Some 40 people gathered on a sliver of sidewalk outside of the Immigrant Worker Power Center at 3358 Cesar Chavez St. to celebrate the center’s reopening following heavy renovations Thursday morning.
The center has served as a hub for organizing work in the workers and immigrant rights movements and as a vocational training facility, and houses the 25-year-old collective of immigrant workers known as the San Francisco Day Laborer Program and Women’s Collective. Some 400 immigrant domestic workers and day laborers pass through the center each year to take advantage of its services.
Over the past few months, 40 of its members have worked to remodel the center, and community members were granted a first look inside Thursday morning, following a ribbon cutting ceremony headed by District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen. Antonio Aguilera, director of the Day Laborer Program and Women’s Collective, spoke with Mission Local about the new possibilities created at the center by the very people it serves.
Mission Local: How did the San Francisco Day Laborers Program and Women’s Collective form as an organization that empowers workers?
Aguilera: About 25 years ago, six day laborers were at a corner in San Francisco, here at Cesar Chavez Street. They realized that all of them have been victims of wage theft by employers who withheld their money and didn’t want to pay them for whatever reason.
They requested the help of pro bono lawyers who gave them support in finding ways in which the law could support their need. They quickly found out that there was no real law to protect them because they were not legally present in this country.
So, what they did was organize. They realized their collective power had a voice and that would get them their money back. They started using that collective power to demand that their needs were met.
ML: What is the history of the center on Cesar Chavez Street?
Aguilera: This center was born as a way for day laborers to connect with one another and to continue their organizing work. When it first started, day laborers could be seen along Cesar Chavez and all the way down to Bayshore, the more industrial part of the city. They would stand along the corners of Cesar Chavez and wait for work, and it still happens to this day.
When the collective began organizing, they went to City Hall and at that point they were granted a trailer box under the freeway, on Franklin Street. We would call that La Traila. That would become the place were deliveries would come to, and where they tended to their wage theft cases and tried to defend their rights.
After a few years of that program, [the collective] held a town hall meeting with some the neighbors in this community because the neighbors were complaining about the day laborers standing at the corner.
It was then, about 15 years ago, that the community agreed that the day laborers should have a home. They gave this space [at 3358 Cesar Chavez St.] to the collective, but it was very run down. We decided to invest in the infrastructure because we saw a growing need and also a growing opportunity in the market place.
Mission Local: How does the space support the day laborer’s movement for dignified and equitable working conditions?
Aguilera: At the center, we have a call center where day laborers and domestic workers organize to advertise their work. We have phone operators that answer the phone and negotiate the work to make sure its under safe conditions and that its at a fair pay rate. The work is dispatched in an internal system of justice that [our members] created over time.
They are trained into these roles as well. When people join the organization they are trained to do the work, to participate in the movement and they are offered the opportunity to become leaders. The leaders are the ones who organize the program, they provide services for one another. All of the work that the center offers – the services we offer in the community– are provided by day laborers and domestic workers themselves. Its a very inspirational place to be.
Mission Local: What’s new at the center?
Aguilera: Everything is new! We re-did the floors, the walls, the electricity. It was a big project. We had to move walls so we could amplify the space and now we have training rooms. The aim was to create opportunities for people to be developed in the long run – not only to find work immediately, but to build skills to be able to develop better ways to make money and to make more money.
We have classroom space, and we were able to pull off an [outside] deck. We are super excited about our deck because its a communal space for day laborers and domestic workers. As you know, we like to party – its a space for us to have communal relationships and share with one another. We also have a food pantry space where we distribute food, and tool shacks [for] our tool sharing program.
[We have new] office space – we have a longterm commitment to developing the leadership of our members but never had the space for our members to explore their leadership. We have office space where they can test computers and create minutes for their organizing meetings. We are always kind of were sitting on top of one another trying to find a computer to work on.
Mission Local: How important is it to have a space like this for a community often excluded from employment and educational opportunities?
Aguilera: Its a place for them to explore and discover their dignity. A lot of our immigrant workers are mistreated in the community. And they come here to find a place of harmony and respect, where they can explore their own notion of dignity and the dignity that others around them have. We spend a lot of time on that – developing that opportunity for folks to connect with themselves, with their inner and collective power, and also to develop their leadership.