A U-Haul truck pulls up to the curb along a SoDo street bordering Home Depot. A throng of seven or eight men, who have been standing on the sidewalk, immediately rush the car, surrounding it on all sides. They're part of a crowd of mostly Latino laborers who congregate here every day, waiting for vehicles to drive by with potential employers. They not only rush unsuspecting trucks, but sometimes jump into them unbidden. But it turns out this U-Haul's driver isn't looking for workers, and the throng just as quickly peels away.
"That was a little scary," says the jeans-and-baseball-cap-wearing driver, who looks a little dazed and declines to give his name. "I've never seen such a thing." He's a contractor who's driven up from Olympia to pick up cabinets for a house he's building. Despite the shock, he says he's glad to learn these workers are here. "I pay my guys 20 bucks an hour," he says. "These guys will probably work for a lot less."
His reaction says a lot about the conflicting emotions that the day-labor economy provokes. People are intimidated and disturbed by the atmosphere created by these workers. But an equal number are eager to exploit their cheap labor.
Public attention has been focused most recently on Casa Latina, a nonprofit that in 1999 established an organized, city-sanctioned day-labor center in Belltown, where workers had long gathered along Western Avenue. Casa Latina is now looking to move to the Central District, a plan that has provoked escalating opposition from property owners there. Last week, some residents called in Judicial Watch, a conservative, Washington, D.C., group that opposes taxpayer subsidies for day-labor sites because they say many of the workers are illegal immigrants. The group, which successfully pressured a Virginia day-labor site to close, pledged to "investigate" the city of Seattle's funding of Casa Latina.
Meanwhile, the long-simmering drama outside the SoDo job market has been heating up, raising questions about whether day laborers can survive amicably anywhere, even in an area of wide thoroughfares, few pedestrians, and no residents. Although Casa Latina opponents see the Home Depot situation as further proof of the difficult behavior that accompanies day-labor sites, city officials say they would rather laborers go to Casa Latina than to an unorganized site such as at Home Depot. In fact, they see Casa Latina as one answer to the Home Depot dilemma.
"Look we've got an uncontrollable problem," says West Precinct Capt. Steve Brown, describing what he says are the views of local businesses. He says they have long complained about laborers mobbing cars, stopping traffic, and participating in other unruly behavior. Angi Davis, vice president of property management at Nitze-Stagen, ticks off a list: "drug activity, open-container drinking, public urination, defecation, harassment." Nitze-Stagen owns the property occupied by the Home Depot, as well as the nearby Sears and Starbucks headquarters.
The number of workers reached a critical mass this summer. "We had 125 guys out there," Davis says, adding that it was hard for pedestrians to walk past. Workers had divided themselves largely by nationality: Mexicans took Home Depot's eastern border, Salvadorans the western, according to police. There was even a guy trying to muscle his way into becoming the boss of workers, telling them he wanted a cut of their pay, says Sgt. Paul Gracy, head of West Precinct's community police team. (The sergeant heard that immigration officials ultimately deported the muscle man.)
In one incident, a Home Depot janitor told a laborer to get out of the rest room and received a punch in return, according to Sgt. Gracy. Not long after, Capt. Brown and the Seattle Police Department's No. 2 leader, Deputy Chief John Diaz, decided to check out the scene themselves. "We were just pulling into the parking lot when a call came over 911 that there was an assault with a knife," he recalls. A laborer had been cut on the neck in a fight with a couple of others. The knife left only a superficial wound, but still, Brown says: "I got a fairly good feel fairly quickly" of the situation. "You take a look at that. You develop a plan."
Police called in the Seattle Department of Transportation to paint many of the curbs red, indicating that cars can't stop there. That has contained the job market to just one street, Utah Avenue South. To make sure workers stay there and don't go onto Home Depot's property, the store has hired extra security officers, who stand all day long in the parking lot under a metal awning, attached to which is a sign that warns: "No Loitering. Police Enforced." Home Depot also hires an off-duty state trooper to man the site.
"We're not trying to stop it," says Gracy. Police couldn't even if they wanted to, he adds, because it's perfectly legal to stand on sidewalks for as long as you want.
Paula Carson stops her Dodge van on Utah, and two workers climb out. They had wanted $27 an hour to load things from her now-defunct restaurant, the Rocket, onto a moving van. "No," Carson says. "You don't get lunch, picked up and dropped off, not pay taxes, and get $27 an hour." She takes two other workers in exchange and speeds off.
Six hours later, in the funny, triangular spot where the shuttered Rocket sits, at the intersection of Yesler Way and Boren and 12th avenues, the two workers are still at it. "It's been rough," says Anthony, who is in the process of moving what appears to be a giant decorative urn. He says Carson offered $10 an hour, but given the heavy work, he declares, "we need to talk to her about that." Carson stops the conversation short, saying she's got limited time with a rented van and "these guys are my muscle."
The next day, a potbellied fellow in a white van appears on Utah. A shout comes up from the dozen or so guys who surround him. "How much you pay?"
"Eight, nine bucks," he responds.
"Nobody will work for that," one of the guys says.
"How much you want?" the driver asks.
"$15," somebody says.
The driver immediately steps on the gas.
The city's and Home Depot's action plans may have driven some workers away; the numbers are down from the summer, although the weather might have something to do with that. Those who remain have something like a truce going with the security guards and off-duty troopers.
"They stay on their side. We stay on our side," says a laborer named Jorge.
Some workers deny there is disorderly behavior happening here. Others say there is some but blame it on newcomers. A man known to fellow workers as the "preacher" has taken it upon himself to keep order, telling those who appear drunk to go home and sleep it off, and carrying a whistle that he blows whenever workers and cars meet each other in the middle of the road, instead of at the curb.
To a man named Ayala, this environment is preferable to that of Casa Latina. "I don't know about the inside of Casa Latina, but outside sometimes people use drugs, and sell, too," he says.
This summer, after the mayor's office expressed concern about the situation outside Home Depot, police drew up a flyer for distribution in and around the area. It says the site is not "designated" for day-labor employment and declares that there will be enforcement of illegal behavior. It also lists other locations police consider more suitable job markets—including Casa Latina, which, police note, has rules, bathrooms, and drinking water. The flyers were given to workers, and those who pick them up.
Hilary Stern, executive director of Casa Latina, says its day-labor center was created specifically to solve the problems of unorganized sites, both the nuisance problems that property owners complain of and those faced by workers, such as low pay or not being paid at all.
Yet Stern concedes, "We were never completely able to eliminate [the unorganized labor market on Western Avenue] because it was a historic, established site." So she says there became two sites existing side by side, the one subject to rules within Casa Latina, and the anything-goes market on the surrounding blocks, an atmosphere made worse by the pervasive drug dealing around Belltown. Stern believes she can solve that problem by moving to the new location in the Central District, which has no prior history with unorganized day laborers. The plan is to build a larger facility that will accommodate both workers and employers, who will transact all their business indoors.
But opponents look at the area around the current Belltown site, and at the one next to Home Depot, and cringe. Unofficial, official, "I don't see how you can say there's a big difference," says Maria Beppu, owner of Linc's Bait & Tackle in the Central District.