Day Labor Pains in Portland

Alejandro is an immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico whose weathered, toughened hands betrayed his experience with construction jobs. In a recent interview, he said visiting the de facto day labor corners at SE 6th and Ankeny every morning has been his ongoing task for at least a month, every time landing him some type of work.

“Oaxaca is too much resting, not enough work,” he explained. “In Portland there is good natural beauty and good jobs.” His personal plan was to work here very hard for five years and then return home to his wife and two children, ages 7 and 4.

While some area businesses and property owners want laborers like Alejandro who search daily for work on and around the SE 6th Avenue and Ankeny intersection relocated as soon as possible to a new as yet unbuilt day labor center, others in the area have not made that demand. In fact, the functioning business closest to the day labor issue, the only one along that stretch of SE 6th Avenue whose front door literally opens into the on-street labor market, has been doing quite well and has no immediate plans to change.

“We’ve been here with it daily for 2½ years, so I kind of know what’s going on,” Charlie Becker, owner of C.Z. Becker Co., 15 SE 6th Avenue, a wood flooring restoration contractor, claimed during a recent interview at his office. “This is ground zero to the day labor movement in Portland.”

In business since the early 1980’s, Becker first opened his doors in the remodeled one-story 1940’s-era building during November 2004. “At first, I thought ‘My Lord, I didn’t want to deal with this!’ ” he explained placing hands on his face for emphasis. After a talk with the previous building owner, however, Becker changed his mind and decided that “Gee, maybe this will work.”

Becker, 62, says he feels his business has helped to improve the neighborhood, and that “on net, it has worked out better than I would have anticipated. The day laborers are pretty good guys, and respectful.” He described them as an “optimistic group that come to the street clear, they appear to have good values, they appear to want to work. This is about 75-80 percent. The others are sore tooths.” He described “sore tooths” as potential troublemakers who congregate more in the late morning and afternoon, those not as obviously industrious and looking for work as those who come out early in the morning and ready to go.

Employing about a dozen tradesmen and estimators, Becker claimed the situation was “all a matter of balance.” Pointing a finger to a Saturday morning crowd not far from his office window of 40 to 50 men, Becker remarked, “Forty is okay, but 300 is too much.” Saturday mornings are usually the busiest time of the week for the local day laborers, he said.

The day laborers do present what he calls “nuisance” problems with people standing around the front of the building talking too loudly, or the occasional truck stopping in front to hire workers. Past problems like people leaning up against the building façade were eventually solved when he decided to landscape the front and plant shrubbery as a barrier strip. “That idea was a stroke of brilliance.” Other early problems, now gone, included people sleeping on the roof and using the north side of the building as a latrine. “I’ve seen some curious things,” Becker said with a raised eyebrow.


Still, the business has not experienced a break-in or theft, and in the one case of broken window vandalism, day laborers actually helped out by providing descriptions of the non-laborer vandals who committed the crime, Becker said. And when his employees found someone sleeping in the front doorway, it was not a day laborer. He has infrequently used some of the day laborers for various odd jobs. “On net, for who we are and what we want to do, it’s been okay here,” the owner concluded.

There has been some improvement on the street as far as trash goes, with day laborers occasionally sweeping the street. “But they should, because they did it,” Becker remarked. He does hope for even more improvement on the street trash issue. Becker also credits police, on bikes and cars, with improving the area almost as soon as he opened for business by regularly asking if he needed anything and whether he had been bothered by anyone. He also credits neighborhood business people like Bob Wentworth with helping to reduce or eliminate the number of mobile food stands and vehicles that used to frequently cater to the laborers. During the interview, one middle-age woman was peddling a sack of homemade delicacies, doing a brisk business right in front of Becker’s building. “How can you fault that?” he asked to no one in particular, “a charming lady selling tortillas for $1 each.”

Becker admits that “we’re not as daunted” by the day laborers because his business doesn’t have a lot of the public regularly coming and going from his building, remodeled with assistance from several Portland Development Commission targeted neighborhood programs. “We’re contractors. We’re not as threatened by people on the street,” Becker offered. “And I certainly don’t mind some of the Latin energy here. That’s the way I am. Hey, on the interesting scale here, it’s pretty interesting.” Having traveled through Mexico, Becker quipped he knows “enough Spanish to be dangerous.”

As for the mainstream media coverage of the day labor situation, Becker claims that it’s generally “fatuous. There’s a fundamental lack of understanding about what’s going on down here.” He also had some dismissive words – “reactionary fucks” — to describe the “militia types” who picketed the area’s day laborers back in October 2006.

“There’s actually a fair amount of laughter here,” Becker observed. “What the area lacks is a sense of meanness. It’s actually a chatty group; it’s a social thing. They like hanging out and being social with each other.”

Becker said he has gotten to know some of the regularly appearing laborers, and he isn’t afraid to say something if an issue comes up. However, he usually won’t say anything about someone causing a concern if he doesn’t recognize that person, knowing they probably won’t be around for long: “I don’t say anything to the new ones.” Overall, the atmosphere remains very cordial. “I recognize them and they recognize us. We live and let live.”

Graffiti has not been a big problem. “Oh we’ve had a little graffiti, but we feel a little neglected over here,” Becker joked as he gazed across the street at several patches of street art. He noted that his building’s stucco exterior probably deters more graffiti than it attracts.

One thing Becker said he’s noticed is the “many advocates” that intermittently visit the workers with various services. “Different organizations will bring down bread, food, even prepare meals for them right here.” A mobile medical clinic reportedly visits the area with some frequency, too.

Displaying a sense of historical connection, appropriate for someone who deals in restoring period homes for a living, Becker explained that his building started as a mechanic’s shop, and then served as a union hiring hall for laundry workers. Afterwards, it apparently served as a home for electrical contracting before its current incarnation. “There’s always been labor here.”

Describing himself as a “cheerful curmudgeonly cynic,” Becker said his business has “been a good business. We’re not getting drop-dead rich, but we’ve always made a good living at it” and that C.Z. Becker Co. has always been well regarded in the home restoration industry. Becker hopes his two sons will eventually take over the business, but he has no plans to change what has been working well for him for at least the next three years.


In an interview on June 6 at City Hall as he entered the latest round of talks over the day labor issue, Mayor Tom Potter gave this personal assessment: “Well, you know, I would like to see a temporary day labor center before (the city’s stated early 2008 goal for a fully operational facility) because we’ve got another winter coming up. I don’t know if you’ve watched some of the folks who are standing outside during the rain; it’s not very pleasant for them and I think they deserve better than that.

“So yes, we want to get a permanent center as soon as possible. We think it benefits not only the day laborers but the entire community by providing a place for them, and also so that the employers can come and find the appropriate people for their jobs, and also so that their work can be overseen to ensure the (laborers) are getting their money and all the benefits that they’re supposed to. So yeah, we want to do that.”

Confirming that he did want to see at least a temporary day labor center in place before the inclement winter weather, Potter added, “If that’s possible. And I say ‘if that’s possible’ because we have to work with a lot of different groups to make sure that happens. That would certainly be my goal, is to get some place, (even if) you have just a temporary, until we get a permanent spot.”


To be sure, not all the neighboring business operators feel like Becker. The manager of Schuck’s Auto Supply, 30 SE Grand Ave., Colline Swenson, said in an interview that the day laborer situation is a big problem and costs her store “easily a hundred customers a week. Easily. They go to other stores instead.” The Schuck’s parking lot in back of the building is an unfenced space that opens onto SE 6th and is regularly used by the laborers. The auto parts store customers are afraid of the day laborers they see in the lot and many decide not to stop, Swenson explained. “It would be a good idea if the city would take care of (the problem), but the city’s not doing anything. I e-mailed them and they haven’t even responded to me.”

Swenson said the problem is so bad that even she does not use her store’s parking lot unless “forced to” when the one-hour on street parking limits expire. Loitering laborers also mean the Schuck’s staff has to spend at least 10 to 20 minutes a day cleaning up trash in the parking lot left by the day laborers, and Spanish graffiti also is a problem, the manager said. A lack of public restrooms in the area also causes problems in and around the parking lot, Swenson noted.

Swenson admitted she has not talked with any of the day laborers or sought out their spokespeople during the two months she has managed the location. She said the laborers were “trespassing” on her business property, did not feel obligated to speak with them, and was fearful of retaliation to her vehicle if she did say anything to the laborers.


Back on the other side of SE 6th Avenue to the east, the owner of Rontoms Lounge, 600 E. Burnside, also said he had not spoken with any of the laborers, but his outlook was decidedly different. “I have no problem” with the day laborers, owner Ron Toms remarked at his trendy spot for the younger neighborhood lounge lizard set.

“They’ve given absolutely no grief to me. I’ve never had any vandalism, and I’ve never had any theft,” Toms claimed. “In fact, they protect my space.” The lounge has an outside patio with a westside fence that acts as a backdrop to the upper east side of SE 6th Avenue, and day laborers are constantly milling about the area just outside his building and patio space, often into the late afternoons when the chance to pick up work is drastically reduced.

Toms said he was very aware of the rising pressures, especially from other business owners, to relocate the laborers. He certainly did not feel those pressures are warranted: “I think it’s outside of my rights as a business owner to evict people from public areas.” Squarely within the live-and-let-live camp, Toms concluded , “If they’re relocated that’s fine. If not, that’s fine.”


Another business/property owner with a direct connection to the stretch of SE 6th Avenue used by the day laborers is David Brands, a vocal proponent of relocating the workers. Bob Wentworth of Wentworth Autos and Brands have helped lead the charge from the business community for a relocation of the day laborers to another site outside of a retail business environment. At the most recent set of talks on the issue on June 6 at City Hall, Brands remarked, “We have a really bad situation now” in regards to the workers, people driving through the neighborhood, and for the employers searching for day laborers. The building fronting the northeast corner of the SE 6th and Ankeny intersection is owned by Brands.

Currently vacant, the previous tenant, a home remodeling company, moved out “a couple weeks ago” and Brands said in a recent interview that he believes the day labor situation affects his ability to lease the space. “Yes, no question about it,” he remarked. He said the former tenant did make comments to him regarding the laborers who sometimes appeared to be “intimidating” to people coming and going, particularly at dawn and dusk.

Brands, the owner of Coast Cutlery, said his family has owned the building on SE 6th for about 20 years, and it once served as the business headquarters until they outgrew the space. Asked about recent claims that it was not possible to lease his building due to the presence of the day laborers, Brands said, “It’s certainly been true to this point, because it is empty and I haven’t been able to lease it so far.”

He conceded, however, that the building has only been on the lease market for “two or three months,” not all of that time with a professional leasing broker. Asked directly if he believed the day labor situation was preventing him from leasing the building, Brands backpedaled somewhat: “You know, I really can’t . . . who’s to say? I mean, you know, I haven’t had somebody come up and tell me, ‘I’m not going to lease it because they’re there.’ But, I mean, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that were they not there, it would be a more attractive building to rent. I mean, I think anybody would probably conclude that.”

Brands and Bob Wentworth are behind a push to find a short-term relocation spot for the day laborers ahead of the city’s current goal of opening a functional day labor center by the first quarter of 2008. Day labor advocates also are behind the push to open a new day labor center. However, they caution that enough time must be employed, anywhere from 3 to 6 months, for the proper transition activities to take place, such as signage, fliers, news reports and communications with all parties concerned.


Much of the June 6 City Hall day labor center meeting attended by the mayor was taken up by a digital PowerPoint presentation from Pablo Alvarado of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). Alvarado, NDLON’s national coordinator who had arrived in Portland that afternoon from Los Angeles, said 65 day labor centers currently operated in the US, most of which now served women laborers, too.

Of the many statistics cited, Alvarado noted that 60% of day laborers have been cheated of their full wages by employers. He said that last year there were about 600 day labor street corners located throughout the US, and as a “snapshot on any given day, at any given time” there were about 200,000 day laborers in America, according to numbers from two years ago. As regards the legal questions, Alvarado said about 25% of day laborers actually possessed the proper documentation, while 11% were in the process of applying for those documents.

Noting that most cities needed a transition time of 3 to 6 months to successfully relocate day laborers from street corners to a day labor center, Alvarado declared that “less than 3 months, and it takes a lot of work.” Alvarado was attending the June 6 meeting at the invitation of VOZ (Voice), the Workers’ Rights Education Project in Portland, a member-led organization committed to empowering immigrant workers, which represents the day laborers. VOZ is a member of NDLON.

Asked about operating expenses for day labor centers, Alvarado gave a range of $25,000 to $5M annually. For a 4 to 5 person staff, the anticipated annual expenses would be about $220,000 to $250,000 a year, with a smaller staffed center operating in the range of $160,000 to $185,000 annually, he noted. Potential funding sources for organizing and operating day labor centers included individual donors, private foundations, local governments, churches, local businesses, day laborers, and employers of day laborers.

Once a day laborer himself, Alvarado said that a successful day labor center needed to provide good and numerous employment opportunities (he cited a minimum goal of 35% of the day laborers finding work), proximity to the work sites, viability and accessibility, participation by the day laborers in the center operations, and ongoing community support.

Following the June 6 City Hall meeting, Alvarado characterized the Portland situation with a good deal of optimism: “I think folks here are more advanced than many other places. I mean, look, there is a day labor organization already, people (in VOZ) who are working with the day laborers, doing wage claims with them. So you already have that. There are communities where day laborers don’t have that. Here you have the business owners and elected officials, some other community organizations, and the day laborers that were here, talking with each other. That’s beautiful, are you kidding?!”

Alvarado said communities usually going through the day labor center organizing process at the beginning are saying things like, ” ‘These illegal immigrants need to leave the country.’ But with time they seem to understand that the workers are not going to go anywhere, and (the community had) better do something more constructive.”

His personal day labor movement experience includes helping to establish about 25 day labor centers since his first efforts began in 1992 in Pasadena, California (a site he said required 8 years of talks and actions before completion), as well as organizing “a lot” of corners. Alvarado has experienced many regions where the situation is far more tense than what he had briefly seen in Portland: “Some of the folks that want every single day laborer out there deported, usually those voices exclude themselves from the process. Because when you have those kinds of demands, it’s just not practical, it’s not pragmatic. In places where elected officials listen too much to those types of voices, that’s where reaching a solution is really very difficult.”

So the fact that Portland’s mayor was sitting at the table discussing the day labor issue came as a genuine and pleasant surprise to Alvarado: “He was here! He was talking to . . . He was sitting besides a day laborer. That’s a beautiful thing to do! That’s so commendable to me.” Asked if he had seen much of that kind of interaction between a mayor of a major city and day laborers, Alvarado answered, “Rarely, rarely.”

Back on the southeastern streets of Portland’s day labor movement, Alejandro explained that his current stay in America was his first trip abroad. He said he had no big problems here to date, and that he has found the people in Portland to be “good.”

Alejandro was sporting a neat and tidy pack back tied off with a dangling modern hand compass. When asked for the time, he pulled out a silver cell phone with a slightly worn cover. After checking the phone’s clock, he said that the rates to call to his family back in Mexico were not too expensive.

(Originally appeared 06/13/07, Portland IndyMedia)

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