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Building a House for Day Laborers

Many day workers are ending up on the street or in homeless shelters.

SEATTLE, Washington, Feb 3 - Twenty-five centuries ago, ancient Athenians set aside part of their agora, the central public plaza, as a place where people seeking temporary work and others seeking workers could meet.

In the United States of the early 21st Century, the venue has shifted to building-supply and garden stores. But the men waiting along the curb and the trucks pulling up have come for the same purpose.

In many cities, however, the agora has evolved: jornaleros, as day laborers are known in Spanish, and local citizens have combined forces to organize structured markets for day labor. There, the problems sometimes found on the corners -- traffic slowdowns, litter, lack of security for work-seekers and employers -- can be ameliorated through better processes and protections.

These workers' centers bring a measure of order and fairness to the freewheeling, sharp-elbowed markets on the corners.

They are limited in what they can do, however, because most workers in the informal economy are immigrants without official status. This makes it harder for them to apply to formal employers or agencies, or join labor unions. And workers centers' reach remains restricted: a 2006 study estimated that their share of the national day labor market was roughly 20 percent, while 80 percent sought work on the corners.

Most of these organizations grew up during the economic boom of the nineties and first half of this decade, when the residential construction market was overheated. Now they are scrambling to adapt to a wrenching economy-wide bust. An increasing number of workers, native citizens along with documented and undocumented immigrants, are turning to the informal labor market after losing regular jobs.

Day laborers' organizations generally don't get involved directly in employment. They simply arrange a safe place for workers and employers to meet, help workers set minimum wages and rules, verify skills and reliability of workers, and help resolve complaints of both workers and employers.

Part hiring hall, part workers' cooperative, part non-profit service center, workers' centers combine several modes of organizing to build supportive communities of casual workers.

They are not trade unions, but they perform some functions of unions: enforcing base wages, providing job training, and defending workers' rights. Jornaleros rely on them for job dispatches, much like a union hiring hall, and participate in decision-making within them. Official labor unions are exploring ways to cooperate with them.

They are not charities, but most are non-profit and don't charge workers or employers. Some draw parts of their budgets from charities and foundations.

They are not government agencies. While some receive funding from local governments, they may also have conflicting relationships with some authorities.

Workers' centers are a hybrid, one that has proven hardy and productive in over 60 cities across the U.S. The first opened at least 18 years ago in Los Angeles.

In Seattle, the Pacific Northwest home to Boeing and Microsoft, CASA Latina has served day laborers for 15 years.

On a major thoroughfare just north of downtown, a trailer and a weathered one-story building open onto a gravel courtyard bounded by a chain-link fence. In the pre-dawn darkness, about 100 people gather, mostly young to middle-aged men with a few women, bundled up against a biting wind off of Elliott Bay.

At six, the daily job raffle begins when CASA Latina staff and volunteers in the trailer fill out raffle tickets from lists of registered workers on a computer.

A solid, no-nonsense woman stands in the center of the milling crowd making things happen. Guadalupe Adams is coordinator of the Workers' Center.

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