Oct 28 2009

Job Hunt



A dusty Ford pickup truck swings around the corner and parks next to a curb.  Before the wheels come to a complete stop, a mob –  maybe 15 or 20 men – swoop across the concrete like migrating birds.  They crowd pushes in close to the cabin of the truck, waving their hands and shouting out their trade in Spanish.

Three men emerge from the bustle, and the other workers make way in silence.  The chosen laborers hop into the back seat of the cab.  The grumblings of those left behind quickly subsides, replaced by the distinctive cadence of jokes and small talk, as the workers find a decent spot – maybe up against a street sign, maybe next to a tree – where they will wait for the next truck.  They may wait hours; there may not be another truck that day.

Things were different six months ago.

200,000 people moved into Denton over the preceding decade, increasing the citi0’s population by a third.  Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, sheetrockeros, manual laborers: all were in demand.  Americans were improving their homes, building permits were hot, and contractors had an unending need for labor.

Today things are different.

“Business used to be good,” says Ben Shaw, a 28 year-old carpenter from Fort Worth.  His clothes hang loosely from his body, and two searching blue eyes peer out from a pre-maturely grizzled face as he perches on his bicycle.  “You wouldn’t know what truck to run up to.”

Today the corner is just as crowded, but work has become scarce.  The real-estate bust has dragged heavily on new construction starts, and the general economic downturn has eaten jobs that used to be plentiful.  City documents show that new residential building permits are down by as much as 2/3rds since this time last year.

On a drizzling Wednesday morning the laborers are still gathered at the site, hands in their pockets, intently watching as the traffic hustles by unaware.  There are few trucks to be seen, and none of them appear to be looking for help.

Shaw points to the work-site street corner, and grimaces.  “That used to be a spot you could get a hand up . . . now you can’t even get a hand-out.”

Victor Cardena, a life-long Denton resident, shares some of Shaw’s frustration.  “It’s kinda aggravating,” the softly-spoken man says slowly.  “I used to work every day, 7 days a week.  Last week, I worked one hour.”

The economic pressures are not the only difficulty the day laborers face.

Cardena gestures to the gas station just around the corner.  “We don’t both nobody, we’re customers too but they [QuikTrip employees] treat us like we’re not.”

Managing the movements of so many people jammed onto so small an area is a perpetual challenge.  Many of the laborers cross the busy Fort Worth intersection and patronize the bustling QuikTrip.  They buy a warm breakfast, maybe a couple $5 phone cards, sometimes a lottery ticket.  The bathrooms are clean, and the cool air-conditioned quiet of the business can be a swift repose from the outside conditions.

QuikTrip employees asked to comment on their day laborer customers refused, saying they were barred by management from answering questions about it.

John Cabrales Jr., Intergovernmental Relations Officer with the City of Denton, says that from “time to time there have been complaints from some of the businesses,” mostly about laborers loitering on business property.

It is illegal in Denton to solicit work anywhere other than the Day Labor Site and the Denton Police Department takes an active role in trying to keep the workers out of traffic and off business properties.  Although some of the laborers complain about the cops ‘hasslin’ them, Officer Ryan Greeley says most of the workers are compliant.

“The day laborers pretty much understand the rules,” Greeley notes.  Incidents are remarkably low, even non-existent, considering the number of people gathered on such a small area.  Creeping squad cars on the Fort Worth block attest to the vigilant commitment of resources made by the city.

But as the economy sputters, day laborers face other issues hidden from the sort of cursory glimpse so often tossed their way.

“The recession is affecting immigrants more than other groups,” says Pia Orrenius of the Dallas Fed.  Orrenius works as a senior economist and research officer, is a former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and is of the foremost researchers of migrant labor patterns in the country.

Construction workers, she says, are “more sensitive to the economic cycle.” Day laborers, in particular, are vulnerable because they work a fluctuating hourly basis.  “They often work fewer hours in a downturn,” Orrenius says, meaning drastically reduced income.

Even when these laborers get work, there is an increasing chance that they will not get paid.  Emily Timm, a 5-year veteran of the Workers Defense Project based in Austin, says that reports of wage theft – instances wherein laborers do the work, but employers pay them half, a third, or none of was originally agreed upon – have doubled since January 2008.

Workers at the site seem to confirm this trend.

Seven Hispanic men crowded next to a fence adjacent to the QuikTrip spoke with this reporter on an early morning.  One of them was looking for work, and inquired about a job – in violation of city ordinance.  The workers wore blue jean jacket and paint-stained pants.  Some look on from under creased baseball caps.  One of the men – with a particularly well kept mustache – smiled.

When asked if any of them had been a victim of wage theft – if someone had ‘ripped them off’ – two of the workers nodded.  Another one, in a blue baseball cap, raised his hand and began to speak, but was cut off.  Taxes were brought up, and it was quickly decided that the conversation had ended.  The mustachioed laborer was no longer smiling.

Workers at the day center site are not the only one’s choosing to stay silent.  Some local business owners refused to speak on the issue, preferring to not have their names attached to a debate that appears to be nowhere near resolution.

“There’s the situation of ramped-up [immigration] enforcement in the labor market,”  Orrenius said.  The legal status of many of the workers has drawn the attention of anti-illegal immigration groups, and cities through North Texas have experienced intense debate over how to handle the issue.

The city of Denton has tried to strike a balance, by maintaining the work site but not operating it outright.  The city assumed ownership of the site when the Denton Humanitarian Organization dissolved in 2003, thereby returning the property’s lease to the city (which had initially leased the plot from TxDOT in order to donate it to the DHO).

Confusion with the paperwork means that, for now, “It’s not clear for how long the agreement is for between TxDot and the City of Denton,” Cabrales said.  Cabrales suggested the lease could last for up to 30 years, meaning the city is most likely tied to this arrangement for the immediate future.

The arrangement means that the city will be responsible for maintaining a site that could see rapid growth regardless of academic conditions.

“In other states, like Arizona and Oklahoma, legislation has targeted illegal labor,” Orrenius said.  “They [the illegal labor] didn’t go to California.” The implication is that many laborers fleeing the widespread crackdowns in neighboring states are coming to Texas.  More workers for fewer jobs, since “low-wage workers in industries such as construction are the most hard-hit by recession,” Timm said.  “they are the first to lose their jobs.”

A startling number of local contracting firms have gone out of business, their posted business lines just beeping dead-ends.  The food truck lingers longer on the asphalt lot at the site, doing business with the idle.  Wages are being stolen, but fear stays the victims from reporting it.

Things could get better – many of the workers interviewed expressed hope that things were about to turn around.  The recession can’t last forever, after all.

But for now they wait, corralled onto a patch of concrete, hopeful that every truck turning the corner might be the one that earns them a day’s wage.  Most of them are still waiting.

Oct 13 2009

Ask Not

Any able bodied man or woman, with the requisite qualifications and intent, should be allowed to serve their country with pride and dedication.

Oct 2 2009

Mean Green Morons


Not in Texas!

Not in Texas!

The UNT Student Government voted to not allow same-sex couples to participate in the race for Homecoming King and Queen.  Among the reasons cited: parents threatened to take their kids out of class.  Damned children shouldn’t be taking up parking spots at the University anyway.

The decision does technically follow the by-lines of the student charter; unfortunately, the decision is also illegal.  The Homecoming Dance takes place with the tacit approval and coordination of the University – the University that accepts state and federal funding.  They are barring participation in a public school-sponsored event to students based on their sexual orientation.

The fact is, sexual orientation is physiological.  It’s not a choice.


Discriminating against people on the basis of something that they were born with is shameful garbage.  Get with it, UNT.

Oct 1 2009

Conversations with the Invisible Man

Would You Let Me THINK woman!
  • give voice to the voiceless
  • illuminate the hidden characters
  • write the truth about ordinary people
  • advocate for those in need
  • demand dignity for the outcast
  • tell the stories that need to be told, to the readers that need to hear them, about the people who could be invisible

There is an argument to be made that journalists must remain as objective as humanly possible; that the journalists only job is to report the stories the readers want to see.  Some say that if a journalist gives up his/her objectivity, and imposes a moral value on a story’s worth, their credibility is shot.  I strongly disagree with these ideas.  The Hearst Newspaper were ‘objective’ in their reporting, and those filthy rags damaged the American discourse in a very deep and personal way.  CNN prides itself on objective reporting, yet their corporate slant is often so apparent you wonder why Wolf doesn’t just come on out and admit his real name is ‘Tool O’Shuckin.’  What an absolute clown, a fraud!  An unpleasant empty beard of a man who plays with fake holograms tricked up to look legit, gets dominated on Jeopardy by Andy Richter, and couldn’t form an incisive question if Bigart himself rose from the grave and scrawled one on that giant Etch-A-Sketch in the Situation Room.  But he is objective!  It is a silly conceit that confuses the truth with non-commitment.  The truth, ultimately, is viciously subjective – it will only be caught and observed in the skull of whatever stumbling fool who happens to find himself face to face with a wall of reality.  Objectivity is a flighty hand-maiden to Judgement.  As journalists, lets use our judgement to tell a story, and if we have to abandon objectivity for the sake of understanding a perspective we would otherwise hold at arms length, well those are the wages of Truth.


i shook his hand once


i shake my fist at him


shaking violently; bat country

The Objective Mainstream establishment treated all vectors of information as equally valid in the run-up to Bombs Over Baghdad (DubYa Remix).  Some vectors of information are bullshit.  Officials, bureaucrats, politicians, entertainers: the bullshit will flow thick and rancid many times, and the fact is, those glommed up chunks of gibberish very often make pretty decent copy.  The story’s we read everyday are indentured to the same corridors of power, the same carousel kaleidoscope.  Jerry Jones, Tom Leppert, Mark Cuban, Max Baucus and Nancy Pelosi.  Yes, they are important, yes the news must cover what they sling at us, but no, let’s not pretend any of that is Objective.  I don’t mean the gibberish that leaks out of their mouths.  I mean covering their carefully crafted PR statements and acting as if it matters.  Objectively speaking – I mean, if we are observing the intersection of truth and reality – objectively speaking, Jerry Jones is a crook, Tom Leppert is a liar, Mark Cuban is unstable, Max Baucus is a crook and a liar, and Nancy Pelosi is an extremist.  The Objective journalist could never dare such a statement, of course.  And so Jerry Jones ripped the taxpayers of Arlington for $400 million, Tom Leppert sold us a Bridge in a Levee that will Never Work, Mark Cuban makes his players look bad, etc.  Perhaps I digress.

0320daylabor Rarely Seen Evidence of the Real World

The point I was trying to make, before we took a blind 180 degree turn into some unpleasantness, is that executing an agenda is journalistically important.  Giving voice to the voiceless requires an active and considered move to do just that.  Finding the unseen characters, and writing about them with import, will not succeed unless one makes a conscious effort to extract value from the story.  It is absolutely crucial that you find out ‘why this story matters to your readers.’  The ugly fact is, if you’re covering the voiceless, the unseen and the invisible, the story doesn’t matter to your readers.  By and large, they don’t care.  Let’s take another look at that 600 foot JumboTron.  The journalist must take the dangerous step of deciding this story is important, and working to convince the reader that they should care.  This is not Objective.  It is a declaration of intent.  Talking with the Invisible Man is not an easy prospect: he could be distrustful, unbelieving, comfortable in anonymity.  Shucking the Objective aside, there is a choice as to what you consider true: the voices of the marionette parade, always ready to babble on for a good soundbite just so long as you don’t call them on their invisible faults . . . or the voices of the shadowed souls, swallowed up by the wide wicked world, too concerned with reality to bother talking to an infiltrator.