The Battles of Agoura Hills for Day Laborers

the hills behind the old day laborers' corner
the hills behind the old day laborers’ corner

Los Angeles     We left Pasadena at 6:59 AM in order to make it to Agoura Hills on the outskirts of Los Angeles County almost 40 miles away near the Ventura County border.  We needed to be early enough to visit with day laborers who would be there on a Saturday hoping for work.  Nik Theodore, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago was driving while Pablo Alvarado, Executive Director of the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network, was giving directions while also telling the history and background of the Battles of Agoura Hills, one of the founding struggles – and victories – that set the course for NDLON and the fight for security, dignity, and fair wages for day laborers.

 tree where many of the 250 gathered
tree where many of the 250 gathered

            In the early 1990s the growth of Los Angeles and the soaring price of housing had made residential home construction in Agoura Hills blisteringly red hot.  Day laborers, many from Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Central America, often took the bus from as far away as downtown Los Angeles to shape-up on the corner of Agoura Hills Road to add their backs and hands to the task, making this one of the biggest “corners” in the county and the country.  Two-hundred fifty workers would assemble at dawn, and the work was plentiful with desperate contractors urgently searching for laborers.  The city fathers and local businesses may have embraced the boom-boom growth and prosperity that was coming to this rural area, but there was no welcome sign out for the workers, who were rousted almost daily by the city and county police.

the river behind the battleground
the river behind the battleground

            Arriving on Agoura Hills Road the air was crisp and the sun was slowly rising as we found ourselves still involved in construction, but this time the corner itself was a building site for the extension of the Metro line to the city.  Lanes were torn up, sewer was being laid and diverted, and signs were everywhere.  It took Pablo and Nik a couple of minutes to sort out the right tree that had stood tall as both shade and the central gathering point for the day laborers.  Shinnying over the construction barriers to walk to the base of the foothills of the Battle of Agoura Hills and looking at the tree with a trash can still chained inside on the site and the river course behind, reminded me of Boy Scout hikes and camping in Vicksburg, Shiloh, and Gettysburg and stopping here and there to look at where the bullets had flow and bodies had fallen.  Here we looked to the left at the scrub trees rising on the brown hills where workers had scattered in all directions like ants when the police had swept through to clear the site.  On the right past the water, younger, faster workers had scampered up towards the water tanks to draw the worst of the pursuit and scurried up “Helicopter Hill” where county copters would buzz them within six feet and bowl them over until they were caught with the rushing air from the blades.  This was not one battle but a constant assault.  Pablo said the helicopters kept flying in this mini-Vietnam from 1994 to 1997 regularly.

garbage can still chained to shape-up tree
garbage can still chained to shape-up tree
Nik Theodore and Pablo Alvarado looking at the site
Nik Theodore and Pablo Alvarado looking at the site

Sometimes the police would pull their guns and one leader, a Guatemalan native and a veteran of the battles, was still working the corner now after twenty-five years, even as the daily numbers have dwindled to 20 to 30 workers.  Pablo told the story again as we huddled around, more fact than legend of when one cop had pulled a gun on this leader and he had stood his ground and taunted the cop saying that in his country if you unholstered a gun and didn’t pull the trigger, you were not man at all.  This was serious business.

"Helicopter" Hill, where the younger workers ran and were buzzed by helicopters
“Helicopter” Hill, where the younger workers ran and were buzzed by helicopters

            Agoura Hills was not just a fight for the workers’ right to work, but a civil and human rights fight as well.  In a bitter irony, Officer Castro became the Bull Conner in this struggle, dominated by racism and the community’s fear of a brown “invasion,” because he was one of the few Latino officers.  The harassment was constant and the tactics were typical, especially conducting the raids on Friday so that workers would be stuck behind bars all weekend.  Pablo and the nascent day laborers movement were pulled up to the Battle of Agoura Hills time and time again.  The ACLU and its young attorneys were enlisted into the fight to establish the workers right to assemble, and eventually the constant struggle ended in a victory for the day laborers after 1997, having established the right to assemble for work.  Even Officer Castro parked under a nearby tree and, unhappily, conceded their victory to the workers, turning over his sword, so to speak, in defeat.

Pablo telling a young worker about the history of the site while he waits for work
Pablo telling a young worker about the history of the site while he waits for work
Metro expansion is coming to outer Los Angeles County which will eliminate the "corner"
Metro expansion is coming to outer Los Angeles County which will eliminate the “corner”

            The roots of the Battle of Agoura Hills were deep though and produced other great victories from their branches, including what Brother Alvarado described as perhaps the first victory in the contemporary Fight for $15 per hour.  The workers on this corner had set a wage from almost the time of the victory through the early years of the 21st century at $12.50 per hour as their set standard to leave the shade and climb in a contractor’s truck, but in 2006 they argued long and hard to move the wage to $15 per hour.  The vote was dramatic and months of back and forth discussion had taken place until the final debate near the tree on the lot opposite of the old battleground.  It went back and forth heatedly.  One contractor pulled up and usually would have been clustered by workers like bees to the hive, but got out of his truck when no workers came over.  Finally, one yelled to him, “we’re in a meeting, come back in an hour!”  He left scratching his head to return an hour later and wait until the vote was completed.  A show of hands produced 85 votes to go to $15 and 15 votes to stand pat.  The same leader who had earlier faced a gun, now drew a line in the stand and asked the workers who had voted not to raise the rate to cross, so that all the workers knew exactly who would scab the rate if it didn’t hold.

Pablo with some of the guys and talking to 25-year corner veteran worker and leader of the Battle of Agoura Hills
Pablo with some of the guys and talking to 25-year corner veteran worker and leader of the Battle of Agoura Hills
 another angle
another angle
Tree and parking area where the vote for $15 occurred in 2006
Tree and parking area where the vote for $15 occurred in 2006

            There may not be many workers on this corner now, but memories of the Battles of Agoura Hills are still fresh, the wage rate stands firm at $15 and rising, and there will be laborers assembling here until the tracks are laid down and the trains are rolling, and the workers have to find another location where contractors can find them to get the work done.

The "new" Agoura Hills is coming
The “new” Agoura Hills is coming
Road sign for the site
Road sign for the site
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Criminalizing Immigration in Modern Society

americasvoiceonline-dc-protest600x350pxNew Orleans      Meeting with Suyapa Amador and Erlyn Perez, ACORN International’s key organizers in Honduras in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa recently in Nicaragua, it became clear that we were making progress in winning more security for our neighborhoods, including several important commitment from the First Lady focusing on jobs as well as protection, but we were still putting our fingers in the dike. In Managua they could not stop talking about how much safer it felt everywhere compared to Honduras. For better or worse, the government felt like it worked in Nicaragua, rather than being either ineffective or oppositional in Honduras. We heard amazing stories of what it took for families to raise the $4000 to $6000 to try to allow family members, including children, to escape the violence and, quite frankly, to find jobs.

Bobby Jindal, the ultra-conservative Republican governor of Louisiana and wannabe presidential contender, on this side of the fence wants to know more than he should about the more than 1000 children from Honduras and other Central American countries being held with family in Louisiana. The Jefferson Parish public schools wants to know where they can come up with $4 million to provide the additional support services for these children coming into their system. Another Republican wannabe, Texas governor Rick Perry, has tried to broad-brush these children and others as potential terrorists. Headlines everywhere ask for support for refugees fleeing violence, bombing, and religious persecution in the Middle East, where millions are running for their lives. Departing Attorney General Eric Holder announced support for legal representation for the Central American’s coming over the border. How is it that Republicans and many Americans can pretend to understand refugees in the Middle East, but are confused about our Central American neighbors being human rights and economic refugees in almost precisely the same way?

I listened to a brief presentation and interview recently organized by the New Orleans on-line news service, the Lens with lawyers, organizers, and beleaguered immigrants connected to the Congress of Day Laborers and the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice.    An unfortunately slim audience listened to a back and forth about whether or not the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program in New Orleans was a pilot or not, and whether or not it was joining with the New Orleans Police Department to target, profile, and raid minority, immigrant communities in the city. New Orleans is part of the Secure Communities program which has been dropped by many other major urban areas. They reported meetings with Mayor Mitch Landrieu that had failed to win commitments to break away from their agreement though won some concessions around study, follow-up, and resources. The voices of the immigrants were powerful, though their stories probably confused many of the listeners, because despite being on message, the main takeaway was less about the police than about the precariousness of their situations, dropping them into the abyss of our broken immigration system.

There were two inescapable points made, one for New Orleans, and the other for everywhere. The Justice Department consent decree for the NOPD forbids it from targeting immigrant communities, but the city’s agreement with ICE on Secure Communities, makes them a handmaiden of the ICE officers in their work. But, the precariousness of circumstance that the two immigrants related settles on the ICE and Obama Administration claim to be rounding up “criminal” aliens, and continuing to allow the criminality to be defined and confused in the public’s mind. For most of these roundups the “criminal” behavior is having broken the law by coming over the border illegally. In the main this is not about robbers, rapists, murders, and drug traffic or terror, but about refugees guilty of seeking America for a better life.

The criminal behavior we heard early in the morning was a trip to the store for a baby and a domestic spat with a husband, both of which have now snared people in deportation proceedings, split their families, and exacerbated the criminality of their immigration. Looking north from Central America, all ACORN can see is a human rights crisis in countless communities, but here we are opening our jails faster than either our hearts or minds.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail