September 6-12, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Centro Laboral

By Peter Byrne

Something remarkable is going on in Graton, a tiny town located a few miles west of Santa Rosa. Downtown Graton is just a few shops and restaurants, the epicenter of a well-to-do suburban milieu. But on a public sidewalk in front of a locked private club, dozens of Latino men gather early each morning to organize themselves. They are day laborers, and they call their organization Centro Laboral de Graton.

As the social benefits of the sidewalk-based labor center become apparent, Sonoma County businesses and individuals flock to support the group with donations of money, bicycles, a site for an office trailer and tons of volunteer time. Six years after it was jump-started by several Gratonites, including local teacher Christy Lubin, the self-protection society has obtained nonprofit status.

For sure, most of the workers are "nonprofit" refugees, fleeing the depredations that NAFTA unleashed upon Mexican and Central American economies. They come here not because they like Disneyland or McDonalds, but because they must.

The Centro Laboral board is composed of workers and local activists. The workers take the leading roles on board committees, especially regarding issues of housing, healthcare and politics. In partnership with Santa Rosa Junior College, volunteers teach two kinds of English to the men (and a few women). Ensconced in a local eatery, they teach "street" language for use in restaurants, vineyards and construction sites, and the literary English required in high school equivalency courses.

Carlos Lopez and Davin Cardenas are the paid organizers. Leaning into car windows, they quickly negotiate wages ($12 an hour and up, depending upon skill level) and conditions of employment. Employers are asked to fill out "feedback" forms, which provide protection to the workers and help the group to assess how it is doing.

Across the street from Centro Laboral is a cluster of day laborers, who, for various reasons, remain apart from the organized workers. Lopez says that alcohol and fighting are problems in those groups. Antisocial behavior is not allowed at Centro Laboral, which is structured to avoid the primary source of intraworker friction: job competition.

Each day, the workers sign a list and receive one-half of a torn, numbered ticket. The tickets are randomly drawn in lots of five to determine which men get priority when a housewife or contractor drives up looking for a worker. Those who have not worked for two days jump to the head of the line.

Consequently, Lopez estimates that the laborers are employed about 40 percent of the time. They gross around $750 a month, of which half goes to paying cheap rent in group homes and eating cheap food. The balance is sent home to family.

Centro Laboral is much more than a job distribution site--it is a model for the future. Not just for workers who are excluded from citizenship, but for entire communities that wish to create foundations for a just society. The benefits of inclusion are self-evident. For example, Centro Laboral enrolls the workers in programs at county health centers where medical practitioners focus on healing infections and job injuries, while teaching preventative medicine.

There are a few day-labor centers in Northern California, located in Graton, Healdsburg, San Francisco, Oakland and Mountain View. Many of the Centro Laboral-based workers live in Santa Rosa, but that city offers no support to immigrant labor. Every day, Santa Rosans ride bikes or buses to Graton, searching not only for work, but for collective dignity. The day-labor organizing movement recently got a shot in the arm when the AFL-CIO recognized the rights of "illegals" to employment protections. And Centro Laboral is a member of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network that advocates "legalization for everyone."

It is a fact that day laborers do much of the productive labor that supports society. By the millions, they work, buy consumer goods, rent apartments and pay taxes. Their will to do an honest day's labor stands out from the dominant paradigm of laziness that afflicts the corporativized workforce.

As baby boomers retire from making babies, the replacement rate of white people is in decline. But the Hispanic population is soaring. Waves of new immigrants are revitalizing our economy. And they hold the key to unlocking the political system and replacing plutocracy with a true democracy. Hence the whimpers of protest from the likes of Lou Dobbs. The CNN anchor claims, with clenched jaw, that immigrant hordes are draining our economy.

In fact, "illegals" produce more economic value in a day than the average corporate bureaucrat or media celebrity creates in a lifetime. And "illegals" pay lots of taxes, unlike the government contractors and wealthy individuals who, according to a March 2006 report by the IRS, cheated the government of $345 billion in 2001.

¡Basta ya!

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