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VOZ: Workers’ Rights Education Project

Interview: Nancy Rommelmann
Photography: Alex C. Nguyen

It’s a Tuesday morning in late June and two men kick a soccer ball in front of a trailer on Northeast MLK Jr. Blvd. Several others sit in an open hanger, reading, watching TV, and eating from a box of donuts someone dropped off.

            “We have a couple of churches [and] a couple of individuals who just really love the center,” says Andrea Berg, developmental director at the VOZ MLK Workers Center, which each year connects day laborers with more than 4000 local employers. Seven days a week, men queue up for gigs the center facilitates and tracks.
           As of 9:30 this morning, thirty-five of the forty-seven men who signed up today are already out on jobs. Berg says most of the men will stay through the day on the chance more call comes in for workers, or for people who drive up on the fly looking to hire. And if no jobs materialize, the workers still have a place to congregate, to relax, and to have a snack. As to that last, Berg does not hazard a guess as to who dropped off today’s treats.
            “Maybe they’ve hired people through here, or they’ve worked with day laborers in other contexts,” she says. “They’ll drop off full meals sometimes. They’ll just show up out of the blue with like a full buffet!”

The center – Voz for short – is an outgrowth of day laborers picking up jobs in the Home Depot parking lot or near freeway entrances, one made by necessity: In response to police and immigration agents cracking down on thos seeking employment on street corners, laborers in June 2000 formed the Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project.
            “The workers center itself has been around since 2008, but Voz was founded by day laborers themselves, organizing on street corners,” says Berg, 25. “They started sharing their experiences with wage theft, with discriminatory employers, other things they were facing as immigrants and low-income workers. They were like, ‘we need to figure out a way to organize ourselves to make this better.’”

            Better has come to include an on-site space for skills-building classes and education, and office workers who take calls from employers, make matches with appropriate workers, and track the transactions for everyone’s benefit and security. Voz charges neither worker nor employer—workers are paid directly by whom they work for, in cash—nor does it dictate pay or procedure, which are fully the workers’ purview. Last year, for instance, they voted to raise the minimum hourly wage from $12 to $15 for general labor.
            “And if there’s any heavy lifting or heaving digging, it’s $18 minimum,” says Berg. “If there’s any skilled labor involved, it’s $20 minimum.”
            Most calls, she says, are for yard work, painting, basic construction and carpentry.
            “But we also have an inventory of what skills people do have, so we have an electrician, someone who can do roofing. We have a list of those folks so if someone calls in with a specialized project, we know where to direct them,” she says. “The folks in the office facilitate the job between the employer and the worker and make sure there are really clear expectations so the workers know what they’re getting into, the employers know who they’re hiring for, and both people feel like that’s a fair wage and fair expectations for the job.”
            Of the approximately 500 individual day laborers Voz serves each year, Berg estimates half are regulars, meaning that thirty of the sixty who show up each day show up every day. Others are cycling through.


            “We’re part of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which is a national network of worker centers; there are seventy workers centers in that network,” she says. “Sometimes folks will be moving up from LA to Portland on their way to Seattle and they’re stopping at different day laborer organizing centers.” All, she says, are welcome.
            Berg says Voz does not gather “official data” on where workers come from. Most, she says, are from Central America and Mexico; others were born in the U.S. Some travel for seasonal work, in construction and agriculture; others stay in Portland, coming to Voz each day, sometimes for years.
            A chronic issue for low-wage immigrant workers face is wage theft. Because they are paid cash; because of occasional language barriers or fraudulence on the part of the employer, day laborers are at significant risk of being ripped off.
            “It’s one of those foundational issues that people started organizing around,” says Berg. “Usually, it’s wage theft by the employer. They’ll say, ‘I’m going to pay you $15 an hour,’ and they don’t pay them at all, or they pay them $5 an hour.”
            Logging employers’ phone numbers and addresses into the Voz database is one bulwark against theft: if there’s a problem later on, the perpetrator is findable. Having a pro bono lawyer, through the Northwest Workers Justice Project, come twice a week to process wage claims, is another.
            “All they need is a call from a lawyer, and they’re like, ‘Agh! I thought I was exploiting someone who had no access to resources! My mistake!’” says Berg. “Having the power of an organization behind you is a huge deterrent for wage theft to even happen.”

            Sometimes, says Berg, a worker is not interested in this remedy.

            “They got cheated out of eighty bucks, and they’re pissed about it, but they’re not going to go to court,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I don’t want to go to court, but I want to go picket this person’s house.’”

            Which, with the perpetrator’s address in the database, they’re at liberty to do.

            “Sometimes we’ll do direct action,” Berg says, and laughs. “Diversity of tactics.”

            And there’s the flipside, Voz able to help people that have worked together to keep working together.

            “On the employer side, we have a record of all the jobs you’ve ever done through us and who you’ve worked with,” she says. “So if you’re like, ‘oh, that one time I built that retaining wall and I worked with this guy and I can’t remember his name but I’d like to work with him again,’ we have his name in there.”

            Berg stresses that, while support from the city has been huge, as is support from immigrant rights groups, employers, and the faith-based community, it is the workers themselves make Voz work.

            “It’s run by the workers,” she says. “They’re really making the decisions as to how their own center is run.”

 

Ristretto Roasters first interfaced with Voz during the 2016 holiday season, when owner Din Johnson and his wife Nancy Rommelmann loaded one of the RR delivery trucks at dawn with brewed coffee and drove to several Portland street corners offering coffee for free. The workers at Voz were a pleasure to serve and speak with. Earlier this year, Ristretto began sponsoring daily coffee for Voz.

            If Voz feels like a cheerful place, Berg says that’s because it is.

            “And that’s intentional,” she says. “Life is so hard. This is dignified for them; they get to not feel the intense pressures of the rest of the world, and that’s part of the mission. Coffee is also part of it. Coffee and donuts makes them feel safe.”       

 

***

Ruben: I come probably four times a week. I’m from Baja, California. 

What kind of work does he like to do best?

“Landscape.”

***

Miguel, from Guadalajara: “I do any kinds of jobs except roof. I don’t like that. I have almost five years [coming here], every single day. Sometimes I don’t find no jobs.” 

“Miguel is one of the biggest leaders at the center,” says Berg, mentioning he is involved in many workshops and day labor committees.

“I always take care of or I make sure that everyone has a good time,” he says. “I do any kind of jobs except roof, I told you. Because one time, I go to do that, I go to the ladder and I fall down, and I’m scared now. I break my leg. Last May.” 

***

Hector: I’m from Michocan, Mexico. I’ve been [at Voz] three or four years. 

How old is he?           

“Too many,” he says.

Berg laughs. “It’s a secret.”

What kind of jobs does he like?

“Mostly yards,” Hector says. “And yards.”

Is it better to be here than on his own, on the street?

“Oh yes, much better,” he says. “We have a very good organization, and a lot of jobs.”

Berg reminds Hector he went to Santa Clara, California, for the National Day Laborers Organizing Network Assembly.

“A lot of people met at that place,” he says. “It was very important because we see the big organization and a lot of people working on it. I was in a job safety [workshop] with OSHA.”

 

***

Larry: “I’ve been here since 2012, off and on. This place has helped me through the years, with the extra money—and I have skills: cement, drywall, roofing, pulling weeds if I have to, helping people move. It’s a good place to get work.”

Why here and not, say, an employment agency?           

“I’m a Latino guy that looks white. I like being around my own people. I grew up in the barrio of LA so I want to be around people that I’m familiar with, and I’m more comfortable with. It’s an independent organization, and we help people, too. There are a lot of people that need help, and we’re here.”