on free health-care clinics. In mid-July, to draw attention to the workers’ situation and build solidarity on the street, he organized a clean-up day when jornaleros picked up litter.

Some of the jornaleros have been working the street for years, others just a few months, but almost everyone says they thought they’d find much more work than they have. Until Valentín talks to them, they also seem to believe devious contractors are a normal part of living illegally in this country. “I don’t much like working as a jornalero,” says Jorge Hernández, who moved to New York in March after a year picking fruit in Florida. “They promise you $80 or $90 a day and then pay only $60 or $70. That’s happened to me four times so far. I can’t do anything about it.”

Day laborers do occasionally call the police, and sometimes get results. But more typically, an employer has already convinced them that police will turn them over to immigration authorities. Valentín has taken up the cases of dozens of day laborers who did not get paid, and says he’s retrieved back wages for 75 percent of them so far. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call to the employer; in other cases, he’s gone to small claims court.

One worker he is helping is Flavio Alvarez, 23, from Ecuador. “Two weeks ago I went with an Indian guy and worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. He didn’t give me lunch or any food. He didn’t pay me. When I asked him, he said he’d pay me tomorrow but I’m never going to see him again.” To Flavio, who immigrated this summer to join his wife and child, a workers’ center is a natural solution. “It will make it easier to find work, and it will be safer than getting work off the streets.”

But other day laborers are wary of anybody who says he is out to help them, Valentín included. “He’s into politics,” speculates one 42-year-old jornalero who would only give his first name, Luís. “He’s doing this to make a profit.” For Luís, the day-labor market could dry up tomorrow, and is hardly a situation worth finding a long-term solution for. “This is illegal and you don’t know how long it is going to last. Giuliani allowed it. Mayor Bloomberg, you don’t know.”

Another worker calls the center a good idea, but is doubtful it would work. “If the contractor has to pay $80 at the center and can find someone on the street for $70, he’ll go with someone from the street,” said Manuel Pelaez. “Me, if there are 50 people at the center and no one on the street, I’ll go find work on the street.”

Meanwhile, Valentín has a whole other set of relationships to build: with churches, nonprofit organizations, businesses, whoever can donate some real estate along that strip for a workers center–or a location to hold meetings and English classes should jornaleros ultimately decide they don’t want a center. Right now, he has no leads.

A major prospect, the New York Cho Dae Church, fell through in early June. The church, home to a Korean congregation, had a soup kitchen where many day laborers ate breakfast several times a week and used the bathrooms. It had a parking lot contractors could pull into and an assembly room for English classes and workshops. It was there that more than 100 day laborers gathered for the meeting last October, and smaller crowds convened in May. But the week after Valentín held a press conference at the church on the police crackdown in June–without checking with church officials first–his proposal for a permanent center was rejected. “It’s just that the more people you have in the church, it wreaks havoc,” Peter Kim, the church secretary, explains. “There’s always a higher chance of something happening.”

The day after the rejection came, though, Valentín forged an unlikely alliance with a South Asian organization in the area, Desis Rising Up & Moving, which opened its office space to him. Soon DRUM, best known for advocating for Arabs and Muslims harassed and deported under post-September 11 security measures, agreed to share its hotline for people who are arrested, and to have Spanish-speaking volunteers staff its phones. “What’s been going on in terms of the harassment of day laborers has been happening in our community as well,” said DRUM Director Monami Maulik. “If we bring together these two communities here we will be able to influence local officials more than if we just do this separately.” DRUM, the Project and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund have been meeting to come up with a coordinated strategy to fight the arrests.

“They understand more about this neighborhood than I do,” Valentín says. “Maybe they can teach me.”

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Compared to Bensonhurst and Los Angeles–or Long Island, where two workers were badly beaten three years ago after being picked up by men posing as contractors–what Roosevelt Avenue lacks is any sense of crisis to galvanize the community. There is little consensus that anything at all needs to be done.

“Essentially, the police say either there’s very little they can do about it or there is no problem,” says state Assemblymember Ivan Lafayette, whose district includes the eastern and western portions of the strip. “Roosevelt Avenue is a commercial street where people come from all over. It’s not a quiet residential street.” The neighborhood is ethnically diverse, with a large population of Latinos, which makes it all the more tolerant of workers on the streets.

The idea of a center also remains controversial, even among leaders of nonprofit organizations in the neighborhood. “It gets into the question of promoting something that is technically illegal,” says Thomas J. Ryan, executive director of the community development corporation Woodside on the Move. “You cannot hire someone without documentation. If you do, you have to pay them off the books. I would not encourage any institution to help people break the law.”

Local City Councilmember Helen Sears is also skeptical of workers’ centers. “The issue is delicate because you are dealing with undocumented people,” she says. “That’s a sticky problem, to help these people while also not breaking the law. At the same time, they need to have help.”

Sears sponsored a January council hearing on day labor, and pledges to organize a meeting this fall with other city, state and federal officials. She says she has been meaning to visit the center in Bensonhurst, but has not found time.

Paredes is now trying to build a relationship with Corona Councilmember Hiram Monseratte, who has expressed interest in the organizing effort. But Paredes’ distrust of politicians has kept him from reaching out more. Though invited, he did not attend a meeting of day labor advocates in March with Sayu Bhojwani, the city commissioner for immigrant affairs, nor has he contacted the state assembly members and senators from the area. (The legislators told City Limits they were unaware of the campaign.)

His fear, he explains, is that elected officials could appropriate the idea of a workers’ center. “The politicians are waiting for the money to open job centers on their own,” he says. “They are trying to manipulate us. They don’t really want to work together. A lot of politicians want to visit the [Bensonhurst] center to see it as a model for them to do it themselves.”

Paredes is equally distrustful of other activists he has worked with in the past. One is Rev. Terry Troia, whose church donated the tent for the Bay Parkway center, along with a year’s worth of portable toilet services. Now, Troia is a leader in a coalition organizing El Centro de Hospitalidad, a five-year-old space in the Staten Island neighborhood of Port Richmond. Home to a wave of Mexicans and Central Americans and next door to the Bayonne Bridge, which brings contractors from New Jersey, Port Richmond is an ideal location for a workers’ center, and a fully functioning one could begin as soon as this fall. But Paredes is adamant that Troia has stepped into his group’s business–and doesn’t belong there. “Terry Troia is not a day laborer organizer,” Paredes says. “We tried to organize day laborers on Staten Island and she stopped us. She tried to create a divisional conflict.”

Troia responds that she invited the Project to visit her campaign’s headquarters, but that at no time did the Project staff suggest it should take over. “Their staff was really helpful to us about how to organize workers,” Troia says.

Paredes admits a very practical reason for not wanting other groups in the day labor organizing business. Troia has built an extensive social service agency, Project Hospitality, on Staten Island. Paredes fears that the Latin American Workers Project–and its vision of a worker-run, day labor agenda–is at a disadvantage in the fierce competition for funding. “The language of these foundations, these other organizations are experts in that,” says Paredes.

The Latin American Workers’ Project, which this year has a $500,000 budget and 10 employees, is funded primarily by the New York Foundation (which also supports the Staten Island campaign), Jewish Fund for Justice, the North Star Fund and the Robin Hood Foundation.

But funding for community organizing is scarce, and New York probably won’t be able to develop a viable network of workers’ centers without public money, too. Sustained investment pays off, says Abel Valenzuela, Jr., a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied day labor around the country and was the author of a recent New School University study focusing on New York. Valenzuela found that it takes up to five years before the centers fulfill their promise to their neighbors: moving day laborers and contractors off the streets. “It takes an initial gestation period for these centers to take hold, to get everybody to buy into the system,” he says. “It can take a while to see street hiring disappear from the surrounding area.”

Just another reason Woodside can’t wait. Immigrants continue to stream in from Mexico and Central America. Because construction jobs have grown scarcer, more men are out on the street for longer periods of time.

“There are new ones every day,” Valentín says. “Someone told them back home there are jobs here. They have no idea how bad the economy is until they get here.” He insists Roosevelt needs a center quickly. “We don’t know how the police are going to respond,” he says.

Day laborers won’t go away, even if police or immigration authorities bear down. New workers will take their places. Contractors will hire off the street as long as they can do so cheaply. Community leaders in Queens can wait until a workers’ center becomes inevitable. Or the Latin American Workers’ Project can convince them to act first.

Matthew Schuerman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.