Oliva points out that, whatever their immigration status, Albany Park day laborers are protected by state and federal laws. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

One morning in January, José L. Oliva braved the crisp, bone-chilling weather to join a hardened group of jornaleros—day laborers, most of them immigrant men—at a dingy strip mall in Albany Park.

Oliva stepped into a scrum of about 50 workers, megaphone in hand, and called out in Spanish: “We are not illegals; we are human beings. The contractors should treat us as human beings.”

To the approving nods of his audience, Oliva announced that he and his colleagues were launching Wage Theft Taskforce, an initiative aimed to help the workers recover unpaid wages from unscrupulous contractors. “We can’t continue to let them rob us. When they do not pay, they are stealing,” he said. “Now we are saying, ‘Let’s get the money back.'”

Fighting on behalf of the day laborers is the latest, and perhaps thorniest, crusade for Oliva, a veteran organizer who directs the Chicago Interfaith Workers’ Rights Center. Too often, he says, these workers fall prey to exploitation. Like many who toil inside sweatshops, most of these jornaleros are in this country illegally, and, to them, getting deported is a bigger threat than not getting paid. Few know what rights they have. They don’t realize that, regardless of their immigration status, they are protected by state and federal labor laws.

Oliva, an affable, down-to-earth 31-year-old with dark eyes and a neatly trimmed goatee, wants to put an end to this conundrum; everything he does is simply a means to this end.

He could be called a labor organizer, and the workers’ center a labor organization, although neither term would be entirely adequate. The workers’ center serves as an intermediary between immigrant workers and labor enforcement agencies, acting as a goad to both sides in resolving disputes.

To government officials, Oliva is the eyes and ears of the community, the guy with a street-level connection to immigrant workers. They realize that, without his assistance, a host of labor-law violations would go unreported.

To workers, Oliva is an independent, a man controlled by no backers, free of any union, immune to academic nuance. He is a folksy, straight-talking guy they can trust. Without his encouragement, many would be too scared to file complaints against their bosses.

Rebekah Levin, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Impact Research, says few other advocates in Chicago manage to command the respect from both camps like Oliva. The secret, she says, lies in Oliva’s deep understanding of immigrants’ psychology: They simply don’t feel comfortable sharing their complaints with government agencies—even those that have nothing to do with enforcing immigration laws.

“Those kinds of institutions are not the places that people are going to feel safe coming to speak,” says Levin, whose agency has studied the immigrant workforce extensively. “So having someone like José who is so trustworthy from the perspective of the people who are vulnerable is extremely important.”

But not everyone agrees with Oliva’s approach; some even argue that his methods could ultimately undermine workers’ rights.

“We believe that the best approach to get our hands around this is for the workers to have a union and to have a steady job that can provide a paycheck, benefits, and a health and welfare pension,” says Tim Leahy, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “That’s what we believe is the ideal.”

* * *

The headquarters of the workers’ center is situated on the top floor of an aging Presbyterian church in Rogers Park, just a few blocks off Lake Michigan. Housed in what was once the church’s living quarters, the center is a warren of small rooms at one end of a dimly-lit, L-shaped hallway, chockablock with paintings and posters from various labor campaigns.

Technically, the place has only two full-time, paid employees—Oliva and a Polish-speaking workers’ advocate, whose salaries are paid by foundation grants and contributions from churches, unions and individual donors—but it’s always filled with volunteers and interns, each of whom is assigned to manage up to two dozen cases at a time.

One typical afternoon, Oliva was sitting at his desk, talking to a short, stout man in his 40s. A collection of documents was spread out before them. The man was grim-faced, and Oliva looked tense. They were speaking rapidly in Spanish, and it seemed clear from the man’s tone and body language that he was quite upset.

Oliva explained that the man had been a foreman of a maintenance crew at a local health club, where he worked long hours with no overtime benefits. Then, one day, he found himself fired; his employer had given him no explanation, much less his back wages.

Over the years, Oliva has come across hundreds of cases like this, some far more sprawling and complex. To deal with them, he focuses on stripping away the complexities. The intricacies of individual circumstances are set aside, so that Oliva can concentrate on answering two central questions: Does the case involve a labor-law violation, and does it affect more than one worker?

In this particular case, Oliva paid little attention to the man’s immigration status and his testy relationship with his boss and zeroed in on the nonpayment of back wages, which he said was a clear violation of wage-and-hour laws.

Similarly, most workplace disputes involve some sort of labor-law violation, for which the simplest solution is to alert the proper regulatory agencies, Oliva says. But that is by no means the only avenue; Oliva can also help file civil lawsuits or turn to “direct action”—an all-encompassing term he uses to describe such activities as phone calls, protests and letter-writing campaigns. In disputes that involve no violations but instead deal with other tangibles like vacation privileges or job securities affecting a host of workers, he will turn to unions for help.

But none of these options are of any use, Oliva says, unless his clients are willing to get involved. In fact, once a client comes in with a complaint, his chief concern in pursuing the case is whether the individual could stick through the whole process—months, sometimes years, of court dates and hearings for some; a series of protests or picket lines for others.

Many people, Oliva says, bring the stories of their hardships to him, thinking that he will be moved by their suffering and try to solve their problems for them. That’s only partly correct. He is interested in helping to solve their problems but not, as they might like, quietly, through back channels.

“They got to understand: This is their fight,” Oliva says. “We can lend them the support that they need, but they must decide what’s best for themselves and fight for it. That’s the only way they have strength.”

But such a level of commitment, Oliva acknowledges, often requires a giant leap of faith on the part of his clients. The vast majority—as many as 80 percent, he estimates—are undocumented immigrants, and they are apprehensive about having any contact with a government agency, fearing that it might attract the unwanted attention of immigration officials. Unscrupulous bosses know this and use this fear against the workers, only driving them further underground.

Oliva, of course, is well aware of this dilemma. But he insists that, in principle, immigration law has little relevance when it comes to enforcing labor standards.

“The labor law is pretty clear that anyone, regardless of legal status, has the same rights in the workplace,” he says. “So what we are saying is that, if you are an employer and you are violating the law, you will be prosecuted. We’ll go after you. And it makes no difference whether your employees are documented or not.”

* * *

Born in Xelaju, Guatemala, the eldest of two sons, Oliva grew up well-schooled in the art of organizing. One of his formative experiences was growing up in the midst of the country’s raging civil war, during which both of his parents were prominent pro-democracy activists. His stepfather, Byron Espinoza, was one of the leading organizers at the University of San Carlos, then a hotbed of social activism. His mother, Myriam, a teacher by trade, was also a much-admired organizer who championed the rights of the working poor.

But things took a bleak turn for his family in 1985, when Espinoza’s unrelenting activism landed him fourth on the military regime’s list of potential enemies. “There was no doubt about what was going to happen to you if you were on that kind of list,” Espinoza says. “You’d be killed—that’s it.”

Soon afterward, they fled Guatemala and made their way to the United States. The family eventually settled in Albany Park, on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

The adjustment was not easy for Oliva, then 12. For one thing, he did not speak much English; nonetheless, he was thrown into a regular junior high school, where he was picked on by classmates. “There were a couple of other Latinos in the class with me, and they were the meanest, because I was an immigrant kid,” he recalls. “I was terrified of these guys.”

Like some other neighborhood boys his age, Oliva sought refuge in a gang. As he describes it, there was a kind of adaptive inevitability about his involvement: It was a way to acquire standing among his peers and protection from those who dared to bother him. But, by the time he reached high school, his gang affiliation had become the main cause of his troubles. Things escalated to the point where rival gangs began targeting his family. At that point, Oliva decided enough was enough and moved out to live with his uncle in west suburban Hanover Park.

A year later, with a determination to start anew, he came back to his old neighborhood. On the first day back at his high school, a principal made Oliva sign a document agreeing—in advance—to drop out if he got in any trouble, because the principal “hated my guts and knew me as a gangbanger,” he recalls. Despite the odds, Oliva excelled. He graduated with a nearly straight-A average in his senior year and went on to earn a degree in anthropology from Wilbur Wright College.

In 1998, after a brief stint as a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Oliva was tapped to serve as executive director of Casa Guatemala, an organization that was created by Guatemalan expatriates as a vehicle to support the struggles in their war-torn homeland. He had been volunteering for the agency for several years.

As it turned out, Casa was at a crossroads when he took the helm; with the war in Guatemala coming to an official end in 1996, the agency’s very existence was being called into question.

Oliva, however, saw his agency’s identity crisis as something else entirely: a golden opportunity for a fresh start. The way he saw it, the time was ripe for shifting attention away from the struggles in their homeland and directing it toward issues closer to their current home, among Guatemalan immigrants who were struggling to make ends meet. “The Guatemalan population in Chicago is the third largest Latino population, and yet there wasn’t any organization that you could point to and say, ‘That’s the organization that represents the Guatemalan community here,’” he says.

So he began arming Casa with an array of social service programs to meet the needs of his community. Espinoza, who was serving as the agency’s board president at the time, praises Oliva for his ingenuity in turning the agency around. “He was able to create a better system of support using the resources that the Guatemalan community had not tapped into,” he says.

Gradually, as he delved deeper into his reforms, he began to notice a common theme among a large number of cases he worked on. “Within a whole range of issues that affected the community, workers’ rights was the premier issue for the vast majority of people,” he says.

* * *

The labor conditions Oliva is fighting have been illegal for more than half a century. But having a law on the books and having it enforced are, in this case, two entirely different things.

At any given moment, there are some 22,000 garment factories operating in this country, and almost half of them violate such basic labor standards as paying the minimum wage or compensating workers for overtime, according the U.S. Department of Labor. Similarly, in the restaurant industry, which also employs large numbers of recent immigrants, it’s common for workers to get less than the minimum wage, to put in seven-day weeks or to be forced to give part of their tips to their bosses.

By definition, any workplace with more than one such violation is considered a “sweatshop,” according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Locally, the extent of sweatshop abuses was virtually unknown until 1999, when the Sweatshop Working Group, a coalition of 33 Chicago-area community organizations, set out to interview nearly 800 workers and found that more than one third of them were working in sweatshop conditions.

As expected, the study found that undocumented workers were most likely to endure the worst conditions, with 70 percent working in sweatshops. But it turned out that 30 percent of legal residents, including those born in this country, were also toiling under the same conditions.

“The general perception out there is that things like this do not happen in this country anymore,” Oliva says. “But, of course, these numbers are in line with everything we’ve seen here at the workers’ center.”

The survey results eventually prompted regional offices of federal labor enforcement agencies to create a special task force, called the Chicago Area Workers’ Rights Initiative, to track down unscrupulous employers. The idea was to solicit community input by inviting a group of unions and other community organizations to meet periodically with officials from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and both state and federal labor departments.

The task force, however, was hardly a smashing success at first, as most participants remained skeptical of the government’s motives. “When we all came together, there was an intense tension between the various groups—it was palpable,” says the Center for Impact Research’s Levin, who is writing a study on the task force.

“No one thought that anyone across the table from us was serious about what we wanted to do,” Oliva also remembers. “We all thought, ‘Well, they are coming together to meet with us, because we put a lot of pressure on them, and we have organized against them, so now they feel like they have to.’”

But, unlike many other participants, Oliva decided to embrace the whole concept from the get-go and has since become a fixture in the group’s bi-monthly meetings. To hear him explain it, his decision was purely tactical: “This is a situation where your work is going to be much more effective if you are inside the organization—if you have an ability to influence change from within,” he says.

But others are quick to credit his personality. “Sometimes people get hung up on differences and can become very divisive,” says Katherine Bissell Córdova, executive director of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, which serves as the parent organization for the workers’ center. “But José, more than anyone I know, tries to get along and work with everybody.

* * *

Oliva has no formal legal training, and the workers’ center has no lawyers; nevertheless, he and his co-workers are constantly filing complaints against employers—as many as 70 cases a year.

Over the years, the workers’ center has had many victories, in cases involving everything from nonpayment of wages to sexual harassment. During the last three years, it has collected nearly $1 million in restitution on behalf of workers.

In addition to filing complaints, Oliva is an enthusiast of protests, prayer vigils, boycotts and pickets. Last spring, for instance, he helped organize a protest against a local construction company called ANSCO Real Estate Investments, which was accused of breaking numerous laws in its treatment of workers. In its complexity and sheer duration, the ANSCO protest was an exemplary Oliva crusade.

The battle began in November 2002, when a group of ANSCO workers came to Oliva with a laundry list of complaints. The company, which specializes in rehabbing South Side apartment buildings and selling them as condominiums, had the workers performing an array of carpentry work for as little as $6 an hour; equivalent work in a union setting, Oliva explains, would go for $13 to $20 during apprenticeship years.

Besides the poverty wages, female workers complained of sexual harassment. Others alleged that the company routinely ignored health and safety regulations, such as forcing workers to do high-altitude work without harnesses and handle hazardous materials without gloves or other protective gear. The owner of the company could not be reached for comment.

Oliva immediately threw himself into the case, organizing a series of meetings and helping the workers file complaints. And, true to form, he brought in various allies—most notably a carpenter’s union—to build more support for the campaign.

But some workers were hesitant to get a union involved, recalls Jorge Duran. “Some of us were afraid because they thought maybe the owner of the company will call the immigration [service],” says the Mexican native, who had been working for ANSCO for about a year.

Still, they all eventually decided to follow the lead of Oliva. “It all has to do with José’s ability to rally workers,” says Dan McMahon, an organizer with the Chicago and Northeast Illinois District Council of Carpenters. “There’s something about José’s personality and how he comes off that people just trust him—it’s in his sincerity and honesty.”

But, when the company learned of union activities, it responded by firing the core group of workers, prompting more than 40 others to walk off their jobs.

Oliva, in turn, kicked his efforts into high gear. He began circulating fliers and calling press conferences. In April, after learning that the company’s owner was Jewish, he got in touch with a rabbi and held a Passover prayer vigil in front of the company’s headquarters.

Finally, the owner relented: He came to join the workers in the vigil and pledged that he’d make immediate improvements.

The success, McMahon says, came not just from José’s dedication to the issues; he considers their cause his own. “The workers went out on strike, and he was there in the cold with the guys,” he says. “That’s what makes the difference.”

For Oliva, these occasional triumphs are what keep him going in a field where long-term improvements in working conditions remain elusive for most immigrants. “It’s hard to see major changes,” he observes, “except the other way.”

* * *

Organizing Albany Park day laborers has so far proven to be nothing but tricky for Oliva and fellow organizers. Besides forming a task force to recover wages, the goal of the organizers is to build a “democratic workers’ center,” a kind of hiring hall where day laborers can wait for contractors to come and make hires in an orderly and regulated fashion.

Such centers elsewhere around the country have proved to be simple, if imperfect, solutions: places where workers are able to expect some minimal respect for their rights, and communities can keep their streets clear of double-parked vans and loitering workers.

If any place in the city needs such a center, Oliva says, it would be the area along Pulaski Road in this sleepy residential area of Albany Park, probably the largest gathering place for day laborers in the city. Even in the dead of winter, as many as 50 jornaleros are known to show up there each morning. Yet the effort to create a permanent center in the area has proven to be nothing but complicated.

Until recently, the workers had been using a nearby abandoned bus turnaround as a temporary center. The site at least had a circular driveway that gave contractors some space to pull their cars off the street and negotiate with workers.

In August, however, city officials moved to close the site in an attempt to make room for a park district bike trail and posted signs announcing the new location for laborers: a Kmart parking lot more than two miles away.

Organizers decried the “unilateral” efforts of officials to throw the workers out of the neighborhood and held a series of rallies and press conferences in protest. Some neighbors showed up at the rallies to voice their support. But others, seeing the workers as nuisances or safety threats, have mobilized against them. A group called Neighbors United was formed, and its members showed up at a rally Oliva helped organize in September. Holding a placard that read, “Get Rid of Labor Workers,” one member cried out: “They are taking over Albany Park, and we don’t want them here.”

Certain segments of the labor movement also view the efforts of Oliva and other organizers with decidedly mixed emotions.

Leahy, of the Chicago Federation of Labor, says creating a workers’ center will take a lot of time and effort but won’t stop contractors from exploitation. “To just keep building the centers where workers can come and get taken advantage of—that does not solve anything,” he says. “What that is is a nicer roof over their head while getting screwed.”

Leahy argues that labor organizers should instead be helping to dismantle the day labor industry, which he disparages as “a manifestation of companies [trying] to pay the cheapest amount of wages to get the most amount of work.”

Other day labor opponents argue that it promotes increased illegal immigration and drives down wages for skilled U.S. workers. “We are talking here about predominantly illegal aliens, and all this does is lend legitimacy to their presence,” says David Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, based in west suburban Lombard. “And this cheap and exploitable labor that’s flooding into this country is depressing wages for all of the working poor and lower-middle class.”

Oliva counters that his approach simply recognizes that the day laborers aren’t going to go away, and that it is better to give them a safe, sanitary place to gather than to endure street loitering.

Besides, he says, these workers are, in their desperation, no different from other low-wage earners. “People think that lousy work is still better than no work,” he explains. “Unfortunately, the real truth is, even if you work 14 hours, someone else is willing to work 16 hours.”

It’s this same logic, in essence, that underlies American labor law: The minimum wage and the 40-hour week are supposed to create working conditions that make it impossible for factory hands and seamstresses to undersell one another. One of the results, of course, is that millions of jobs have moved overseas, where no such obstacles exist.

The dilemma is well understood by immigrant workers. Typically, in a desperate effort to save their jobs, they refuse to talk about what is going on in sweatshop factories or kitchens.

Oliva’s response to this frustrating reality is to engage in broad campaigns—such as day labor organizing—and hope that the publicity they generate will help the workers realize their options.

“I would argue that a lot of people are ready to step up and say, ‘I’m not going to take these abuses anymore’” he says. “They just don’t know it yet. They don’t know that they have an alternative to the abuse that they are getting.”

Hiroko Abe, Lisa Balde, Norell Giancana, Katrina Jones, Erin Meyer and Rupa Shenoy helped research this article.

is investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter.