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Standing on the Corner

I'm going to sing you a story, friendsthat will make you cry,how one day in front of Kmartthe migra came down on us,sent by the sheriffof this very same place . . .

The thumping bass strings of a bajo sexto punctuate a simple 2/4 rhythm as a couple of old guitars and a plaintive accordion carry the familiar chord changes of a Mexican corrido. Seven mournful voices ring across the parking lot on St. Andrews Place, belting out the Spanish words in traditional style.

Surrounding the singers, dozens of men dressed in work clothes listen intently, crowding under a blue awning or standing out on the black asphalt, sweltering in the sun. The musicos proceed with their cautionary tale:

We don't understand why,we don't know the reason,why there is so muchdiscrimination against us.In the end we'll wind upall the same in the grave.

At the end of each verse, the listeners shout, or whistle, their encouragement. It's obvious that almost everyone knows the story, and that many have had the same kinds of experiences.

The song relates the history of a famous 1996 immigration raid in the City of Industry. On a rainy winter morning, Border Patrol agents charged into a street-corner clinic where a dozen or so day laborers had lined up to be tested for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. One worker, Omar Sierra, had just taken his seat at the examining station, where a clinic worker had tied off his arm and inserted the needle for drawing the first blood sample. As agents of the migra swarmed across the street and sidewalk, Sierra jumped up, tore off the tourniquet, pulled the needle out of his vein and ran.

Sierra escaped and made it home. Shaken by his experience and determined never to forget his less fortunate friends, he committed their fate to music. Returning to the corner three days later, he sang his song to those who remained.

Omar Sierra's song is not just a history; it's an anthem. The seven singers in the parking lot - Sierra, Pablo Alvarado, Jesus Rivas, Julio Cesar Bautista, Paula de la Cruz, John Garcia and Omar Garcia - are more than a group of friends performing for their own pleasure and profit; they're the day-labor band Los Jornaleros del Norte. And singing Sierra's "Corrido de Industry" is no casual social event; it's a new way of organizing Los Angeles' mostly immigrant daylabor force.

"What do we do while we're waiting for work on the corner every morning?" asks guitarist Alvarado. "We're learning to live with each other, telling jokes and stories, playing games, arguing about football. We're learning to organize ourselves to the rhythm of our happiness and sadness. We're creating a culture of liberation."

It hasn't been easy for the Jornaleros del Norte to survive as a band. All its members - except Alvarado, who's a full-time organizer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) - earn their living from the curb every morning, at any of more than 200 day-labor corners across Los Angeles. None of them owns a car, so getting together to practice is hard. And taking time off to perform doesn't help pay the rent at the end of the month.

But when they are able to play, their audience recognizes itself, not just in the words and music, but in the clothes, the mannerisms and the hundred details that make it plain that these musicians earn their daily bread on the streets. The band is a living, singing demonstration that solidarity among day laborers is not just a possibility but a reality.

Organizing people who work on the streets in L.A. requires more than a sing-along and a common culture, however. At 6 on a gray morning beside the Home Depot parking lot at Sunset Boulevard and St. Andrews Place, a grittier reality shows its face as Alvarado and another organizer, Mario Martinez from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), approach a group of 20 men strung along the sidewalk. The workers are wearing plain trousers and cheap work shirts. Some lean against a cinder-block wall in small groups, talking quietly and smoking; others sit on the curb itself. They're all waiting for the contractors to pull out of the Home Depot parking lot.

At this time of the morning, a steady stream of small trucks drives in and out of the lot, hauling out building supplies. As the drivers load up and start to pull away, Alvarado hands each of them a leaflet showing the location of a new day-labor pickup site IDEPSCA has opened in a parking lot a few blocks away.

 

The workers on the curb aren't happy about the leafleting. Every truck that goes to the new site represents a job lost to them. A group of half a dozen men forms at the corner of Sunset. Two or three are in their 20s; the others are middle-aged. As they move angrily toward the driveway, their voices get louder. Soon Martinez, who's walked over to meet them halfway, is faced with a wall of hostile faces shouting questions and threats: "I have a family to feed!" "Who's going to buy school clothes for my three kids?"

Alvarado joins Martinez, and the two organizers patiently try to persuade the workers to come to the new site to look for work, instead of standing on the corner here. A couple of workers say that they've tried to get work at the new site, and there weren't enough jobs.

"The site's just starting up," Alvarado explains. "It will take a little time to get the contractors to use it. That's what we're doing with the leaflets. But if we all go over there, the contractors will come, too. They'll have no choice." The new site, Martinez tells them, has free coffee and plastic chairs for the workers to sit on while they wait. There's a blue awning to provide relief from the sun or shelter from the rain.

And it has one other big plus: no raids.

"Before the new site, there were three big sweeps by the Hollywood Division here, with a lot of arrests," Martinez reminds the workers. "They came out here with guns drawn and made everyone lie facedown on the sidewalk. They put handcuffs on people. What will happen if they come again and arrest you? What will happen to your children then? Think about it."

A few heads nod in grudging acknowledgment. Some of the workers who have been yelling at Martinez remember the raids. The memory is bitter and humiliating.

CHIRLA started organizing this corner more than a year ago. Once a core of workers had formed the committee that voted to organize a new site, IDEPSCA and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg persuaded Sears to donate the use of an old parking lot behind its store, and the city provided funds for staffing the site.

Located off the main thoroughfare, it's not an ideal location, but it's the best CHIRLA could get. The workers who committed to finding work at the new location were frustrated, in their turn, when contractors continued to pick up workers on the curb across from Home Depot. The curbside workers were taking their jobs. The workers at the new site put pressure on the CHIRLA organizers to do something.

"They had the same desperation at our site that these people have here on the corner," Martinez explains. "They confronted us, and we all decided to go out and leaflet the contractors. Last Saturday, 43 people found work at the new site. Only two were left at the end of the day."

The longest-organized CHIRLA sites in the city are those in North Hollywood and Harbor City - the original hiring halls set up by the city of Los Angeles in 1989. Today, they provide a vision of what finding a day-labor job can be like. The North Hollywood site, off Sherman Way, has a drive-through area where contractors can pull up to do their hiring. Farther inside the big triangular lot, an open area with an awning shelters workers as they play checkers, talk and drink coffee. A portable building provides space for literacy classes and a tiny office with computers.

Rows of cabbages and onions, extending 50 yards, hug the fence at the edge of the property. Chile seedlings poke through the light-brown soil. A few men in work clothes stoop among the plants, picking weeds and spraying with hoses. Many of L.A.'s day laborers were farmers, and this garden is eloquent evidence of their love for the land.

On a recent morning, a blue pickup truck with a rack of two-by-fours on the back pulls into the lot. A young white man in paint-spattered work clothes gets out. Some of the waiting laborers point to a counter under the awning, on which sit two plastic jars. In the jar with the yellow plastic lid, every worker has put an orange ticket bearing his name. In the other jar, with its green top, are the names of the workers who speak English. After taking a name from each jar, the contractor asks the site manager about the expected wages. He's told to talk to the workers whose names he's drawn. After a brief discussion, the contractor agrees to $8 an hour, and the laborers climb into the back of his truck.

 

Gone are the days - at this and other CHIRLA sites, at least - when workers crowded around the contractors, clamoring for work. "If the contractor already knows who he wants to hire, we let him ask for specific people by name," explains Victor Narro, the CHIRLA staff member and lawyer who manages the day-labor programs. "Also, contractors can request specific skills, like carpenter, welder or painter."

While the day laborers' first priority at the North Hollywood site is finding work, they find other things there as well, friendships and a sense of community. When it took over the city-funded hiring operation two years ago, CHIRLA brought more than additional resources and building materials (for the portable structure in which English classes are held, for example). Instead of just helping a few people get jobs, Pablo Alvarado, Victor Narro and other CHIRLA staff viewed the day-labor progam as a means to unite the workers. Once they were organized, the workers themselves were able to take the steps that can lead to an increase in earning power.

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.

In Topanga, for example, locals greeted the first proposal for an organized day-labor site with hostility, turning out for town-council meetings to flaunt banners that read, "No Hiring Site." Residents argued that clearing Topanga of day laborers was critical to protecting neighborhood security.

Then, in 1995, fire swept through the hills, and those same day laborers stood on the roofs of houses along with property owners, putting out the sparks with garden hoses. Topanga residents learned that cooperation with the workers was not only possible, but beneficial.

It was a transforming experience. Last summer, when a Topanga-area deputy began to roust the workers, homeowners besieged the local Sheriff's Department station with calls demanding an end to the harassment.

CHIRLA's Day Labor Union has created stability and developed leadership in a situation in which every worker has to find a new job every day. But day labor is only the most extreme form of a problem faced by the millions of Californians who have no secure relationship with a single employer. Economic and demographic changes in the state have presented a new set of questions about how to organize casual labor.

In Los Angeles, it's the "invisible" day laborers who have begun to suggest answers, as they discover how a shared immigrant culture can act as a powerful ally in their efforts to articulate their own experiences and needs, and build an organization from the grassroots up. Major U.S. labor unions must find ways to unite a work force that is, in general, more diverse - and less secure - than ever before. The unions' continued existence may depend on their willingness to follow CHIRLA's lead.


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