Day laborers unite to avoid exploitation
|May 1, 2012||Posted by Karina Stenquist under News, Print Issues, Stories, Volume 2, Issue 3 (May/June 2012)|
On a weekend evening in April, several dozen people gathered at Don Juan’s restaurant in Mount Pleasant to hear stories, poems, and music and to show support for a new workers’ group taking its first steps in an experiment in labor organization. The half-dozen men in the group were day laborers who had come together to form a worker-owned cooperative, seeking to break away from the risk and uncertainty typical of their jobs.
“I don’t like being dependent…on a mediator or a subcontractor,” explained Carlos Castillo, who came from Peru two years ago when university strikes interrupted his degree in mechatronics, an engineering field.
Castillo and others said they don’t like waiting around parking lots for jobs. Making the case for a co-op, members spoke of the advantages of looking for work as a group, signing contracts with contractors directly, and finding work instead of waiting for it to find them.
He got involved with the group after he was paid only a week’s wages for a two-week job, an instance of wage theft. “It doesn’t happen everyday, but it happens a lot,” he said. “It sucks the energy out of you. You’re excited to work and then, when [the employer] disappears…it’s unpleasant.”
After that experience, Castillo got in touch with Arturo Griffiths. Griffiths is an organizer with Jobs with Justice, which runs the day laborer group, Union de Trabajadores. It was out of his experience with this group that he decided to help workers form a cooperative.
“When I heard about this, it sounded like a magnificent idea,” said Carlos Diaz, who joined conversations about the co-op about a year ago. Diaz came from El Salvador 12 years ago as a teenager. He says he began working in construction, after 10 years in restaurants, because he saw possibilities for advancement despite his lack of formal education.
Diaz displayed near immunity to doubt, which seemed typical of the co-op members. “You see a contractor managing a job one day and you think – why not me?,” he said. Diaz came from an entrepreneurial background; his mother owned a tourist restaurant. “I grew up out of that [entrpreneurial] branch,” he said.
Their optimism seems to not reflectthe difficulty of putting the group together. Griffiths said it has been hard to convince people of the value of forming a co-op. He said he understands why it’s difficult to get men who are already working long days to come to meetings. “Their main objective is a job – but they don’t see that they can generate the job.”
The idea of a co-operative of equally responsible co-workers can be a hard sell in itself. “I think the biggest danger is people’s own self-confidence,” said Ajowa Ifateyo, a founding board member of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. She cited the “internalized oppression” of workers who society has convinced of their own incompetence, especially women and people of color.
“You’ve got to have somebody ‘smart’ to be the manager, or boss,” said Ifateyo, explaining what she sees as a faulty assumption. “We’ve all had jobs where the workers knew how to do the work better than their bosses, right?”
Diaz, for one, would agree with that. “Sixty to seventy percent [of the contractors I’ve worked with] just arrange the work and collect the money,” he said. “I’ve known contractors that don’t know how to cut different colors of paint correctly.” He pointed to a colored stripe running along the wall of his own living room as an example.
Another obstacle, according to Ifateyo, is “[the misperception that] people are so individualistic that we can’t work together,” and that a co-op will be time consuming. “People tell me ‘I really don’t want to have to make a decision involving more than one other person.’”
Luis Leto, a co-op member who came from Argentina 12 years ago, understands the difficulties ahead – he even compared it to a marriage. “It’s all a question of talking – dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” Leto doesn’t see it as a chore though, but as something that just needs to be done.
How to incorporate potentially undocumented co-op members is also a concern. Susan Bennett, a law professor at American University and Director of the Community & Economic Development Law Clinic, says it’s unclear how the undocumented status of a worker would affect them in a worker-owned cooperative in D.C.
“It’s not like ‘Thou shalt not own a business and be undocumented’,” said Bennett, “At least not in the District of Columbia.” Bennett said that different types of licences and organization require different types of documentation. “What you have to determine is what are the points of risk in any of these structures for persons who are undocumented, and it’s really not clear.”
Griffiths is ready to push ahead. “[Y]ou have to build as you go. You can’t wait til it’s perfect then build,” he said. His long-term vision is a network of small worker co-ops which help incubate other groups as more people learn the benefits of working for themselves. The workers putting the group together see themselves as playing an important role in their wider community.
“There are a lot of people who are capable of being many things, but sometimes they just need the support, or an example,” said Diaz. “Sometimes they just need a hand.”