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EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: Workers choose not to use the local hiring hall for a number of reasons, crowding downtown Graton each morning in the hopes of getting a day's paid labor.

Street Talking

New no 'Street Hiring' signs in Graton point to continued conflict between concept of hiring hall and reality of day laborers

By Dani Burlison

The presence of migrant workers in the west Sonoma County town of Graton has a long history, beginning with Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and then again when the black roller clouds of the dustbowl forced farmers west during the Great Depression. Unlike the unemployed men in urban areas who sold apples on street corners to support their families, men who found themselves migrating west to places like Graton were most likely waiting on street corners for work picking the apples that were for sale elsewhere.

A perfect destination when what's needed at the end of the week is a fancy cocktail and quick escape from the grind, Graton has evolved vastly over the last decade. What was once considered a rough-and-tumble backwoods town was transformed into a wine country hot spot with the help of developer Orrin Thiessen and his Downtown Graton Revitalization project.

Nestled at an intersection of Sonoma County's vineyards, apple orchards and redwood trees, Graton's downtown now provides visitors three blocks of award-winning dining, gallery openings and local businesses. Despite the outward appearance of the town's relative calm, however, is the behind-the-scenes, hushed murmur of its residents, discussing what to do with the problem of day laborers' continued presence on the streets which, some argue, clashes greatly with the charming image Graton would like to maintain.

During recent morning visits, a dozen men casually stood on street corners, appearing to be patiently waiting for employers to stop and offer them a day's work. Just down Bowen Street, however, the majority of day laborers congregated at the grounds of the Graton Day Labor Center (GDL) in hopes of connecting with local employers through the services that the center has been providing, with community support, for over five years.

According to the town's community e-letter, that some workers do not utilize the new center—which recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at the permanent site—and continue to "loiter" in this otherwise quiet town has been the focus of concern. After many adamantly rejected the idea of handing out cards asking workers to leave the streets, some residents came together just before harvest season to install no street hiring signs in hopes of deterring those seeking work and their potential employers from using Graton Road as a hiring spot.

News of the sign installation was reported in the West County Gazette under the dramatic heading of "Defending OUR Home Town: Graton Defends Downtown from Loitering Laborers." However, the biggest complaints expressed have been over men making suggestive comments toward passersby or leaving trash behind. After the article was posted online, its author, the Gazette's Graton columnist HolLynn D'lil, changed her tone.

"Bottom line, the issue is very minor," she stated in response to a query from the Bohemian. "I would not feel comfortable with escalating or emphasizing a situation that is actually working well and has been for decades." She would instead, like the focus to be on the planning of the town's community garden. "If there is a story here, it's about how Graton is becoming green."

"It is a very complex issue," says GDL's lead organizer Davin Cardenas. "Graton has had a history with day laborers since before many of the businesses and residents have been there. Yet large groups of men on the streets can be intimidating for some people." The center and its workers have had extensive, open and ongoing dialogue with many of Graton's residents and business owners about issues that have come up, including the recent decision to install the no street hiring signs, which were paid for by community members and local business owners.

Despite his center's efforts to organize workers, Cardenas recognizes their freedom to gain employment however they choose. "We practice an explicit system of inclusion at GDL. All we know is that if people are out of luck and need an organized way to help find them work, we're here to help. If they want to find work in other ways, they have that right." Much of the seasonal work in the area, such as the annual grape harvest, is contracted independently, and GDL has little influence over that particular hiring process.

Still, Cardenas feels that workers who remain on the streets could benefit greatly from what his center offers, including a health clinic and English classes. One of only some 50 official hiring halls nationwide, GDL also provides training for workers and translation for employers, and advocates for safe work conditions and living wages of $12 or more per hour for day laborers.

The center also serves as an unofficial hub of intercultural bonding, despite a history of regionalism between day laborers from different areas. Contrary to assumptions, the workers are not all just passing through Sonoma County from Mexico, and not all speak Spanish as their primary language. Many come from as far away as Guatemala and the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and more are U.S.-born and bus into town from nearby Santa Rosa. A variety of Spanish language dialects are spoken, depending on region of origin. And, yes, even English.

"Learning or improving English skills and playing soccer are honestly the two main things that get workers here to set aside difference and strengthen the camaraderie," Cardenas laughs. "None of them want to sit around and listen to me lecture about organizing."

A local business owner whose shared photography studio sits just down the block from Graton Day Labor on Bowen Street, Michelle Feileacan has noticed a big decrease of workers on the street corners since GDL opened its doors. Having hired from the center, Feileacan says she is satisfied with her experience. Still, she would like to see more workers reap the benefits of the center's advocacy, not strictly because of the occasional cat-calling she's received during her morning jaunts down the street for coffee or to reduce the garbage sometimes left behind by those hanging out, but because of the resources GDL makes available.

From GDL board member Terry Winter's perspective, the motivation behind the community's "No Street Hiring" signs was to make the center more visible and to provide employers with reliable workers. "The key to getting workers off of the streets is to get the employers to the center," he says. "Get them here once, and they'll come back." Yet many continue to hire off of the streets because their dollar goes further when they set the pay rate instead of having GDL set it for them.

Investing time and money into installing the no street hiring signs was not simply motivated by the desire to move workers to the center, but to remedy the situation that many residents and business owners see as a nuisance. "Many of the men on the streets are not there just to find work," Winter says. "Some are just there to simply hang out, as many people do in places like Mexico and Central America. It's a cultural thing."

Unlike north Santa Rosa's Fulton area, where workers and employers alike have endured harassment and even threats by hate groups such as the Minutemen Project, Graton sees little aggression, and residents remain mostly tolerant of the men who remain on the streets. However, there is still an expectation that the center is responsible for the migrant workers being in town. "We never believed we'd get all hiring off the streets like the community wanted," Winter says. "Some of the community expectations are a bit unrealistic. In fact, if a Latino were involved in an incident or crime, the labor center would be looked at."

The issues remain more complex than simply enticing workers to change locations or celebrating cultural diversity. Many suggest holding the street employers accountable. Others even consider whether or not men hanging out along street corners should be considered a problem, begging the question that no liberal do-gooder wants to address: Would men on the streets be looked at the same if they were recently unemployed white neighbors?

"If the American people were in such a dire economic crisis and headed to Canada to find work," Winter says, "we'd be seen as patriotic, not as a problem."

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