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Temps Demand a New Deal | The Nation

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Temps Demand a New Deal

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Day Laborers Get Strategic

About the Author

Christopher D. Cook
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning investigative journalist who reports widely on labor, welfare and other issues...

With this issue, we resume our 'What Works' series, which explores effective projects and strategies for improving people's lives through progressive social change.
      --The Editors

Far outside the universe of traditional unions, day laborers, mostly Latino and African-American, are building their own collective-action groups. In Portland, Oregon, where "most of the building trade unions are pretty white," it's "almost not even an option" for day laborers to join, says Jeri Sundval, formerly of the Workers Organizing Committee there. The committee began organizing day laborers in 1996, initially fighting a wave of anti-immigrant legislation and constant harassment by the INS and local police. "We're like the urban farmworkers," says Sundval.

"In the hierarchy of needs, these folks are way at the bottom. They are worrying about food and shelter every day," says Sundval. Portland's day laborers, numbering about 100 in winter and up to 500 in summer, were stuck at Oregon's $6.50 minimum wage and were easily cheated since they were paid in cash with no recordkeeping. Organizing block by block, the laborers agreed to work for no less than $8 per hour--a standard that Sundval says has been upheld. Now the committee, which helps represent the laborers in hundreds of wage and unemployment claims, is setting up a workers' center, where the laborers can "wait for work in dignity," protected from Portland's near-ceaseless rains.

In Chicago, police sweeps and flagrant day-labor-agency abuses have inspired uprisings among the city's burgeoning, largely Latino day-labor force. According to Chirag Mehta, researcher at the University of Illinois Center for Urban Economic Development, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 Chicagoans rely on day labor; this includes some 75 percent of the city's homeless shelter residents, a recent study by the center found. "They are living day by day, working day by day in a cycle of homelessness and day labor," says the center's research director, Nikolas Theodore. Many are undocumented immigrants, according to José Landaverde, Latino task force coordinator for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which is helping the laborers get organized. Recently three laborers, angered at being underpaid, showed Landaverde their paychecks: "They worked eight hours and got paid $28.25 for the day. The employment agencies do whatever they want because they assume the workers don't have documents."

But in February these workers, many of them women, fought back with loud street protests, public hearings and a one-day strike against one of the day-labor agencies. With good media coverage and help from a city alderman, they shut down two agencies that were operating without licenses and allegedly taking illegal deductions for nonexistent benefits and pensions, says coalition organizer Dan Giloth. The coalition, working closely with Jobs with Justice, the Interfaith Committee for Workers' Rights and various local unions, is lobbying the city to spend $1.9 million to finance eight workers' centers where day laborers can wait for work in peace. The centers would be run by day-laborer board members, says Giloth, and are part of a long-term strategy to create a day-laborers' co-op to negotiate better wages and conditions.

As the contingent-workers movement gains ground, the potential for new organizing hits up against serious financial limitations. Apart from a few large grants from the French American Charitable Trust, the Ford Foundation and others, there is meager financial support for the contingent-workers movement. "Right now we are a few bones connected to maybe a skeleton," says Peterson of the Bergen Employment Action Project, which operates on just $15,000 a year. "All of us are struggling to somehow get our local projects to survive."

But union officials close to the movement say there is another significant hurdle--organized labor's general lack of awareness about the need to unite contingent workers with permanent employees. "Most people, including many local unions, don't know that contingent labor is quicksand under their feet," says Maureen Ridge of SEIU Local 925 in Boston, which works closely with the Massachusetts Campaign on Contingent Work. Because temps are especially difficult to organize under current labor law, says Ridge, unions usually seek easier paths to expand their shrinking memberships. "Why would we be looking at all these temp workers who can't be organized under the National Labor Relations Act when there are still all these other workers out there who can be, and when we are shrinking and we need to grow quickly? You only have so many resources, so many hours in a day, and we are all focused on survival.... All of this work on temps is out of the realm of our regular work." As contingent jobs increasingly become America's regular work, the challenge is to make the organizing of contingent workers part of organized labor's regular work. That process has only just begun.

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