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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.