The Skills to Pay the Bills


By J.A. Myerson

The Bay Parkway Community Job Center sat on the seashore in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, until Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge cracked it, moved it, and made it unusable. La casita (the little home), as it is lovingly called, was established and built in 2000 by the jornaleros who used it. It held safety and legal trainings, ensured proper payment and treatment for the workers, and guaranteed high quality work to the contractors hiring them for the day. After the storm passed, the demolished job center’s members joined a day laborers volunteer brigade and contributed to the relief, clean-up, and construction efforts the storm necessitated.

This was only natural. After all, the day laborers not only worked in the affected communities, they lived in them, and, critically, they had exactly the skills Sandy needed in the wake of the storm.

*  *  *

According to a statement from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte  (R-VA), the fact that the United States “select[s]… only 12 percent” of our immigrants “on the basis of the education and skills they can bring to America” is akin to “purposely [adding] weights to handicap our horse in order to give our competitors a better shot at the winner’s circle.” If only we would, for instance, “improve our temporary visa program for entrepreneurs” said Goodlatte, “America [might] regain its place as the number one destination for the world’s best and brightest.”

This emphasis on education, entrepreneurs, the best, and the brightest enjoys across-the-board support among America’s political class. President Obama invoked “striving, hopeful immigrants” in his second inaugural address. “Our journey is not complete,” he said, until “bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”

It is a truth we hold to be self evident in the United States that there are two kinds of immigrants: skilled and unskilled. Moreover, it is clear to everyone involved in the discourse around immigration what these two categories imply. Watch a given Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration—it can be done, though not without considerable anguish—and you are likely to come away with the impression that the only types of people wrapped up in the American immigration system are technologists and farmhands.

Everyone agrees we want the technologists. Some will say we should at least be nice to the farmhands. No one so much as mentions anyone else.

*  *  *

On any given day, according to a 2006 study approximately 117,600 workers wait—on street corners, in front of home improvement stores, in parks, at gas stations—until temporary employment either comes along or doesn’t. 93 percent of these are immigrants, predominantly from Mexico and Central America, and 75 percent are undocumented. Jornaleros are employed mainly by homeowners, renters, and contractors, and they work mainly as construction workers, gardeners, landscapers, painters, roofers, and drywall installers.

The phrase used to conjure images of workers like these does not address their resilience, or, as the aftermath of Sandy so starkly highlighted, their generosity, or even their precarity. It focuses on only one trait: “low-skilled.” Like when Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions said, “The country can absorb only so much low-skilled labor without significantly impacting the prospects of working Americans to get jobs and get higher pay.”It’s hardly surprising, then, that they are routinely subject to harassment, violence, wage theft, intense workplace exploitation, and the ever-present threat of la migra. One of the best protections against these and other woes for the day laborer community is an organization like the Bay Parkway Community Job Center. “The center is a symbol of hope and inspiration, that you can always have help for your family and community,” Lionel, one of the center’s founding jornaleros, told me as we looked on the hazard area surrounding the center left by Hurricane Sandy. “The idea was to find a dignified alternative to the harassment of the street corner.”

*  *  *

Two stories are commonly told about “skilled labor,” and both of them are bullshit.

The first is that a manufacturing-sector “skills mismatch” is to be blamed for the current high levels of unemployment. President Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union Address, reported that, “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that—openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.” There are jobs aplenty, it would seem, but Americans, with our ridiculous humanities degrees, lack the science and technology skills to secure them.

The other story is that “skills” make you money. The more specialized your skill is, this story goes, the more you can bid up your wages. If lots of people can do your job, the skills are common and therefore cheap; if you alone can do it, the skills are rare and therefore expensive. That is why highly skilled professionals are so well-paid. You don’t know what the hell escitalopram oxalate is or why it should increase intrasynaptic levels of serotonin by blocking its reuptake into the presynaptic neuron, so a doctor, who does know, as far as you know, can charge you a lot to prescribe an anti-depressant for your anxiety disorder.

It turns out the skills shortage for modern, complicated manufacturing work affects less than 1 percent of American manufacturing workers, and is extremely localized. A much likelier explanation for the lack of hiring in that sector is the fact that jobs pay bottom-of-the-barrel wages. When people have gone out and gotten trained in metallurgy, pneumatics, computer code, and so forth, they can’t afford to work for ten bucks an hour. The market, it seems, doesn’t value “skills” as much as the popular mythology suggests.

Discussion of “skills,” in other words, does more to stigmatize the allegedly “unskilled” than reward the people who take steps to become “skilled.” This stigma is extremely useful for capital, because it enables owners to enjoy one of their favorite pastimes: depressing wages. I want to suggest that the designation of “skilled” labor is reverse-engineered in order to make the successful feel as though they deserve their success, and  that “skill” is a handy, politically uncontroversial substitute for an array of factors that bosses consider when setting wages and working conditions.

One of these factors is whether the worker is an immigrant.

*  *  *

When Ligia Guallpa was born in Ecuador, her mother’s work was at home during the week and,  on the weekend, out on the street peddling wares. Her father was a shoemaker and construction worker. In the late 1980’s, a severe wage crisis struck, and, in order to provide for the family, Guallpa’s father migrated to the United States, where he was a jornalero. Five years later, when Guallpa was ten, she and her mother and sister picked up and joined him, moving into a one-room apartment in the South Bronx. Her mother also became a day laborer, doing factory work in the garment industry, and Guallpa and her sister went to school.

She didn’t speak English, didn’t have friends, and didn’t see much of her parents, whose work schedules drove them out of the apartment early in the morning and brought them back to their building, a market hub of activity in the New York drug trade, late in the evening, exhausted and having earned very little. Resuming his shoemaking trade, Guallpa’s father scraped and saved and threatened his daughter with a very upward-social-mobility sort of ultimatum: if you don’t go to college, you will begin to pay rent and work with your mother in garment factories. She enrolled at SUNY Cortland.

“It was my first time out of the Bronx,” Guallpa recalls. Way upstate, hours away from the only American home she had ever known, she says, “I was shocked to learn that I was a minority.” She studied politics, economics, international affairs, and languages. Learning about working class struggle in theory, she began to connect the dots – why her family had migrated, why it was struggling in the Bronx.

To improve her Arabic language skills, Guallpa spent a year in Egypt and got involved with a community center established to provide support to the refugee Sudanese community, the primary immigrant population in the area, which was prohibited from access to basic services and gainful employment. Mohammed, a colleague of hers, pointed out the similarity of their immigrant stories, and Ligia Guallpa, thousands of miles from New York and even farther from Ecuador, decided to spend her life working with the immigrant community in the United States. In 2008, she began at the Worker’s Justice Project, organizing jornaleros in South Brooklyn.

*  *  *

What makes an economy—and a community—work is not an accumulation of high technological skill but a dynamic ecosystem of diverse skills. This understanding is part of the genius of a job center like la casita. “On the corner, when a contractor says he needs a painter, everyone is a painter,” says Gustavo Duarte, a founding member. “The center matches workers to the needs of contractors.” Duarte has become a contractor himself, having accumulated tools with his center-negotiated wages. “When I need help,” he says, “I don’t go anywhere but the Bay Parkway Community Job Center.”

At the moment, workplace skill is spoken of in terms of educational attainment or equivalent experience. Many problems with this formulation come to mind. First, there is no consensus how much experience is equivalent to what educational attainment, even within a given field. Second, the U.S. produces considerably more college graduates than there are jobs that make use of college-taught skills (producing such results as courier jobs “requiring” a degree). Third, access to higher education often depends on pre-existing privilege as much as anything else. And so on and so forth.

Before college became an essential ingredient of the post-war “American dream,” there were different criteria for delineating skilled and unskilled workers, a distinction that was referred to at the time as the elevation of an “aristocracy of labor” above the rest of the working class. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), organized along the lines of master-and-apprentice crafts, institutionalized a category of workers which excluded all other categories, including racial minorities, most immigrant groups, and women.

This guild/cartel-based approach to organizing labor wouldn’t do for communists and anarchists, who objected to the AFL’s “business unionism” and who, in the early part of the twentieth century, set out to organize the mass of workers who jobs entailed piecework and factory production. These unions, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and what would become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), placed an emphasis not on “professional skill” but class struggle aimed at full equality for all.

That not only meant equality between all the different workers in an industry, but the breakdown of the conceit at the heart of the most basic skill-distinction in industry: that managers are more skillful than workers. As Big Bill Haywood of the IWW put it, “The manager’s brain is under the workman’s cap.”

The industrial labor of Haywood’s era was executed chiefly by immigrants. This may be seen as incidental, but it is essential. The preponderance of immigrants is and has always been designated as unskilled by bosses so that bosses can pay them less.

Many of the farmhands to whom members of congress mention “low-skilled” immigrants were farmers in Mexico before NAFTA destroyed their jobs and forced them to seek refuge in the United States. Owners of American farmland contend that they need lots of cheap labor to remain profitable. Thus, people with multigenerational knowledge of cultivating land and harvesting its bounty are depicted as unskilled, the wages are driven down, and the matter is settled.

*  *  *

No group of workers has had its wages systematically depressed and its capabilities pigeonholed as “low-skill” quite like women.

Take this finding from Dana Goldstein’s research  into the history of American teachers’ unions. “Schools were expensive, and Americans, then as now, didn’t like high taxes,” Goldstein writes of the 1830’s, when the public school system began in earnest. “So in order to rapidly open many more schools, states, cities, and towns made the conscious choice to hire mostly female teachers, who were cheaper to employ.”

At the time, and for the next century and a half, the preponderance of “women’s work” was so cheap, it was free. The uncompensated domestic work American women performed until the feminist movement’s socio-political gains (and stagnant wages for men) facilitated their large-scale exit from the home and entry into the paid labor force was so “unskilled,” it wasn’t considered work at all. That child-rearing, cooking, and cleaning were innate to women was widely accepted; when tending to these tasks, therefore, women were not laboring or deploying skills but merely performing the fundamental exigencies of their identity.

The attribution to women of a particular aptitude for care work, customer service work, and other “unskilled” labor (compounded by their inaptitude for “skilled” labor, which Larry Summers famously posited) relies on the same presupposition. Forget that homecare workers, nursing home staffers, waitresses, strippers, and other practitioners of “women’s work” or, specifically, “emotional labor,”  constantly deploy their skill at smilingly putting up with indignities including sexual harassment and worse—this work is unskilled to the point of invisibility, like the domestic work of eras bygone.

On the domestic work front, less has changed than Americans probably hope. Domestic workers are still 95 percent women, according to a 2012 study  and their work is remunerated only marginally better than it was when it was free. 48 percent of the 2,086 nannies, caregivers and housecleaners surveyed are paid an hourly wage insufficient to adequately support a family. 20 percent of the workers reported that there was no food to eat in their homes and no money to buy any in the month before being surveyed.

It is very difficult to see how domestic workers can gain a stronger footing in the workplace since they are excluded from many worker protections, including the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime provisions, the Occupation Safety and Health Acts protections against the sorts of toxic products they routinely use, and the Civil Rights and Americans with Disabilities Acts, which generally cover employers with multiple employees. Furthermore, the National Labor Relations Act explicitly prohibits domestic workers from collective bargaining and union formation.

Compounding their employment vulnerability, many of the domestic workers are undocumented immigrants, 85 percent of whom did not complain about problems with their working conditions over the last year for fear that their immigration status would be used against them.

*  *  *

With the Bay Parkway Community Job Center’s workers touching the lives of many area residents in the post-Sandy havoc, Ligia Guallpa and other organizers were able to raise considerable attention and funds to re-open a brand new version of la casita. The day laborers themselves raised thousands of dollars, met with local politicians and neighborhood groups (and even then-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis), and impressed upon the community the importance of their little red box.

Between the Citizens Committee for New York City, the North Star Fund, and the Robin Hood Foundation, the Bay Parkway Community Job Center secured grants totaling up to $20,000. The National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) donated safety equipment like masks and gloves, and la casita is now five times as big as in its previous iteration. It has space heaters, air conditioning, and a beautiful mural on its façade by Chilean muralist Nelson Rivas of two people shaking hands.

City Councilman Dominic Recchia attended the grand re-opening. “Never in my life,” he said in his South Brooklyn accent, so distinctly indicative of a lineage derived from Italian immigrant workers in the past, “would I expect to see the role that day laborers played after Sandy. They didn’t just help with clean up and construction, but giving out food and organizing.”

Gustavo Duarte, the day laborer who became a contractor, recalled the early days when they would put up flyers at Home Depot and hardware stores, advertising the center. It was just a tent then, and when the wind came, all the jornaleros would have to grab the sides so it didn’t blow away.

2 comments to “The Skills to Pay the Bills”
  1. This article was illuminating, and though the conditions and systems exposed are infuriating, the Community Job Center story gave me hope.

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