A Call for Dignity:

Day Laborers Strike on May Day
--David Meyers

On May 1, 1886, anarchists, socialists, and rank-and-file workers went on strike in Chicago, raising the stakes in a campaign that joined immigrant and native-born workers in common cause against the factory owners and bosses. The strike, which saw tens of thousands march north up Michigan Avenue, was part of a successful nation-wide movement demanding an eight-hour work day.

On May 1, 2000, anarchists, socialists, and workers from a vast array of industries will take to the streets of Chicago again, in much larger numbers than in recent years, at rallying points all over the downtown area. Diverse activists will present a list of demands born of the anti-globalization, anti-capitalist movement that got a tremendous shot in the arm on the streets of Seattle last November. And if day labor organizer Jose Landaverde is successful, a majority of those protesting on International Workers' Day will be day laborers, or, as he calls them, the slaves of the new millennium.

Jose Landaverde is one of those people whose passion for justice is both deeply felt and infectious, whose tolerance for injustice is just about nil. A fiery, 27-year-old radical Catholic from El Salvador, at the age of ten Landaverde suffered the murder of his parents by the Salvadoran military. He and the rest of his family were forced into the jungle, joining the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) guerrilla forces out of necessity. At age 17 Landaverde himself was arrested by the military, for his work organizing among San Salvador's poor.

Blindfolded, imprisoned, and tortured, upon his release Landaverde fled north to Guatemala, Mexico, and Los Angeles, where he worked for a time with a homeless organization. Restless, he moved on to Houston and then Chicago, where he came to rest at Su Casa Catholic Worker house on the southside about three years ago.

Recently Landaverde worked with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless' Latino Task Force, but he says his ideas fell outside the scope of the Coalition's work.

"I wanted to create something bigger, something that respected people's dignity, something that wasn't counting people like numbers," says Landaverde, now 27. He left the Coalition, taking with him a proposal he'd developed while there, the seeds for the creation of a Latino Union. The idea? "To create consciousness in people. To get people in front of the movement. We need to develop and support leaders from the grassroots. It's time for Latinos to move."

Landaverde is hard at work generating participation in the Latino Union,which has three goals, initially: support for the rights of workers; opposition to gentrification of poor communities; and the organization of one of the larger of this year's May Day rallies, the Day Labor Strike.

Somethin's goin' on. . .
say the Roots, Philadelphia's organic acoustic hip hop band, who have played benefits for Mumia Abu-Jamal. . .

In recent years, attendance at May Day events in Chicago, which after all is birthplace to International Workers Day, has rarely exceeded a few hundred souls. This year's commemorations saw over a thousand, and renewed movement around the country. Why?

Dennis Dixon, who worked with the umbrella May Day Coalition and also works with Networking for Democracy, sees the renewed activity as part of a "nascent 'anti-capitalist' sentiment among people" whose wages have plummeted over the last 20 years, who see a government unwilling and unable to tackle crucial social problems.

"People see the movement of capital away from areas where there are relatively high wages to places where there are no enforceable labor or environmental laws. They see the sweatshops, and we get a lot of support at our pickets at Nike and the Gap. Corporate greed is a veritable buzzword," says Dixon.

So far, the Latino Union has drawn together groups that range from churches to activist groups like Jobs with Justice and Coalition for the Homeless, as well as radical Latino organizations such as Pueblo Sin Fronteras and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. Landaverde hopes to see over 3,000 day laborers at the Strike. Established unions, including Service Employees International Union Local 73, have endorsed the Day Laborers Strike, which will travel the same path as the historic 1886 demonstration, starting at Michigan and Balbo Avenues and proceeding north to the Tribune Plaza.

Day Labor in Chicago

As in 1886, one issue that ranks high on the agenda for the Day Labor Strike is the length of the work day. According to Landaverde, day laborers often work up to 16 hours in a day, in substandard conditions, without hope of union representation, without benefits of any kind. Day labor agencies deduct payroll taxes from checks, money the laborers never see and that often ends up in the agencies' bank accounts. Non-payment and partial payment of wages is not uncommon. Undocumented workers in particular have feared speaking out, for fear of deportation.

"These are not people usually involved in politics, they're just hungry," says Landaverde of the day laborers, who are predominantly African-American and Latino. "They are people reduced to slavery because they are looking for food."

According to needs assessments conducted by the Latino Task Force, over half of the Mexican families living in Back of the Yards are involved in day labor; over a third of the Latino families of Little Village and West Town/Humboldt Park support themselves through day labor as well.

One of the day laborers who will be attending Monday's Day Labor Strike is Luis Padillas, a stocky, unassuming man who immigrated to Chicago three years ago from Mexico City. Padillas is homeless and lives at Jose Obrero shelter in Pilsen. Padillas has worked through various southside day labor agencies; sometimes he washes dishes at nearby Chinese restaurants. In either setting, getting $30 for a day's work that lasts 12 to 14 hours is the norm, for he and many people he knows. "But you can't complain, because then they treat you bad, or drop you. The day labor agencies also deduct money from your check for transportation to a job, and then the driver will demand another dollar-fifty for the ride on top of that," says Padillas, via translator.

The illegal practices are bad enough, but the day labor industry is adversely affecting labor practices across the country, legally. Since the mid-1980s, the replacement of regular employees with temporary workers has mushroomed, as part of the new corporate agenda. The day labor industry saves employers a lot of money, and seriously impacts the ability of all workers to receive fair treatment and decent wages.

Most day laborers would prefer full-time, traditional work if it were available, according to a report published by the U.S. Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in December 1999. The average worker in a traditional, non-temporary job earned $540 a week in February of last year; the average temporary worker made $342, less than two-thirds as much. For Latinos working day labor, weekly wages were little more than half of the traditional workers' earnings, at $296. These are the official statistics; unofficially, Landaverde says that Chicago's day laborers fare far worse.

Problems of Gender in Day Labor

Women face additional societal, gender-based factors that exacerbate the inequalities. Those over age 40 often don't get hired, says Landaverde, because of their age. And, as always, the possibility of sexual harassment on the job multiplies for women workers who are undocumented.

"Maria," who like Landaverde is Salvadoran, has lived in the Chicago area for ten years, working for half a dozen different day labor agencies. With her daughter translating, she says, "The agencies treat people badly. Verbally and in other ways. They wouldn't pay our wages sometimes."

Worse, male personnel in the agency offices sexually assault young women working for the agency.

"Most of the women I know of, who are assaulted, are girls from Mexico, ages 13 to 17. The male supervisors tell these girls to go get fake IDs so they can work. Then they seduce the girls, who can't report the assaults to anyone. The girls feel intimidated, and the men do things like threatening to burn down their houses."

One instance witnessed by "Maria" is all too common, she says. "At Western Staff Services, at 51st and Cicero, they send people to work, and they work three or four hours, and sometimes they run out of materials. Well, I saw the men, the other personnel, treat the women workers really badly, screaming at them, chasing them around like they were animals.

"I'd like to be able to put cameras in these places, so people can see how temp work is." These young women are the majority of the workers at day labor jobs in the country. According to the BLS, workers for the day labor agencies are "more likely than traditional workers to be women, under the age of 25, black, and[/or] Hispanic."

Landaverde shows a mixture of anger at conditions such as "Maria" has seen, and compassion for survivors of such experiences. He sees the Day Labor Strike as part of the process of bringing such injustice to light. He and organizers of the Strike also see it as a means of calling for unions to unify in confronting day labor injustice.

The strike and rally will also petition politicians and other leaders to create laws regulating day labor agencies; and propose that the city put up a million dollars for the creation of Workers Centers, to be self-managed by the workers. Workers Centers have proven to be particularly effective in recent years among women and in immigrant communities and communities of color. Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in San Francisco has developed women's leadership while also providing English classes and workshops on contract rights, labor regulations, health and safety rules, and wage and hour laws. In New York, the Latino Workers Center offers similar classes and has led successful protests against abusive employers.

Anarchists, the Illinois Labor History Society, and the Day Labor Strike

The Day Labor Strike is also being sponsored by the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS), whose participation has drawn some criticism from those whose history tells them that the eight Haymarket martyrs were tried, convicted, and four of them hanged not just for their labor agitation, but for being anarchists. According to Darrell Gordon, a gay anarchist of African descent affiliated with the Autonomous Zone, the ILHS has gone to great lengths to revise the history surrounding the martyrs, who, in addition to being workers, were also revolutionary trade unionists and anarchists.

"A lot of anarchists are upset that the Labor History Society is a part of this march," says Gordon. "The Labor History Society waters down who the Haymarket martyrs were."

Landaverde is sympathetic to the criticism, but sees the tension as part of the process. As the movement for social justice grows in this country, certain tensions will have to be ironed out.

"The anarchists are going to play a real important role" in the future, says Landaverde, who takes inspiration from the Haymarket anarchists. "They're always going to be there supporting the issues. Anarchists take a position like Jesus - fighting the structures and institutions that create top-down problems. " He adds that poor people today, particularly Latinos and African-Americans in Chicago, are living in situations similar to those faced by the immigrant communities from which the Haymarket martyrs came.

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