Day laborers fight for justice

CHICAGO – The Workers’ Center was up in two hours. The work was done July 2 by about 25 Latino immigrant day laborers who took up a collection, bought some two-by-fours and plywood, and nailed them together. They were constructing a hiring site in an abandoned city bus turnaround in the Albany Park neighborhood.

The workers inaugurated the site as the Juan Diego Democratic Workers’ Center, named after the historic Mexican figure who was recently made a saint.

Each morning for the past 15 years about 250 workers have gathered to get work in construction, demolition and landscaping, sometimes causing traffic jams on Lawrence Avenue near Pulaski. After complaints by businesses, the workers began searching for a new site. The bus turnaround on Pulaski proved to be an ideal location, which they have occupied for three months.

While they finished hammering the last nails, the workers waited for the police to arrive and evict them. On the ground lay a sign that said “No nos moveran – We will not be moved.” Alderwoman Margaret Laurino had vowed to have the Park District fence off the site by noon July 1. That deadline came and went.

“We will take the risk of being arrested, if that’s what it takes,” said Jose Landaverde, an organizer with the Latino Union of Chicago. “These workers have families to feed. You can’t take their livelihoods away from them.”

“Even if the center is destroyed, we will not go away,” said one worker. “We will continue to gather for work.” The workers said they are at the mercy of employers who routinely cheat them out of pay. They are often forced to work 12 hours a day and for sub-minimum wages. The center is envisioned as a future hiring hall and place for the protection of their rights.

The workers had held several meetings with Laurino to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement. She initially suggested the bus turnaround, but then became more hostile. At one point she told the workers she would be glad to buy them one-way tickets out of her district. Then she set the deadline for them to leave the property.

In addition to the Latino Union, the workers were being supported by a coalition of groups called the Friends of Albany Park Day Laborers that includes the Chicago Jobs with Justice, Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, the Mexican Solidarity Committee, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and Centro Sin Fronteras.

The same organizations are campaigning to create workers’ centers in other hiring locations that would combine a hiring hall, legal assistance, education and supportive services with full worker participation.

The author can be reached at jbachtell@rednet.org