Freehold Immigrant Workers Win Gains
By Fidela Gonzalez
In the past year, immigrant day-laborers in Freehold, NJ have turned back a government attempt to push them out of the town and, by organizing together with native-born activists, have set up a hiring-hall-like system that has boosted wages. Their ongoing struggle is an example of how immigrant-citizen unity can beat back the anti-immigrant offensive and win real gains for all workers.
Clearing out immigrants
At the end of the 2003, the government of Freehold, - a small town in Monmouth County, NJ - prohibited workers from gathering at a muster zone to ask for work. This decree was aimed at Hispanic, mainly Mexican immigrants. Its goal was to push the immigrants out of town, as a first step to moving out all low-income workers and replacing low-income with luxury housing-a pattern of gentrification occurring across the state. At the same time, "housing inspection teams", including police officers, began to bang on the doors of Hispanic families at all hours, terrifying sleeping workers who did not speak English and who did not understand what she was happening. When they could, the housing officers would issue large fines against the workers for "overcrowding" and even evict them.
With the support of the real-estate interests, a new anti-immigrant organization was formed, called PEOPLE (Pressing our Elected Officials to Protect our Living Environment), in the style of the anti-Semitic movements of the 30's, and attempted to inform on Hispanic immigrants: where they live, how they live, with whom they live, as well as intimidating the contractors who hired them.
In response to this attack on the civil rights of immigrant, a coalition started to fight back. On December 1, 2003, about 200 day laborers attended the municipal council of Freehold supported by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON); Monmouth County Residents for Immigrants Rights, a new organization coming out of the local anti-war movement; NJ Civil Rights Defense Committee and other human rights groups, protesting the decree banning the muster zone.
The workers organized themselves into the Workers Committee for Progress and Social Welfare. With the muster zone closed, the workers found a temporary location at the Second Baptist Church, where they came daily from January 1 to March 31. There they established a system of work with the help of NDLON. Instead of competing with each other for jobs, as in the old muster zone, allowing contractors to set the lowest wages, under the new system work was assigned on a hiring hall basis, with a list of eligible works drawn up and jobs assigned in order on the list. The Workers Committee, run democratically, established minimum standards that the contractors had to adhere to, including prompt payment of wages and a $10 minimum rate, well above the previously available rates. With work slow in the winter, the immigrant and native-born workers together organized classes on English and math and held discussions on health, violence against domectic servants, as well as continuous debates on the course of their struggle.
At the same time, NDLON and the local groups, with the legal help of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, sued the town in Federal court to rescind the muster zone ban on the grounds that it violated the workers rights to assemble freely-rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Not relying on the lawsuit, 300 workers and their allies from around the state demonstrated in Freehold on Januray 15, Martin Luther King Day. The suit won a swift victory, with the court ordering the town to again permit the use of the muster zone. On March 31, the workers marched to the muster zone and took possession of it. At the muster zone, they strictly maintained the work-allocation system perfected over the winter.
While the muster zone-a dirt strip along a road-was won back, police intimidation did not stop. Now it was aimed especially at scaring off the contractors with endless tickets. Nor did the housing raids end. In response, the Freehold organizations, together with NJCRDC, mobilized a March for Human Rights on July 18th in Freehold. The march, with the slogans: Stop the Attacks on Immigrants, End Detention and Torture, Free All the Detainees Now, made the link between the attacks on immigrants in Freehold and the broader campaign of illegal detention and torture waged by the US government. The attacks on immigrants undermined the rights of all, the flyers for the March stated.
Despite a campaign of intimidation against the immigrant before the March, on July 18th 150 people, half immigrants and half native-born, rallied and peacefully marched from the town center to the muster zone. As we marched, we were joined by more and more people from the immigrant community, including mothers with baby carriages. The force of reason and hope prevailed in the determined faces of workers, fortified by their suffering of injustice and by their knowledge of the real situation. Neither the police patrols nor their cameras, nor uniforms, nor neckties could intimidate anyone. The March was covered by Univision, National Public Radio, El Dario, Hoy, Asbury Park Press, and the Freehold News Transcript.
Breaking the Fear
The March, which showed that unity could defeat the harassment, broke the siege of fear that had affected both the immigrant and the contractors who hired them. Within days after the March, workers reported that job offers had increased five-fold, and the strong demand for labor continued through the fall. Indeed, local employers of mainly native-born workers began to grumble that they were hard-put to keep wages down to 7 or 8 dollars and hour when the day-laborers were getting 10 dollars.
Despite these gains, the arrogance of oppressive power is still felt. The workers are still on the side of the road, without a real hiring hall, without places to sit, bathroom facilities, or protection from heat, cold or rain. The struggle for a permanent hiring hall, for the end to the housing raids and for equal rights for immigrant workers continues.