Looking Under the Hood at the Pasadena Workers’ Center

DSCN0940Los Angeles    A couple of years ago I spent a fascinating period over almost a year working with Casa de Maryland. They began as a collection of workers’ centers and have become the largest immigration rights statewide organization in the country with huge victories to their credit in winning drivers’ licenses and a state DREAM program along with a membership of over 25000. All of which is a long way of saying that I jumped at the chance to take a good look and visit with the folks at the National Day Laborer’s Organizing Network’s (NDLON) operation at the Pasadena Job Center in Los Angeles County.

Intake

Intake

After years of hand pressing identification badges both with ACORN and in various ways still with our street vendors and hawkers’ union in India, the first thing my eye fell on at the Pasadena intake desk was a good sized oval machine that I just knew had to be the best looking automatic computer driven ID contraption this side of the public driver’s license people. One thing led to another and the next thing you know Angel Olvera, the center’s coordinator, was waking me through “MACHETE,” which is NDLON’s very sophisticated data base system. Not surprisingly the system did more than record name, address, cell, and whatever by also cataloging each individual worker’s skills, so that they could more easily be matched with job calls from employers. And, that’s not easy either because of the 500 workers regularly working out of the center over the year and a center operation that puts out 13,000 people annually, there are also almost 1300 employers in the database that the Pasadena center has to manage. In the same that a workers’ center is handling workers, virtually one at a time, on an almost daily basis, the same can be said about many of the mom-and-pop employers who may be only calling in a couple of times a year for odd jobs, gardening, and whatever. For example, the center was running a special for employers who needed a hand putting up Christmas lights, especially since December is not the busiest time of year.

dressed up for the holidays

dressed up for the holidays

With a line out front at 6AM every morning in Pasadena, the natural question is how do workers actually get the jobs? Several decades ago I had spent an interesting early morning period watching the hiring hall operation of the janitors’ union in San Francisco in the early days of Radio Shack computers and dot matrix printers where they were pioneers at using computers to match workers and jobs. At the time as they registered the computer would spit a number and location out of the printer on the match as hundreds of jobs were sorted out every morning. In Pasadena, there are usually 50 workers on average for 35 jobs early in the morning, so I was curious how they used the computer system for that. With a laugh, Angel pointed me to a big roll of red raffle tickets and a plastic bin, I laughed too, and agreed you sometimes just can’t beat a transparent system that everyone can eyeball for fairness compared the mysteries of the machine.

workers relaxing after the job calls are done

workers relaxing after the job calls are done

You ask, how are the workers’ paid? The center and its members years ago set $15 per hour as the base rate and that’s what the employers are informed by the center, but the workers actually negotiate directly as subcontractors with the employers and are paid directly as well. In a small move toward self-sufficiency the center now collects one dollar per job.

Pasadena, like so many of the workers’ centers around the country, is in some ways like the old classic multi-purpose center that cities once built around the country offering everything but a gym. Gardening skills are displayed in elaborate, native plant beds along the side of the city provided building. A garage is being turned into a tool and work space for some of the more complex jobs the center is handling. They handle immigration issues obviously and advocate aggressively in that regard but also in the areas of wage theft. A small household workers cooperative also works out of the space. Joining with the rest of the community they have become a meeting place and gathering point for the fight for $15 for the entire city.

leaving the center

leaving the center

Pasadena is a good example of a deeply rooted base laying a firm, practical foundation that could support a very expansive membership and movement for informal workers and the entire community. There are models that could be built here, and for now it was a great place to take the tour.

Immigration Made Scary, Yet Again

refugeesNew Orleans  Republican scaredy-cats are embracing the contemporary adage, often attributed to current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, to never waste a good crisis. The tragedy in Paris has now been seized on by governors throughout the country clamoring to bar Syrian refugees from the United States, despite the fact that state governors don’t have two cents to do with immigration policies that are handled by the federal government. Politics being politics, Congress desperately wants to get in the act, so new House Speaker Paul Ryan has weighed in on the issue for what it’s worth and the red meat caucus will undoubtedly have a resolution on the floor soon.

But, let’s look at “just the facts, ma’am.” The Administration had announced an intention to accept ten thousand Syrian refugees in 2016 which is next year, but thus far despite the huge multi-year crisis which has displaced millions of Syrians in their civil war, now complicated hugely by the Islamic State, we have only allowed the smallest trickle imaginable into the country. A list of the top cities where Syrian refugees have settled in the four year period including 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2014 is headed by Houston with a mere 109 people resettled during that period. The rest of the top ten are Chicago, Louisville (Kentucky), San Diego, Atlanta, Tucson, Troy (Michigan), Glendale (Arizona), Dearborn (Michigan) and Elizabeth (New Jersey). In the number ten spot in Elizabeth there were only 47 people. Louisiana’s governor, fresh off the presidential trail, voiced his opposition to them coming into the state and there seem to have been less than twenty that have come in during the crisis. Needles in a haystack is an appropriate metaphor.

But, wait a minute. Is my reading comprehension going down? From what we know so far weren’t the terrorists implicated, and largely killed, in Paris mostly French and Belgium? Why are the Republicans not calling for us to close our borders to these two countries, our longtime friends and allies? What’s the cure for crazy? France, Great Britain, and a number of other countries, including the United States have documented hundreds of citizens who have jumped into the mayhem in Syria. Last I read we were counting more than 500. Caution needs to be exercised and passports reviewed, but why are we supposed to feel safer with a blanket ban on one country and its desperate refugees?

This seems another battle in the now old anti-immigrant fight on the right. Part of the issue as well is the drum-beating that some are unscrupulously engaging against Muslims. They aren’t like us, goes the argument, and maybe that’s a good thing, might be the rejoinder. None of these groups are assimilating.

Once again, just the facts, ma’am. A comprehensive report on immigrant assimilation in the US, finds that new immigrants are doing as well, if not better than any previous generation. The report looked at 41 million foreign-born, including 11.3 undocumented immigrants and their children born in the US about 37 million. The two generations total 25% of the US-population. 85% speak a language other than English at home, 62% of them speak Spanish. 50% say they speak English well, too.

Terrorism is an unconscionably hard problem, but before we allow demagoguery to plot the path forward, let’s focus on the real issues without blaming the victims.

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Please enjoy Shoegaze by Alabama Shakes.  Thanks KABF.

Workers’ Committees

SomosUnPuebloUnido-RallyLittle Rock     Sometimes it helps to get a gentle reminder of what we know, but don’t always practice. At our union we live and breathe “majority unionism” by which we mean trying to organize as many workers as we can, in as many ways as we can, with or without demanding direct recognition or collective bargaining, but by trying to organize workers to be union members where they work to protect and advance themselves, act collectively, and build power on the job. Some people call this minority unionism because the union does not have exclusive representation rights on the job which are common in collective bargaining agreements in North America, though this strategy of direct membership recruitment is common in many countries around the world from France to India and beyond.

A piece by Steven Greenhouse, the former labor reporter and now freelancer for the New York Times, recently detailed the success that Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a 20-year old immigrant rights group was having in Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico by assisting in organizing workers’ committees and winning important victories for workers in low wage and service industry jobs that are largely non-union, but desperately need protection and organization. The committee structure allows the workers to trigger the protections for collective action provided by the National Labor Relations Act for workers acting as a group that is not available to individually aggrieved workers. Few civilians realize that the NLRA offers virtually no protection for unions, but lots of protection for workers, especially when they are engaged in concerted activity.

Greenhouse quotes several experts on this score:

“A lot of people thought the National Labor Relations Act could be used only during unionization campaigns,” said Andrew Schrank, a labor relations specialist who recently became a professor at Brown University after teaching at the University of New Mexico. “They’re finding that the National Labor Relations Act is much more expansive than many people thought.” Richard F. Griffin Jr., the labor board’s general counsel, said a 1962 Supreme Court case — involving a spontaneous walkout because a factory was so cold — makes clear that the National Labor Relations Act protects nonunion workers, too. “It’s important that people understand that the law applies to all private sector workplaces and protects activity outside the context of union activity,” Mr. Griffin said.

Somos has put together a good track record using these tools thus far. They have filed charges with the Phoenix office of the NLRB in 12 cases, and 11 complaints of unfair labor practices were won for workers as diverse as carwash attendants, hotel housekeepers, and restaurant workers. Needless to say perhaps, Somos has won reinstatement for many of these workers along with backpay. Not only that but in many cases once the workers have organized they have also realized they were victims of wage theft and other labor violations leading to some six-figure settlements paid out to workers from employers for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act as well.

Supposedly other workers centers in other cities are taking a look at the Somos track record. For our part we’re glad to have fellow travelers after all of these years, and it helps us hew to this path of direct organizing to win power on the job now with or without the employer’s consent but using all the tools we have at our disposal from citizen wealth to direct unionization.

In my organizer’s Spanish I think Somos Un Pueblo Unidos means All the People United. It’s hard to imagine a better slogan for working men and women in any language.

Jindal “No Go!”

Governor Jindal Speaks to Members of Henry Jackson Society in London

Governor Jindal Speaks to Members of Henry Jackson Society in London

New Orleans    It’s not often that almost everyone agrees on something throughout the land and perhaps the globe, but Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal, formerly a Republican presidential hopeful, has truly succeeded in bringing everyone together.  He did so with his crazy, controversial remarks to a conservative group in London named after former Senator Henry Jackson from Washington State.  While there he went on at some length about the fact that there were “no go” zones in cities in Britain, France, and elsewhere that non-Muslims and even the police didn’t go that were functionally ruled by sharia law.

When he left Louisiana, he claimed he was on his way to Europe to drum up business for the state.  Hopefully when he’s talking to corporations over there he will mention that he is on the downside of his last term in office and can’t run again, so it may be safe for them to come to the Bayou State without embarrassment.  Definitely, his sudden notoriety will make it clear that they should wait until he’s gone from the governor’s mansion and the coast is clear.

Fox News jumped on the bandwagon with some of its commentators also parroting the “no go” line.  They have quickly apologized four times on the air and retracted every last line of their remarks. The Mayor of Paris has announced that she is going to sue Fox News for slander, and why not.

In Louisiana, where few agree on anything, both newspapers in New Orleans the daily Advocate and the every once in a while Times-Picayune led with editorials making it clear that Jindal’s hate speech didn’t speak for Louisiana.  They were both embarrassed and horrified by his remarks. The last time they agreed so strenuously was in their assessment that Hurricane Katrina was in fact a bad thing!

It’s easy to understand Jindal’s predicament. He thinks he should be president. Fortunately no one else does. The last poll among Republicans had him in the 2 or 3% range in terms of support and recognition. Jindal’s strategy has been to pretty much leave Louisiana alone, it being Louisiana I can’t say “high and dry,” which is somewhat a good thing, and try to carve out some notice for himself on the far right. He’s willing to go speak to right wing groups and church gatherings that no other candidate will touch.  He’s organizing a prayer thing that seems like it’s a path to perdition itself from the way folks are running away from it. The budget in Louisiana is fabricated on oil and gas revenues so any claims Jindal might have had about finances in the state are long gone and all of his tricks with the numbers are going to haunt the rest of his term and whoever is elected along with the citizens of the state for years.

Jindal’s reaction to all of this? Well, he’s doubled down by releasing a 1700 word press statement in Baton Rouge restating the so-called “evidence” of his “no go” remarks.

I think the only place there is really a “no go” rule is that Jindal is no longer welcome in Europe, especially the United Kingdom and France again.  It seems it won’t be long before Louisiana is also a “no go” spot for Jindal as well.

Preparing for the Implementation of Obama’s Immigration Order

Angelica Salas

Angelica Salas

Little Rock       When CMS, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, got ready to implement the Affordable Care Act in route to signing up 10 million people for health insurance more than $100 million was allocated by the federal government for navigators and another amount as large for community clinics and a like amount in the states in order to assist in enrollment in this new program.  Now within months up to 5 million people will engage in a similar process of applying for work permits and pushing mountains of paper through the Department of Homeland Security to determine their eligibility under the still to be established terms and procedures to take President Obama’s executive order on immigration and translate it into on-the-ground reality.  And, if 5 million might be eligible, many millions more will be trying to figure out if there’s any chance they are eligible or might qualify in some way or another. 

            Here’s the big difference though.  The task of advising and assisting these millions will not be facilitated by hundreds of millions of dollars of grants from the federal government.  The burden will disproportionately fall on the nonprofit, social service sector.

            Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, estimated that “the new and expanded programs could draw more than 250,000 applications from New Yorkers in the first few months, posing what he described as a ‘massive human services challenge.’”   In New York, they are trying to put groups and money together to meet the surge of expected interest, but that’s not going to be the case in many of the red states where this order is being resisted aggressively, and some of those states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida are where interest will be extreme.

            Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) told reporters in Las Vegas where President Obama formally announced his order that he had stopped on the way out of the hall and told her, “Now sign them up.”   That’s a tall order with limited resources even though Angelica will no doubt get some help from the state of California, but even so with an estimated quarter of the eligible in California her office and many others will be overwhelmed.

            This is a golden opportunity but it’s not hard to see the bumpy road ahead in our “red” states where nonprofits will be besieged.   There are a couple of months to get ready, but volunteers, lawyers, churches, unions, and others in cities and towns throughout the country need to think about “citizen wealth centers” as we are that can be prepared to offer assistance.  This opportunity is only real and will only work, if as the President instructed, we can “sign them up.”  It’s something we know how to do, but are going to need a lot of help to make happen.

            People get ready!

 

Obama Immigration Action is a Band-Aid, Not a Cure

1382024789000-A09-IMMIGRATION-09

(Photo: Drew Angerer Getty Images)

New Orleans   Make no mistake, President Obama’s immigration news is good news for everyone but rightwing ideologues. They are winning the air war perhaps for a hot minute by framing the action in a lie, and once again the administration is not doing well at explaining itself, but once the first wave of reaction settles, the wisdom of this action will be clearer.

Here are some important things to understand.

This is not amnesty. Far from it! This is a maximum three year Band-Aid being applied on a gaping national wound with no cure still in sight. All some immigrants are getting from this executive order is a chance to apply, after paying any owed taxes and new fees and proving they do not have criminal records, for a three-year work permit and a social security number. These workers are not even going to be allowed to qualify for benefits like those offered with subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, some may not chance this opportunity because it is temporary, but hopefully many will.

Remember as well that the only immigrants being given this opportunity are those that are the parents of American citizens or permanent residents born here. This program unites families. How bad could that possibly be? The order also added another 250,000 DREAMers to the list of those who can walk in public without fear by extending the protection from 2007 in his earlier order to 2010 in this new action.

President Obama is also right. If Republicans and the far right don’t like this, they can finally join in the process of taking the heat from folks they are stirring up now, and pass a bill making something permanent. Or, they can win the Presidency by a democratic vote of the people, and make a different judgment.

And, the talk about filing suit either at the state or national level to stop this is not going to work in court either. Using the concept of “prosecutorial discretion,” the President is prioritizing going after criminals rather than families, and that’s the right thing to do. There will be injustice in that push still. There will be deportations of immigrants arrested for minor slip-ups but still seen as criminals, but this is still better than the ridiculous situation currently. Thankfully, there will be fewer of these kinds of minor abuses because very importantly, the President is also terminating the Secure Communities program that has made junior immigration agents out of local police departments giving rise to the abuses of Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio and many others who have accurately been accused of creating a new apartheid and arresting people for the crime of “being brown,” and criminalizing the fact that they are in the country illegally.

Once the temperature cools on some of the political mischief, it is also clear who is really worried about some of Obama’s action, and that’s low wage employers practicing wage theft on undocumented immigrants and farmers depending on such labor for the same reason. The Wall Street Journal was crystal clear in their report that a big part of the burn is all about the money:

By giving work papers to millions of illegal workers, Mr. Obama’s plan could affect businesses in unexpected ways, enabling workers to seek new jobs and higher wages to the benefit of some business sectors more than others. Some in agriculture, for example, worried that affected workers would leave for other sectors.

Finally, in this executive order no one is really happy. The techsters didn’t get unlimited visas for big brains they wanted. Reformers didn’t get the real solutions advocated during this administration and the last. Heck, on the progressive left we even bear the burden of having gone for comprehensive reform over the last six years when we always knew we had the best chance of winning a piecemeal package that united families right from Obama’s inauguration day, if we had been willing to settle for it. Six year later we have only won a temporary solution on something that might have been a slam dunk in the first 100-days.

There will be time for cold facts evaluation, but right now it’s all about looking forward and Obama’s action, and his inspiring framing of his order, presents a new challenge and opportunity for us to make the best of this moment.

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