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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Going Small versus the Grand on Immigration Reform

familiesNew Orleans  Sitting in at the California field office of the House majority whip, Angelica Salas, the esteemed, outstanding director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), was informed that the House would not take up the issue of immigration reform before the end of the year, virtually taking the rest of the air out of hopes that there might be Republican movement finally on this issue.   With the mid-term elections in Congress now on a one-year countdown, it is hard to believe that a change of heart is likely that will lead to real relief for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

            Talking to Chris Newman, the legal director of the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network (NDLON) last week on Wade’s World on KABF/FM, he was candid about the internal debate now being waged intensely within the immigration reform movement about whether it was finally time to adjust strategies and go small, rather than big on potential legislation.   This has long been a debate at various levels since President Obama was first elected and activists sensed the time for change might be imminent.  Five years ago the DC-based, beltway voices prevailed over those arguing that more popular measures like a re-tooled DREAM Act for children brought to the US by their parents might succeed where more comprehensive reform was less likely.   The subsequent courage of the DREAMers won them some relaxation and relief even without a real, permanent solution.   Even Rick Perry, the rightwing, Republican Governor of Texas has argued that not finding a solution for children is simply “inhumane.”

Now, talking to Chris it was clear that the debate has once again focused on whether or not there are pieces of the reform mosaic that might be assembled if, as seems increasingly likely, the chances of comprehensive reform passing in both houses of Congress are remote.   As interesting were the points Chris made about the President and the discretion he could still exercise through executive orders.  Chris’s point was essentially, that if Obama could suspend deportations for young people so that they could move forward with their lives, then why could he also not use similar discretion to significantly reduce deportations of other immigrants that has now reached record levels under the Obama Administration and its enforcement guidelines.  

There may have been a tactical reason for the Administration to prove they were tough on border control and deportations in exchange for a strategy of holding out for the full loaf of reform, but now that we’re talking slices, what’s the excuse for not similarly easing back in specific areas involving particularly family separations which could suspend deportation for millions as well?  Additionally, Newman and I discussed the fact that California under Governor Jerry Brown was now leading on immigration reform and given the fact that the strongest immigration reform groups were actually local, not national, like CHIRLA in California, Casa de Maryland, and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), and the most dramatic fights have developed in places on the frontline in places like Arizona, perhaps going smaller would also allow grassroots strength – and anger – to lead where lobbying was failing in Congress.

Change is inevitable, and reform at whatever level and on whatever issues can get traction is needed immediately, so a new strategy may now be necessary to move the needle in steps, and even locally, while it is stuck in Washington.

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