July 14, 2006

On Dusty Corner, Laborers Band Together for More Pay

AGOURA HILLS, Calif., July 12 — The black Lexus stopped just yards from a large, shady oak tree, and eight copper-skinned Guatemalan men rushed over.

For a minute, the woman in the car and the men haggled feverishly before the Lexus drove off — without any day laborers to help with her gardening.

The woman had offered to pay $10 an hour, not realizing what she had stumbled into: the only day labor site in the nation that has set a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

At a few dozen other sites across the country, day laborers have set minimums, usually $8 or $10. But only at this corner in Agoura Hills, a well-to-do town 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, experts say, have they been bold enough to insist on $15, nearly three times the federal minimum wage. Some laborers who are particularly skilled at plumbing or hanging drywall get $18 or more.

“There are always employers who look for cheap workers,” said Virgilio Vicente, 47, a Guatemala immigrant who spent the week framing walls for a small contractor. “But we have an agreement, and no one is going to go for less. We don’t feel bad when someone drives away because we know other clients will always come.”

Their move is a risky experiment, reminiscent of crude unionization efforts of a century ago. It is uncertain if laborers at other sites will join the move to a $15 minimum or even whether the workers at this corner, the intersection of Kanan and Agoura Roads, can make it stick. When they raised their rates last month, the demand for their services went down as some homeowners and contractors began seeking workers at another corner five miles away.

Luis Cap, 32, a stocky Guatemalan immigrant who has been a mainstay of the corner for 14 years, is not worried. “The employers complain, but we explain that it is very expensive to live in this city,” Mr. Cap said. “We tell them: ‘Gas is expensive. Rent is expensive. Insurance is expensive. Everything is expensive.’ ”

The increase may have slowed business somewhat, but many workers are still hired for four or five days each week. Others find work only two or three days, but that is still lucrative enough to persuade some to make the 80-minute bus trip from Los Angeles.

On Monday and Tuesday, about half the 50 laborers who showed up were hired to paint, garden, dig swimming pools, lay foundations or hang drywall. In the spring, regulars on the corner said, the percentage of those hired is greater.

Abel Valenzuela Jr., a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did a nationwide study of day laborers, said it was not surprising that the Agoura Hills workers were ahead of the pack.

“It’s a unique site,” Professor Valenzuela said. “It’s one of the older sites. It’s remote. It has a sense of stability for employers. These workers have high skill levels. They’ve gone through a lot. They’ve been chased by helicopters. They are very disciplined.”

The Agoura Hills site seems straight out of a Cézanne painting — a dry, sun-beaten spot with a sharp-peaked mountain as a backdrop. In summer, some men — mostly illegal immigrants — sit hour after hour under the generous-limbed oaks.

In 1991, Agoura Hills became one of the first communities to prohibit day laborers from soliciting work. Some residents complained of litter and of day laborers sleeping on the mountain’s slopes.

After a state court upheld the ban in 1994, the police began arresting workers and fining them $275. Police helicopters chased those who tried to escape up the mountain.

“I must have been arrested at least 20 times,” Mr. Vicente said. “And I paid thousands of dollars in fines.”

The number of laborers, meanwhile, plunged to a hearty dozen from around 100. After a federal judge, citing the First Amendment, invalidated a Los Angeles ordinance restricting day laborers in 2000, the police stopped enforcing this town’s ban, and the number of day laborers started to balloon again.

The laborers who stuck it out here have developed a strong sense of community that is reflected in their slogan: “First, it’s God. Then it’s our mother. Then it’s this corner.” Mr. Vicente called it “a place that feeds us and feeds our families.”

When the workers here decided last month to adopt the $15 minimum, up from the $12.50 they set in 2003, the process resembled a New England town meeting held in a dirt-covered Western lot.

On a Saturday morning, 100 men gathered, with several arguing that the higher minimum would chase away employers. Others argued that laborers who spoke only Spanish would be at a disadvantage. “Some workers who don’t speak good English were against $15,” said Victor González, 20. “It’s harder for them to negotiate to get work.”

Despite such arguments, the vote was 85 to 15 in favor of the $15 minimum. Marvin Martínez, a Salvadoran immigrant, said, “We sweat our butts off, and they were only paying us $100 a day.”

Gesturing toward the gas station across the street, he said: “Every single day it seems they add three cents to the price of gas. I think $15 an hour is only fair.”

Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, applauded the vote. “It’s a wonderful thing when impoverished people take a step like that,” Mr. Alvarado said.

Discipline is taken seriously on the corner. Some veteran laborers have bought trash cans and chained them to trees. They browbeat anyone who litters or drinks.

They also try to chase away laborers who do inferior work and hurt the corner’s reputation. And anyone who tries to accept work for less than $15 faces the wrath of dozens.

Mr. Cap and his fellow laborers applaud the new minimum. “We’d like to see $15 spread to every corner,” he said

But Professor Valenzuela said that was unlikely, given the lower skill levels at other corners. “At other sites, many of these guys would easily undercut $15,” he said. “They’d be happy to go out for $12 or for $10.”

Around 10:30 a.m., Marie Caupisch drove up in a Mercedes-Benz 300D Turbo Diesel, offering to hire one or two men for $10 an hour — and a free lunch. But she left empty-handed when the workers insisted on $15.

“Fifteen dollars an hour, I can’t afford it,” Ms. Caupisch said. “They’re not going to get work at that price.”

As she drove away, Mr. Cap glanced at the Mercedes and nodded knowingly. “She could afford $15,” he said.