David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Which Side Are You On?
by David Bacon

BERKELEY, CA (5/20/01) - Unfortunately, getting harassed for passing out leaflets urging workers to organize is not news in this country. It's been a fact of life since workers started forming unions two hundred years ago.

Carlos Canales, of Long Island's Workplace Project, was a recent victim of this hallowed tradition. But the people Canales is organizing are not your typical workforce. He was arrested where the most innovative workplace organizing is happening today - the streetcorner.

Day laborers seem an unlikely vanguard for U.S. labor. The men in the LIRR parking lot on Sunrise Highway are mostly recent immigrants. Everyone has to find a new job every day. Wages are low. As Latinos, workers face hostility from police and neighbors who see them as interlopers.

Plus, curbside shapeups are an old and integral part of our economic system. In an economy stratified by race and immigration, street corners are an historical entry-point into worklife for immigrants and racial minorities.

But despite the problems, day laborers and the Workplace Project don't accept the street's extreme insecurity and exploitation as inevitable. Nor should they.

Just decades ago, dockworkers also competed for jobs in morning shapeups on the waterfront. And just as daylaborers are stereotyped today for urinating on the sidewalk and harassing passersby, in the 1920s longshoreman was a synonym for bum and drunk.

Today, longshore workers have some of the highest wages in U.S. industry. They fought their way off the streetcorner by organizing unions, and winning control over their work.

The Workplace Project is still a long way from that goal. But projects like it around the country have an attitude reminescent of the leftwing activists who built the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s.

"What do we do while we're waiting for work on the corner every morning?" asks Pablo Alvarado, a streetcorner organzer in Los Angeles. "We're learning to organize ourselves. And through organizing, workers grow politically and intellectually, and start to influence others. We're creating a culture of liberation."

Day labor is only the most extreme form of a problem increasingly faced by millions of American workers. Today most no longer have a traditional, secure permanent relationship with a single employer.. This explosion in contingent jobs presents a whole new set of problems for workers and unions.

On Long Island, the "invisible" day laborers have begun to suggest answers. They've discovered their shared immigrant culture can act as a powerful tool to articulate their experience and needs, and build an organization from the grassroots up.

Major U.S. labor unions should pay heed, as they look for ways to unite a work force that is more diverse - and less secure - than ever before.

And unions are taking a new, more supportive attitude towards immigrant workers. The New York City Labor Council rose to the defense of Long Island day laborers after previous attacks. The council, once one of the nation's most conservative, today is more vocal about human rights, aware that its own future is tied to the organizing struggles of immigrants.

"For immigrants to build a better future, they need to build a union," says Eliseo Medina, a Mexican immigrant now executive vice-president of the Service Employees union. "But immigrants are also the best hope of the labor movement."

It's not hard to understand why. Unions represent about 13 percent of U.S. workers today, down from 35 percent in the early 1950s. To maintain that percentage, given the growth of the workforce and structural changes that eliminate jobs, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. To grow by just one percent, labor must organize 800,000 people, a rate not achieved since the 1940s.

But the federation confronts the reality that its past policies undermined the rights of immigrants. In particular, the AFL-CIO supported the 1986 passage of employer sanctions, which make it a crime for an undocumented worker to hold a job. A legacy of the cold war, that policy sought to protect wages for native-born workers by excluding immigrants.

Unions haven't always been hostile. In the 1930s, the CIO included immigrants when it organized the huge plants of companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel. Unions made alliances with immigrant community organizations. "Every period of growth in the labor movement was fueled by activity among immigrant workers," says John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees union. "We're a labor movement of immigrants and we always have been."

Last year the AFL-CIO adopted an historic resolution calling for a new legalization program for the undocumented and the repeal of employer sanctions. Since then, unions and community organizations around the country have organized hearings and marches in support of immigrant rights. The New York council held a hearing last spring, and another in Los Angeles in June drew 20,000 people.

Wilhelm says his own union's support for sanctions in 1986 was a mistake: "Those who came before us," he declares, "who built this labor movement in the great depression in strikes in rubber and steel and hotels, didn't say, 'Let me see your papers' to the workers in those industries. They said, 'Which side are you on?' And immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question: Which side are we on?"

For day laborers in Long Island, the new answer from unions should be - yours.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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