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March 12th, 2008 COREY PEIN | News Stories
 

New Tent City

Portland’s day labor site on MLK Boulevard still has fences to climb.

     
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No Más: When PDX’s day-labor center opens in May, workers won’t have to hang out on the street, but in a tent instead on Northeast MLK.
IMAGE: brianleephoto.com

Starting this week, contractors who drive along Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, looking to pick up Latin American day laborers, will be handed fliers bearing a message from the workers’ advocates.

Not “Up the union,” but something like, “Please visit our new location.” The fliers will direct employers to a day labor hiring site scheduled to open May 6 on a vacant city-owned lot on MLK just south of Interstate 84.

The Portland City Council approved $200,000 last week to establish the site, a unanimous decision that came with less political ineptitude and fewer accusations of crypto-racism than last year’s fruitless debate over renaming a street after César Chávez, the late Mexican-American labor leader.

The experience of the 65-odd U.S. cities with organized day labor sites suggests the site will improve safety for workers—many of whom are undocumented immigrants—and for the general public, by improving traffic flow and bringing rules and order to the underground economy.

As it has with many day labor sites around the country, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch threatened the mayor’s office with a lawsuit. But Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network, dismisses the threat as a “publicity stunt” aimed at galvanizing sentiment against national immigration reform.

Even the Bush administration’s Justice Department endorsed such sites, in a 2006 report.

What’s unclear is not the benefit of the day labor site, but whether Portland’s center can survive after the tenure of Mayor Tom Potter, who championed the labor center as well as the doomed street renaming.

A long-term labor site faces several potential hurdles to continued financial and political support.

The council’s $200,000 grant roughly doubles the annual budget of VOZ, the local nonprofit chosen to manage the site. (The site will consist of a single-wide trailer containing offices for a site director and a dispatcher, a 30-foot tent to shelter workers, and two portable unisex restrooms. And, of course, bike racks.)

But the grant still doesn’t cover expected expenses of $404,000 through 2009, says VOZ director Romeo Sosa, a former factory worker, janitor and dishwasher from Guatemala. And with recession in the headlines, the private donors and foundations Sosa expects to cover the $200,000 difference may be less generous than hoped.

Tighter city budgets will also work against VOZ, in the likely event that the group must return to ask the council for more funds in a couple of years.

Stable funding—much of it from local government—was key to the nine-year-old day labor site in Seattle’s Belltown district, says Hilary Stern, director of the nonprofit CASA Latina, which manages the site. Last year the Seattle City Council approved $250,000 to help CASA Latina move the site to a permanent building.

Without a vocal pro-immigrant figure like Potter, who is leaving office at the end of 2008, there’s also no guarantee that Portland’s next council will be as supportive of the site.

Although last week’s vote was unanimous in favor of the site, absent was the front-runner in the race to replace Potter, Commissioner Sam Adams. He says he was sick, and would’ve voted aye.

But Adams, who took heat from some Latino leaders for resisting their preference for renaming North Interstate Avenue after Chávez, has shown more caution around immigration issues than Potter.

The day after the March 5 vote, Adams was on Lars Larson’s KXL radio show to defend the day labor site. Larson, who said the site made the council “part of the [illegal immigrants’] conspiracy,” then asked if Adams would endorse a measure preventing city contracts from hiring companies that can’t prove all their workers are here legally.

Adams quickly said yes—twice—but he started backtracking almost immediately. He said he would author such a measure only after he was elected mayor.

“How about now?” Larson asked.

“Um, I’ll think about it,” Adams replied. (To listen to the exchange and read the 40-plus comments it’s generated, go to wweek.com/wwire/?p=11005.)

The interview prompted Erik Sorensen, communications director for the immigrant rights’ group CAUSA, to ask on the group’s website: “Commissioner Sam Adams Joins Forces with Xenophobes?”

Adams tells WW that after consulting with the city attorney, he’s satisfied the rules already prohibit city contractors from hiring illegal immigrants, and that no further ordinance is necessary. And he says he’d support continued funding for the site “if it’s working—of course.”

The workers could be asked to move again if an interested developer comes along. The site is managed by the Portland Development Commission, which had rented it to Wentworth Chevrolet for $300 a month.

According to Kevin Easton, the Potter staffer who helped organize the project, Adams wanted to keep economic development options “in play.”

VOZ has yet to negotiate a lease with PDC, which will have final say in the site’s plans.


FACT:Minimum wage at the ad hoc day laborers’ corner now on MLK Boulevard is $10 an hour, says VOZ director Romeo Sosa. By organizing at Seattle’s hire site, that city’s day laborers have increased their average wages by 40 percent—to $13.11 an hour—over the past eight years, says CASA Latina’s Hilary Stern.
 
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