(Originally appeared 06/05/07, Portland IndyMedia)
If everything moves according to an evolving set of plans, day laborers searching for work in the unsheltered streets along SE 6th Avenue near East Burnside and SE Ankeny Street may soon get the chance to find similar jobs under more hospitable conditions, most probably at a different location. Until then, some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents are continuing to find work as they have done for years in this developing neighborhood where pressures to change the status quo are rising fast.
“Sometimes it’s okay, but sometimes no,” Avl Bararcas explained in the raw, biting wind ripping through the Willamette River valley down Southeast 6th Avenue just a few steps from East Burnside. “Sometimes it’s three hours waiting. Sometimes you wake up and come to here, the bosses are coming and you go to work. But sometimes you wait for three hours, four hours.”
Bararcas, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, an official sister city of Portland, said shortly after 6am on a recent Sunday that he does all kinds of jobs but prefers construction. He has picked up roofing, landscaping, painting, and siding work from this spot but lately it’s been mostly construction or excavation.
He first came to Portland more than a decade ago for three years, then returned to Mexico for 8 years. For the past year, he’s bounced between Portland and Mexico, most recently in the Rose City for the last 3 months. During this stretch he says he’s been out on SE 6th every day looking for any work he can find.
There is no better day than another, as far as finding work goes, according to Bararcas. “Normal is three, four days a week.” As for work hours a day, “sometimes 10 hours, sometimes 8 hours, 6 hours. It’s different each time.”
Bararcas was one of a number of early morning would-be laborers who have been using SE 6th just south of Burnside as a de facto day labor center for years. Employers of all stripes needing workers drive through and pick up whomever they need. Some days as many as 40 to 100 laborers use the spot, according to their advocates. Between 8:00 and 9:00 am last Saturday, at least 35 people congregated around the four corners of SE 6th and Ankeny, with another dozen or so nearer the busy Burnside throughway. This very public display of unbridled free market capitalism has caused at least a few area merchants to aggressively lobby to relocate the laborers. Last October, a group of restrictive border types from the Oregonians for Immigration Reform and the Oregon chapter of the national Minuteman Civil Defense Corps picketed near the day labor site claiming many of the workers are undocumented foreigners and have no legal right to work in the US.
The anti-immigrant hysteria rising daily in Oregon and throughout the country has certainly added to the already considerable pressures faced by day laborers. A clear and malicious sign of the times occurred late last month when published reports allege a mob of 20 to 30 white teenagers beat and threw stones at two Latino men in an unprovoked attack at a park south of Oregon City. According to police, the mob kicked, beat and pummeled the Salem men with large rocks while chanting, “Go back to Mexico.” Last weekend, a group of about one hundred rallied at the park to protest the rising anti-immigrant hate and violence.
But it wasn’t hard to find a day laborer along SE 6th who didn’t fit the stereotype regularly decried by the anti-immigrant camp. Rob, 47, a self-described white man from Seattle, said on the same morning as his co-worker Bararcas that he was happy to have learned about the labor market site from a friend. He had been successfully working the block daily for two weeks, sometimes waiting five minutes, and sometimes five hours, before landing jobs. “Everybody’s kind of cool about (the on-street competition). Everybody rushes up, and whoever they want to go, that’s who goes. Nobody fights about it or anything. It’s very civil, and I think it’s very cool.” Once he earned enough money, Rob was planning to move to Tennessee.
VOZ DEFENDING THE RIGHT TO WORK
“We know there is a lot of undocumented people everywhere, and anywhere,” said Romeo Sosa, Director of VOZ (Voice), the Workers’ Rights Education Project in Portland, a member-led organization committed to empowering immigrant workers, particularly day laborers. During an interview at his threadbare offices within the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church complex on SE Oak between 11th & 12th, Sosa explained, “A lot of people don’t tell you their status, and it’s not our job to ask ‘Do you have papers?’ We know that they are looking for work, that’s the main reason, and we defend that right. When you have families and you have to work, we fight for that right and we support the way they do it.”
As for the legality of people looking for work on the streets, some business representatives have been quoted in local press reports as saying the police have the right to move the day laborers if they don’t have a permit to congregate on the sidewalks. A city legal official has also been quoted in that same report that no law exists against people congregating on the sidewalk as long as they don’t block sidewalk movements. Police were observed driving through the day labor area several times last Saturday morning, and officers did not attempt to move anyone, except for one pick-up truck stopped in the middle of Ankeny negotiating with several workers. A trailing squad car waited several seconds behind the unmoving pick-up before a short siren blast motivated the driver to pull to the curb to continue his discussions with the would-be workers. The squad car then proceeded calmly on its way.
More than half of the vehicles that drove through the SE 6th and Ankeny intersection on Saturday morning obviously were not searching for workers. At no time did the workers aggressively run up to or “swarm” these vehicles at intersections or anywhere else. Workers generally stood their ground and held out their arms, like waving for a cab, when potential job-offering vehicles drove through. When a pick-up or other vehicle pulled over or noticeably stopped mid-block, then several laborers would trot up and attempt to get work. When several women drove through the area, not once did laborers approach them.
Regardless of the legality and reality of the SE 6th Avenue day labor market, the issue has reached the point where City Hall and Mayor Tom Potter have gotten personally involved. “We don’t look at this as an immigration issue. We look at this as a community issue,” offered Kevin Easton, the mayor’s Business & Arts Policy Manager serving as a point-person on the day labor issue, during a phone interview. “The mayor believes that all citizens of this city deserve to make a living and feed their families.” Easton added, however, that Mayor Potter is also mindful of and has heard from area businesses, like Bob Wentworth Chevrolet (a member of a so-called First Steps Committee on the day labor issue) representing the Central Eastside Industrial District and David Brands of Coast Cutleries on the perception of crime associated with the day laborers which they say is hurting their business and the community at large.
“We’ve heard from day labor groups themselves, saying they (have wanted) a center for a long time,” Easton noted in response to why the city is becoming more involved in the issue. Saying the controversy pre-dates the current administration, he remarked, “It’s been a constant drumbeat, if you will, from both day labor rights organizations, also neighbors, businesses along that route that we are seeing more and more day laborers congregate in one particular area, and hearing about the problems the day labor center, or the lack of a day labor center, creates in Portland. It was not one spark or turning point, per se.” Easton said the city’s involvement with the day laborers at the same time as growing national immigration debate was mainly coincidental.
DAY LABOR CENTER FUNDS COMMITTED, PROJECT GOAL SET FOR EARLY 2008
The city apparently has already committing some real money to deal with the issue. The current 2006-2007 budget has $200,000 set aside to establish a day labor center, Easton said, and that amount “will roll over” into the next budget cycle in July. The Business & Arts Policy Manager explained the mayor’s office will “be working with the current council” to retain those monies, a process which is not automatic, adding, “We don’t foresee any problems.”
Easton admits that $200,000 is only a small amount of “start-up” money for a new day labor center project, but that it is “enough to get this started.” The mayor’s philosophy reportedly is to have a long-term solution, and “that’s what this money is going to be used for, ” not short-term solutions like purchasing portable toilets or paying for police sweeps of the area, Easton said. Still, the city’s definition of a long-term solution involves the ambitious goal of having a new day labor center “operational” in the first quarter of 2008. And toward that end, Easton said the next step is hiring consulting experts through a public Request For Proposal process. These experts or project managers will help determine the day labor center site, programming and logistics. At most, 10 percent of the $200,000 will be used to hire these consultants or project managers, Easton claimed.
The mayor’s point-person on the day laborers publicly presented the intention to send out an RFP for a day labor center Project Manager during a May 22 “First Steps” meeting. This involved about 25 people from a number of groups or “stakeholders” participating in the day labor issue. The plan, which Easton described as “very aggressive,” was to actually have a Project Manager hired in time for the next scheduled meeting of the same group on Wednesday, June 6, which the Mayor is expected to attend, or the following meeting at the latest. Attributes of the Project Manager are expected to include bi-lingual English-Spanish ability, knowledge of the participating groups, business experience, real estate experience, and outreach capabilities.
The eventual Project Manager will need all those elements and more. Some of the groups represented at the May 22 meeting, held in unfinished floor space above the Wentworth Subaru showroom at the intersection of SE Grand and Burnside, include the Latino Network, St. Francis of Assisi, American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project, Portland Police Bureau, the Mayor’ Office, and the Central Eastside Industrial Council (CEIC), among others. VOZ has already presented the city with its 10-page draft plan for the new day labor center, input which the worker advocate group says is modeled on the experiences of other cities.
BUSINESSMAN BOB WENTWORTH A LEADER FOR CHANGING STATUS QUO
Bob Wentworth is a board member of the CEIC and a leading figure calling for the relocation of the day laborers. He did not say much during the May 22 session, taken up mostly by a film about day labor centers which many attending had problems understanding because of too small or unreadable subtitles. A larger screen will be brought in for the next meeting when the film, presented by VOZ as an aide to better understand day labor centers, will be shown again.
After the meeting, Wentworth said, “Well, the number of day laborers up there has increased dramatically. The last couple years especially. It was a small number for years. The concern I have is that when people see a large gathering of people they don’t realize they’re just there looking for work. And so our customers are concerned about it, our employees are concerned about it, so I just think we should come up with a solution that works for them and works for us.”
Saying he was satisfied with the recent pace of meetings and activities by the city, Wentworth added, “My job is to try and keep the dialogue open. That’s all I’m trying to do. I appreciate what (day laborers) do and how hard they work, and what their goals are. I just also have to appreciate my employees and that they can work in a safe environment and don’t feel threatened.”
Though his main showrooms are a block or two from the main day labor activities, Wentworth has an enclosed car lot abutting the main day labor area, and a service department on SE 7th Avenue. Customers regularly drive on Ankeny directly through the main street labor activities at 6th Avenue to travel back and forth between the various Wentworth businesses. “We used to not get any customer complaints. Now we get a couple a week. So I met with (the workers) just to talk with them. ‘You know, can we get a better solution?’ ”
Ultimately, Wentworth claims the issue comes down to a largely unorganized day labor market operating amidst a customer-oriented retail atmosphere. “You see, the day laborers are in a retail environment. And the day labor situation and retail environment, they don’t go hand in hand when you’re relying on customers to come down to an area. There’s got to be a location where they’re not affecting the retail environment.”
Saying the present center “absolutely” needs to be elsewhere, Wentworth added, “And you can find a place that has facilities, restroom facilities. I mean, they don’t have any of that. It’s a horrible situation: when it rains they’re out in the rain; when they have to go to the bathroom, there’s no where to go.” A new location could better satisfy the health, food, and transportation concerns of the current spot, Wentworth offered. “But I don’t expect them to move unless they can find a better spot.”
LABOR ADVOCATES PRESSING FOR CHANGE, MINDFUL OF RISK
Relocation to a better spot is apparently what the day labor advocates at VOZ also want to see happen. Ignacio Paramo, the VOZ organizer, was pleased about the plans for a Project Manager and wanted to rapidly see things move along. “Hopefully they are moving fast, because this is taking a little bit longer,” Paramo said after the May 22 meeting. “The money is there, and we’re just afraid that if we don’t make it in a timely manner, we can lose the money.”
A new organized day labor center in Portland is a main goal behind VOZ’s efforts, Paramo explained, and he is hopeful. “The organization, for many years, has been looking to open a work center. I think this is a great opportunity this time to overcome one of the main goals the organization has been fighting for for years.”
The reasoning behind VOZ’s efforts are based on a survey of the people most directly involved. “Before we started this process with the city, we started our own research,” Paramo noted. “We did small questionnaires with the day laborers. We went to the corners, and I believe I made over a hundred questionnaires for the people. More than 90 percent approved, and say they will move to a work center. They like the idea of a work center. Very few, they weren’t sure if they would go to the work center, but more than 90 percent approved of going to a work center.”
The survey was performed over a one-month period last year in a totally democratic fashion, Paramo said. “(The day labor center) is what we want to work for. That’s because, we don’t want to do something that they don’t want. They are the ones that decided what to do. They decided what actually is the project of the organization.”
VOZ Director Sosa cautioned, however, during his earlier interview that simply moving the workers to a new site, regardless of the amenities, may not solve the most outstanding issues. “The key part is work. It’s the work! To provide a day labor center and guarantee some work. Many cities have day labor centers where more than 50 percent of the people find work, and it’s successful. Less than 50 percent (success rate) for the day laborers, and it’s not going to work. Then the day laborers, they are just going to go back to the streets.” The mere existence of a day labor center, therefore, will not necessarily solve the current tensions. “It’s a risk,” Sosa declared. “Many people, they think a day labor center is a solution. ‘Nobody’s going to go (back) outside.’ And it’s not true.”
Sosa also warned that any attempt to move day laborers from SE 6th Avenue to a new day labor center would take several months of careful planning. He said that word of the new center’s location for both the laborers and the potential employers needs to go out early and often. Signs, fliers, news reports, and meetings would all be necessary to conduct a successful relocation to any new site.
Still, regardless of the inherent risks, VOZ is wholeheartedly directing its efforts towards opening a successful day labor center in Portland as quickly as possible. “My main expectation is we can open soon the center, yes,” Paramo emphasized. “Because the day laborers want the center, so that is the ultimate goal for us.”
So the goal of creating a new day labor center is apparently one and the same for both a major advocate of the day laborers and several neighboring businesses. In fact, one of those business leaders took his case directly to the day laborers at SE 6th and Ankeny on April 26, when Bob Wentworth addressed several dozen day laborers using a wireless microphone. Speaking with the assistance of a translator, Wentworth stated his case and also handed out a one-page two-sided flier with 19 bullet points, one side in English and the other in Spanish. Other people representing differing viewpoints also spoke.
The unsigned and undated flier begins by laying out the twin goals to “improve the condition of the day laborers” while at the same time “to ensure the retail business can continue to operate their business.” Then after listing “respect” for the laborers efforts as well as those of “the people working in this neighborhood” to feed their respective families, Wentworth lists complaints he has received about the laborers from customers who are afraid and won’t return to do business. These customers are frightened when “surrounded by Day Laborers,” and that “Many of our customers are women that are afraid to drive down here for service” do to the presence of men who sometimes walk up to and crowd around vehicles looking potential employers.
Wentworth goes on list complaints allegedly from neighboring businesses including Schuck’s Auto Supply, 30 SE Grand Ave. — its parking lot is an unfenced space that opens onto SE 6th and is regularly used by the laborers — and Plaid Pantry, 4 SE Grand Ave., a nearby convenient store.
The manager of Schuck’s Auto Supply, Colline Swenson, said in an interview that she strongly approves and agrees with Wentworth’s written flier item that states, “Shuck’s (sic) employee’s (sic) and customers do not use their own parking lot out of fear.” However, when asked about the situation at the store, not in the presence of Swenson, at least one employee claimed to use the lot, and that the manager did so as well. Swenson later explained that local on-street parking had a one-hour limit, which forced her and the staff to use the lot. The employee who claimed to use the parking lot, though, made no mention of the on-street time limit.
Swenson claimed that the day laborer situation cost her store “easily a hundred customers a week. Easily. They go to other stores instead.” She added, “It would be a good idea if the city would take care of it, but the city’s not doing anything. I e-mailed them and they haven’t even responded to me.”
WENTWORTH FLIER CLAIMS DENIED BY PLAID PANTRY PRESIDENT/CEO
Plaid Pantry certainly did not share the distress exhibited by the Schuck’s Auto manager. In fact, Plaid Pantry did not agree at all with the Wentworth flier, which states, “Plaid Pantry customers have asked to be escorted back to their cars out of fear,” followed by “Plaid Pantry used to be the number one store in their group and now they are in the middle of the group” with the clear implication that the day laborers had cost the store considerable business.
After reviewing a copy of the flier, Plaid Pantry President and CEO Chris Girard responded via e-mail on May 31 with the following:
“I received your fax, and after digesting it I would like to strongly affirm that we are not a part of whatever effort generated this flyer. I regret that whoever put this together used Plaid Pantry in their work.
Years ago I recall that we had some problems with the sheer numbers of people congregating on the corner, and we did have some complaints from customers about some workers being overly-aggressive in asking for work. However our Operations people met with the workers, and since that time they as a group have been respectful of our business need to get customers in and out quickly.
As for the comment on the performance of the store, this too is puzzling and inaccurate. I can’t divluge (sic) specific numbers of course, but I can say that this is a good store for us, and it has been a consistent solid performer for at least the last 5 years. Prior to that it used to do a bit better, but the change in sales was due to a new competitor, the Shell Food Mart with gasoline, south of our store a few blocks on Grand.
I have gotten some feedback that some businesses have met with the City of Portland officials about the day laborers, and Plaid of course would be glad to participate in any plan which the City, other businesses, and the workers agreed to, but our company is in no way taking any kind of lead in this issue, and I sincerely regret that our name, and inaccurate information, was used without our permission.”
When contacted yesterday about the unsigned flier that contains no contact information, particularly to reply to the comments by the Plaid Pantry President, Wentworth said he did create the flier and its points were from him personally, not as a representative of any group. However, he did not address any of the direct questions, including the request to respond to Girard’s comments, forwarded and received by email regarding his flier statements.
“It seems that you were questioning everything that I told to you (at the interview following the May 22 meeting),” Wentworth said by phone. “I don’t want to get in an argument with you. I’m trying to find a solution. I apologize you feel that way.” Wentworth said that he had been busy in meetings that day and added, “I just don’t have time to sit here and get mad about stupid little things.” He continued with, “I got that (flier) out as a courtesy to people who didn’t speak English so they could understand what I was saying, meant it strictly as a courteous help for them with the statements I was making. So for me personally, I don’t want to construe it any other way. You can twist things any way you want.” His final statement was “I don’t want to talk to you about things” before abruptly ending the phone call.
DAY LABORERS AFFECTING POTENTIAL TO LEASE BUILDING?
Wentworth’s flier also makes a blanket statement regarding buildings at SE 6th at Ankeny. It states, “Two of the buildings on the corner of 6th and Ankeny are now empty and can not (sic) be leased out with this activity going on.” One of those buildings fronting the northeast corner of the intersection is owned by David Brands. Currently vacant, the previous tenant, a home remodeling company, moved out “a couple weeks ago” and Brands said in an interview yesterday that he believes the day labor situation affects his ability to lease the space. “Yes, no question about it,” Brands remarked. He said the former tenant did make comments to him regarding the laborers who sometimes appeared to be “intimidating” to people coming and going, particularly at dawn and dusk.
“The situation as it exists now isn’t good for anybody,” the building owner noted. “It’s not good for the day laborers, it’s not good for the business people in the area, including me.” Brands, the owner of Coast Cutlery, said his family has owned the building on SE 6th for about 20 years, and it once served as the business headquarters until they outgrew the space. Asked about the flier’s statement, Brands said, “It’s certainly been true to this point, because it is empty and I haven’t been able to lease it so far.”
He conceded, however, that the building has only been on the lease market for “two or three months,” not all of that time with a professional leasing broker. Asked directly if he believed the day labor situation was preventing him from leasing the building, Brands backpedaled somewhat, “You know, I really can’t . . . who’s to say? I mean, you know, I haven’t had somebody come up and tell me, ‘I’m not going to lease it because they’re there.’ But, I mean, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that were they not there, it would be a more attractive building to rent. I mean, I think anybody would probably conclude that.”
At the end of the flier, Wentworth writes, “We need to find a short-term solution” and includes the following:
–There must be a location where you can look for work and employers can easily get too (sic), that does not impact the livelihood of the retail and service oriented business. I ask you to help us find this location.
–This must be a location that Laborers see as a positive change and we need your help in finding that location. We look forward to hearing from you on where that area might be.
–We are willing to work with you to educate and direct laborers and employers to this location. We will provide bill boards (sic) fliers and manpower to make this happen.
–We need to find a solution as soon as possible.
Back on SE 6th, Avl Bararcas – just before cutting the conversation short as he quickly jumped into a waiting pick-up – explained how he returns to Portland when his job prospects dim in Mexico and vice versa. “Sometimes it’s good work in Mexico. My work is with a shoe company. Sometimes I work in Mexico for a long time because it’s a good job with a good company, and make good money a week – 4,000 pesos is a same as $400 here. When there’s no good work there, I come to here.”
And why does he travel all the way to Portland from Mexico and not some other US location? Look for some of the same reasons other people find the City of Roses so attractive. “In Texas, in Arizona, in California, it’s a little money for me. Yeah, I don’t know why. A lot of people there, and pay is more cheap. And the life is more expensive. And here, for me, is okay. I need to make three or four hundred dollars week. When no make the three or four hundred dollars a week, I go to Mexico.”