By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It wasn't an easy transition for the existing staff, who had administered the two city sites for years. "There's nothing wrong with the service philosophy in itself," explains Juan Carrillo, a veteran of the Harbor City site, "but I believe you also have to find a way for people to exercise more power over their own lives."
Carrillo reached back to his own experience working in Latino theater groups as a student at Cal State Northridge. Such teatros, he reasoned, could be another tool for organizing. A year ago, he helped set up the first day-labor theater group. In the program's first production, The Curse of the Day Laborers, which grew out of improvisations by the workers, a hostile resident in a neighborhood near a pickup site puts a curse - in the person of a real-life sheriff notorious in Agoura Hills for hassling day laborers - on the workers. Finally, a curandera (an old woman who heals sickness) finds a way to drive out the demon.
When the day laborers first started the teatro, they were telling stories of their own experiences on the streets. Now, when they perform, they move among the workers in the audience, asking questions. "We don't want people to be passive observers," Carrillo says. "If you can get used to demanding your rights from an employer in a play, then you can do it in life."
Pablo Alvarado learned the techniques of "popular education" - a way of teaching designed to organize the poor, developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire - after he saw his own teacher killed by the Salvadoran army and felt obliged to offer his services as a literacy volunteer. The method relies on relating to the personal experiences of the students, teaching politics while tackling the alphabet. "We call it teaching the word through teaching the world," Alvarado explains. "Popular education teaches subversive questions, like why is there a war going on? Why are some people rich and others poor?"
In other words, CHIRLA's literacy classes and theater group, like the day-labor band, are ways of organizing immigrants, and of teaching them how their new world works.
I went to study Englishbecause I felt I had to,so I could defend myselffrom an angry American.There where I workedthey tried to cheat mebecause of the damn EnglishI didn't know how to speak.-from "La Frasesita"
This spring, CHIRLA began organizing the day laborers at Pomona and Atlantic boulevards. After spending weeks on the corner, organizer Mario Lopez persuaded the workers to form a committee. Anatolio Garcia, who was elected to the committee, sees two reasons for getting organized: "First, we need to put ourselves in order. We used to have a lot of trouble from the sheriffs, mostly because our people were drinking while they were waiting for jobs. Second, we need better pay, and a way of avoiding the competition for jobs."
The committee met with the Sheriff's Department and local residents to negotiate a set of rules for people seeking work. A stretch of curb was designated as an official pickup site, so contractors wouldn't cause traffic problems as workers gathered around their vehicles. Other rules ban drinking or pestering people who are just passing by.
On corners in Los Angeles that have been organized for a while, most of the workers have proved willing to cooperate. In East Los Angeles, however, the day laborers have only begun to organize.
"One of the first steps we take is to set up a soccer team," Alvarado says. "It's something that the workers do anyway, playing while they wait for work. We come in and organize the matches, encouraging cooperation even in this very competitive environment.
"In the morning," he continues, "the atmosphere is tense. The workers see each other as rivals. By afternoon, after soccer practice, the atmosphere has changed. People are talking to each other about what's happening on the corner." CHIRLA now runs a full-blown soccer league.
In September 1997, street-corner committees across the city sent delegates to an Inter-Corner Conference, to begin writing the organization's first bylaws and principles. While the new Day Labor Union is a nontraditional union insofar as its purpose isn't collective bargaining, it does attempt to set uniform standards for wages. Individual sites set their own standards - there are now $6, $7 and $8 corners all over L.A., with the wage minimum established by the workers themselves.
Beginning in 1989 in Agoura Hills - where Sheriff's deputies from the Lost Hills substation were recently accused of systematic harassment of day laborers - Southland communities have passed ordinances prohibiting the workers from getting jobs on the street. Since then, ordinances have been passed in Costa Mesa, L.A. County, City of Industry, La Mirada, Malibu, Laguna Beach, Pomona, Glendale and Gardena.
As the union speaks for the workers in debates over such ordinances - the county ordinance prohibiting the solicitation of work on the street has been challenged in a recent lawsuit brought by CHIRLA and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund - it negotiates with the police and Sheriff's Department over law-enforcement and public-relations issues. Experience shows that when the workers act in an organized way, they can dramatically transform their relations with local businesses and residents.