Tensions have been building in Albany Park over what to do with the old CTA bus turnaround on Pulaski just south of Foster, a parcel owned by the Park District where 100 or so day laborers congregate in hopes of finding work.

Two years ago the situation in Pilsen looked a lot like the one in Albany Park. Corner day laborers, worker advocates, police, business owners, and residents were sparring over the laborers’ use of Plaza Tenochtitlan, a public park at the intersection of 18th Street, Blue Island, and Loomis. Early in the morning, 30 or so men–women almost never showed up–would arrive, hoping that a contractor in search of cheap labor would hire them to paint houses, dig ditches, or move furniture. Nearby business owners–many finally reaping the benefits of development and gentrification in the area–said the men scared off customers, urinated in alleys, leered at girls on their way to Benito Juarez High School, and loitered with no intention of working.

The laborers didn’t deny the problems but said they were caused by a minority, mainly homeless men from a nearby shelter. The laborers also pointed out that they were longtime members of the community and were only trying to provide for their families. Encouraged to go to one of the day labor agencies that dot blue-collar neighborhoods, such as Elite or Labor Ready, they responded that corner day labor pays considerably more. The typical day laborer working for an agency nets $150 to $180 weekly. A corner day laborer with carpentry and construction skills can take home $300 to $500 a week.

Last winter the local alderman, Danny Solis of the 25th Ward, agreed to hold a public hearing on the issue with state senator Miguel del Valle and the Latino Union, a Pilsen-based workers’ advocacy group headed by the Reverend Jose Landaverde. As a goodwill gesture, the laborers moved their operation to an industrial stretch of Cermak at the corner of Allport, where they put up a sign and set up a tent.

The hearing was held on January 18 at the Westside Technical Institute. The intent was to discuss the problems that exist at labor corners around the city. But many of those who attended were Pilsen residents, and they wanted to work out a solution for the corner in their neighborhood.

After the hearing Solis told the Tribune that he’d been persuaded to find space somewhere in the ward for a workers’ center, not just a better corner. “They made the first move,” he said, “which obligates us to look.”

A few days later Solis’s office announced that a man named Jay Stagg had agreed to let the laborers use the driveway in front of a building he owns next to where they’d set up their new site. “The alderman wanted to make sure that these people had an opportunity,” says Solis’s chief of staff, Juan Saldana. “He looked at surrounding areas to find a possible place for it. He had a conversation with the owner of the building, who said he was fine with it as long as the place was kept up.” Solis’s office also provided a portable toilet and trash cans.

The laborers stand in the driveway near Cermak, where passing cars can see them. A wooden sign reads, “Come to the workers center on Allport & Cermak. We have hard-working men available 7 days a week.”

The laborers like the site because even though it’s still just a better corner, it’s close to the expressway, and on slow days they can often find work unloading trucks nearby. They also like the site because they can solicit work without fear of being told to leave or arrested and charged with trespassing or being a public nuisance.

Residents and business owners like the new site because it’s a good two blocks from the nearest home and nearly as far from the nearest shop. Saldana says that in the six months since it was set up there’ve been no accidents, no incidents with police, and no negative feedback from residents.

Some businesses complain that people still hang out at Plaza Tenochtitlan. “The guys who want to work left, but those who don’t are still there,” says Sergio Gonzalez, manager of Libreria Giron, a Spanish-language bookstore on 18th Street. Two months after the day laborers shifted to the Cermak site, he says, the old site was once again filling up “with homeless and drunks,” with “men who say they are jornaleros [day laborers] but they are not.”

The problems in Albany Park may be harder to work out. Almost everyone involved in the dispute in Pilsen–laborers, business owners, residents–was Mexican or Mexican-American, but most of the laborers in Albany Park are Mexican or Ecuadoran and most of the community residents and leaders who want them to move on are white. True or not, many day laborers believe the campaign to remove them from the CTA bus turnaround is motivated by ethnic bias, even though the complaints of the white residents mirror the complaints of the Latino residents in Pilsen–public urination, rowdiness, loitering.

The laborers’ response to the complaints has been the same as the response in Pilsen: We live in the community, this is how we feed our families, and the offenders are unmotivated or homeless men. “They say we are bad,” says Jose Luis, a laborer from Mexico City. “Well, we may be an evil, but we are a necessary evil. We do the work no one else wants to do.”

Many Albany Park residents and community leaders are sympathetic. Chris Casey, a firefighter who’s president of the North Mayfair Improvement Association, says the laborers definitely need a site in the neighborhood, just not the one on Pulaski.

The Chicago Park District bought the CTA bus turnaround in June 2002, and it’s slated for development as a bike path and river walkway. Even residents sympathetic to the laborers’ cause don’t think there’s room for a laborers’ site too. The laborers and their advocates insist there is. “We are willing to build the trail–whatever it takes,” says Landaverde. “It can be a park, a bike path–and a workers’ center.”

Six months ago the alderman, Margaret Laurino of the 39th Ward, set a deadline of July 1 for the laborers to leave or face eviction. The deadline came and went.

Even if a new corner is found for the day laborers, that won’t change problems inherent in the system for hiring them. “They are being exploited by contractors,” says Casey. “They need to have a lot more city help. Having them hang out in the park and watching them beg for employment is not a positive image for children.”

It’s true that the scene can be ugly. When a van or truck pulls into the bus turnaround, crowds of laborers press up against the vehicle. The driver announces the job he has and asks who speaks English but usually gives the job to the first guys he sees.

Most of the transactions are off-the-books. That suits the laborers, many of whom are undocumented, yet getting paid under the table leaves them open to exploitation. They can all tell stories about spending days shingling a roof in July or digging a ditch in January, only to have the contractor drive away without paying them, sometimes stranding them in a suburb with no way to get home.

No one seems particularly concerned that many of the laborers are undocumented. “We end up with workers who risk a lot to make it across the border,” says Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “On the other hand, when they make it to Chicago they have fairly free movement.” Jessica Aranda, an organizer with the Latino Union, says at first Alderman Laurino “had some kind of hesitation about cooperating fully because of the status of workers.” But she hasn’t heard that concern expressed by residents or other city officials. “It’s not an issue we’re dealing with on the surface. I don’t know if there has been hesitation underneath.”

The Latino Union thinks the best solution for the day laborers and their communities would be to set up workers’ centers, where job assignments could be handed out on a rotating or lottery basis, the way they are in union hiring halls. Similar centers have been operating well in Los Angeles, with city funding, for a couple of years now. Ideally, Landaverde says, such centers would also offer English classes, day care, and workers’ rights seminars. His organization put together an annual budget for a center in Albany Park that came to $250,000, which included two bilingual staff and an office.

The need for some kind of long-term solution is only growing. No one seems to have figures on how many corner day laborers the city now has, but researchers say the number is growing. “We have some corners that have been around a couple of decades,” says Theodore. “But in the last couple of decades the corners have multiplied.” He now counts 12 in the city and more in the suburbs, including a flourishing one next to the Home Depot parking lot in Cicero.

As a first step, Aranda says, the Latino Union is starting to draft a citywide resolution on day labor. It’s also discussing the issue with the seven aldermen whose wards have day laborer corners.

In the meantime the city has said the Albany Park laborers can keep using the bus turnaround until a more appropriate site is found. But Aranda says her organization and the alderman have already scoured the neighbor-hood and found nothing. She doubts one will be found but says, “I guess we can continue to look.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Jon Lowenstein.