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
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The AFL-CIO Continues to Step Forward with “New Labor”

New uale logo Orleans John Hiatt, now the AFL-CIO chief of staff under Richard Trumka, and previously general counsel under John Sweeney, was the lead speaker on an early morning plenary before the United Association of Labor Educators (UALE) meeting in New Orleans on the topic of “Building a New Labor Movement for a New Economy.”  He and his co-panelists who included Kent Wong from the UCLA Labor Center as well as a leader of the Domestic Workers Alliance and a lawyer with an interesting bi-national (Mexico/USA) legal project with migrants offered some refreshing perspectives not heard every day in your usual labor oriented gathering.

John and I go back almost 40 years now to common ties with welfare rights even before ACORN and to his several weeks in Little Rock one summer helping organize unemployed workers with ACORN around 1972 or so.  It’s sometimes a rocky road but given his last 15 years as an erstwhile and sometimes controversial keeper of the keys in the “house of labor,” I see these kinds of initiatives among “informal” workers as a kind of “values” statement for John and his inside advocacy within the corridors of labor power that help justify some of the more contentious weight he has carried in various disputes.  His personal crusade as general counsel for immigration reform was one such touchstone, as well as his merging of labor law and labor organizing strategies with his efforts to support the organizing of carwashers in Los Angeles as an affiliate of the Steelworkers is another.  Not all of these efforts have worked out well, and who despite the steps forward labor made in the 2009-10 campaign for immigration reform, it’s a mixed bag as well and a conundrum still unresolved.

Nonetheless there is no questioning the sincerity with which the AFL-CIO has adopted some of the “newer” forms of organizing under a bigger tent philosophy particularly with new organizing experiments among informal workers including day laborers, domestic workers, and others.  The AFL-CIO has formally taken steps which would have been unheard of 20 years ago to come to agreement with organizations representing these groups like NDLON (the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network), Enlace (a multi-national membership based organization of where Local 100 and ACORN International have been charter members), and the Domestic Workers Alliance, which recently won breakthrough labor standards protection in New York State and seems to have new campaigns in California and others pending in the next year in Colorado, Maryland, and Massachusetts.  They have also signed agreements with the Interfaith Worker Justice, a labor/religious support organization based in Chicago and headed by our friend, Kim Bobo, and John mentioned that the Restaurant Opportunities Council (ROC) in New York and elsewhere may be moving towards a form of affiliation as well.

I have argued in Citizen Wealth and in a coming essay in Social Policy (The Maharashtra Model v.41#1) that the future of the labor movement lies not only in the USA , but worldwide in our effectively organizing what one speaker called “excluded” workers and what I call “informal” workers.  These steps by the AFL-CIO are encouraging in that sense though they are largely symbolic unfortunately.  They are signals and placeholders of change and openness without being taken seriously as “real organizing.’  These efforts by and large are not backed by resources and organizers, but by favors and suasion or the leverage of “powerful pockets” as the DWA leader argued.  All of this that is part of a successful organizing plan and what has been proven to create victories, but that’s a lot more than a piece of paper and some good dialogue.

Saying hello to John after the plenary and before my panel, I complimented him for his remarks and the AFL-CIO’s initiatives, but he quickly interrupted me with a grin, and said, “if we could only figure out how to collect dues and bring in members!”

It’s a longer conversation and a different kind of conversion experience on the way to the “new labor movement,” but as Cesar Chavez argued 40 years ago and as I say all the time, “you can’t collect dues without asking people to pay.”

This is the future, if we can just step up to get there.

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