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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Willing to Work, Sonoma County Labor Centers

What’s wrong with this picture?
Willing to Work
By Vesta Copestakes
I was recently approached by an irate business owner in one of our small communities. Latin day laborers are hanging out on the street, milling about waiting to be picked up for work. This goes on from early morning to mid-day or even into the afternoon. Downtown merchants get people complaining that they feel uncomfortable walking the streets. Business is down. People are discouraged and wondering what to do.

What’s wrong with this picture?
The laborers tend to look dirty. Their clothes are work clothes and they are prepared to get dirty all day. They are all men. Some times their behavior is less than desirable, like when they whistle and leer at women. Some times they drink. Some times they come in vans and even sleep in those vans on the street. They come in from Santa Rosa on buses to stand on these corners and wait for work. Fulton, Healdsburg, Graton, Guerneville all share the same problem.

Three of these towns have attempted to do something about it. Two of the towns have succeeded on some levels and failed on others. Healdsburg and Graton have refined, organized and sophisticated hiring halls and systems in place that support both the laborers and the people who hire them. Fulton has started the process but has a long way to go before they graduate past the hiring table in the parking lot. The centers with buildings provide services, language lessons, health care and a full range of opportunities. They contribute to their respective communities. In Graton laborers from the center regularly work to keep the town clean, groom the walking trail, and volunteer to help local citizens.

The centers welcome anyone willing to work; men, women, any nationality and race. Educated college students show up to fill in their income between classes. Women come seeking work where they feel protected and safe. Skilled workers know they will find labor using their knowledge and experience. Ones who don’t speak English, take lessons. It goes on. The benefits are many for both the laborers as well as the people who hire them.

Then with all of these benefits, why do laborers continue to mill about on the streets, get in people’s way and offend businesses trying to survive?

Two reasons, really.

One is that people continue to hire laborers from the street. As long as “employers” show up, why not stand there and take advantage of the non-system where the most aggressive get the job? It works.

Two is because many of these people are not citizens and are not documented. Getting into any system brings fear to their hearts that they will get caught and shipped out of the country – or worse, put in jail. They have families back home depending upon them.

Add to the problem that getting in and out of our country has become more difficult. It used to be that winter came and we’d have our street corners back. Now if the laborers go home for the winter, they may not make it back in spring. The risk is too great to try.

Finding a Solution

Ultimately, the Day Labor Centers are the solution. The hard part is getting people to use them – both the workers and the people who hire workers. The other day I was in Fulton and literally ran into a man who regularly picks up laborers for a variety of tasks. He extolled their virtues of hard work, strength, their willingness to do just about anything, and their ability to handle hot sun all day. “White people can’t do that – and won’t!” For this man it was all about the ease of picking up workers in his truck. When I suggested he use the labor table in Fulton, he looked surprised. I explained that it’s hard for local businesses to deal with people milling about.
In this case, in the parking lot across from the post office. I watched a woman get out of her truck and get whistled at because she was attractive. As she crossed the street to the post office, her body language betrayed how uncomfortable she felt.

In Graton the labor center is remarkably effective for both “employers” as well as laborers. You can literally call up a day or so in advance and order up the kind of labor you want. Each person has a record of their skills, their language, their credibility, etc.

So why do people still hire off the street? Because the laborers are easy to see and they don’t need to fill out forms? Because they can cheat the laborer out of income? Because they don’t want to be bothered? Because the labor center wants them to pay decent wages for the work performed?

Supply & Demand
A goal of organized labor centers is to provide a respectful environment for both laborers as well as employers. When people feel respected they act respectful. One of the merchants in Graton solved his problem of loitering laborers by talking to them with respect. They moved across the street and don’t stand in front of his store any more. Too simple a solution to respect someone?
Ultimately it’s up to the people who hire the laborers off the street to stop doing it. It’s like any supply & demand situation. As long as the demand is there, the supply is plentiful. Even with all the bright yellow signs in downtown Graton pointing to the labor center, people still hire off the street.

So the next time you see someone pull up in front of laborers on the street to hire someone, if you don’t want it to happen any more, go up to them and talk them out of it. Tell the “employers” that you need them to respect your downtown, your business, your community. That it’s your home they are using for their purposes and you need their cooperation.

Your target is not the laborers, it’s the “employers.” You need them to respect you and your home town. When they stop hiring off the street, the laborers will stop standing there. Sound too simple? Try it. It might work. But like taking candy from a child, make sure you offer an alternative. Give them a list of labor centers in the area where they can hire workers.

Sonoma County labor centers:
Sonoma County Job Link
2245 Challenger Way # 104
Santa Rosa, CA
(707) 565-5550

Healdsburg Day Labor Center
California Human Development
Martha Nunez
405 Grove St
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 433-6652

Graton Day Labor Center

(707) 829-1864
2981 Bowen, Graton, CA 95444
Open every day, from 6:30 a.m.
until 11:30 am.

Fulton Day Labor Center
Leticia Romero
Community Organizer
St. Joseph Health System
(707) 525-5300 X3213
Table in parking lot on Fulton Road
at River Road – please use the table!

Spread the Organizing
By Davin Cardenas

The Graton Day Labor Center, open since September 2007, supports the expansion of other day labor centers and day labor organizing across the county and state. The benefits are broad based, supporting workers, employers, and the outlying community. Some of those benefits have to be felt to be truly appreciated but we’ll try to convey it here.

We have discovered that through the process of organizing we have all found family. Places are few in our society where one is welcomed daily, where one has their voice respected personally as well as through democratic avenues, and where the means and opportunity to progress is directly in front of them. The Center walks a fine line between providing necessary services (such as on-site health consultations, daily English classes, occupational health and safety training, job training, and wage claims), and organizing around common needs (such as promoting health, human rights education, leadership development, civic participation and volunteerism).

Though times and circumstances are challenging, we keep our mental health playing sports, music and chess, promoting culture, and of course, with frequent celebrating. What we have accomplished has taken patience, understanding and even conflict, but without a doubt, beautiful things happen on a daily basis within the center.

Employers who hire from our center have given us overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the benefits we offer. A large part of how we gauge the work ethic of our members is by the feedback cards that are voluntarily turned in by the employers at the end of the job. Employers aren’t even required to come to the Center; they may call in advance to establish their on-the-job needs (certain skills, English, etc.), and reserve workers or ask them to show up at the job site.
Employers who hire from the center, support a community process that has been developed over several years by local residents and merchants, county officials, and the workers themselves. Workers understand their responsibility when they make the choice to come to the center, and they take pride in being part of a greater community vision.

We hope that day labor centers can also function as “spaces” where communities sit down to dialogue differences and similarities, instead of engaging in the incoherent barking which seems to be more and more the norm in mainstream media.

As you can see that the day labor center has become much more than a hiring hall; it is a place where we collectively become active, taking responsibility for the betterment of our lives, and our communities.

Graton Day Labor Center
(707) 829-1864
2981 Bowen, Graton, CA 95444
Open every day, from 6:30 a.m.
until 11:30 am.

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