A Friend to Day Laborers

kari-lydersenCHICAGO—Gretchen Moore was coming home from the dentist in December 2009 when she saw about 125 men at the corner of Belmont and Milwaukee avenues in sub-zero weather and, baffled, decided to find out what was going on. “Hi guys, what are you doing?” she naively asked some men, she remembers.

When told they were looking for work, she invited about five of them to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and began to hear their stories. Mostly immigrants, many of them undocumented, the men had come from Latin America and Eastern Europe searching for work.

Gretchen Moore advocates for day laborers in Logan Square on Chicago's North Side.
Gretchen Moore advocates for day laborers in Logan Square on Chicago's North Side.

Moore could relate—her husband came to the United States from Germany as a child and World War II refugee. Her husband’s father struggled to make a living opening a laundromat that burned down and later he opened a wholesale business on Canal Street. Her grandfather sponsored refugees during that period too, and told his family that it was their duty to protect immigrants who make this country as diverse and strong as it is, Moore explained.

She grew up in a racially homogenous part of Rockford, Ill., so moving into Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood about 20 years ago was a new experience for her, she said. She founded a chamber of commerce for the neighborhood, and the majority of members were immigrant local business owners.

So shortly after talking with the day laborers, Moore began dedicating the majority of her free time to working with them. She drove groups of men—arranged by country of origin—around the city pointing out social services and low-cost housing. She leveraged her network of friends and contacts to help the men get legal services and healthcare. Shortly after meeting them she got a shoe store to donate 50 pairs, she said, and a Michigan Avenue hotel to donate 500 soap and shampoo sets.

After she mentioned her work and the issue to the priest at a nearby Catholic Church, Resurrection, he urged her to gain 501(c)3 status—which she did in December 2010—to expand her reach.

She notes that many groups, including the similarly-named Instituto del Progreso Latino have offices on Chicago’s South Side, but the North Side lacks the same cohesive and politically organized culture among immigrants even though many neighborhoods on the city’s wealthier side have increasing immigrant populations.

Even though she speaks little Spanish, many workers turn to Moore for assistance on various fronts. Recently she was helping a Honduran with a special needs teenage son deal with a flooded basement. “If you’re undocumented, you don’t get insurance,” she said. She was also assisting a worker who had been arrested for selling bootlegged Mexican DVDs.

“Every morning they run up to my car with new problems, real human problems,” she said.

Now Moore is trying to raise at least $55,000 to open what she calls a “Latin men’s center” which would be similar to a workers center of the type the Latino Union runs in Albany Park just to the north. That one was formed primarily by immigrant day laborers who used to wait on the corner of Foster and Pulaski avenues. She sees it as a place workers could learn more English and business and construction skills, and also a place for injured day laborers to recuperate.

Like the Albany Park workers center, Moore sees her idea as a way to cut down on the wage theft that is rampant in immigrant communities. She said that along with the priest at the Catholic church where her 501(c)3 is now based, she calls contractors who haven’t paid workers. Sometimes they hang up and even change their number, she said, while other times they have come through with the money. She’s also verbally tussled with police officers who are known to harass the workers at Belmont and Milwaukee.

“The workers are taken advantage of horribly,” she said.

Ironically, in her hometown of Rockford, Moore made the news because her small construction firm was known for hiring nonunion workers. Now that Moore is a full-time advocate for day laborers, she doesn’t see the day labor issue through a lens of labor rights or worker organizing necessarily, but rather as a human rights and civil rights struggle—and as a matter of economic well-being for the workers’ families and the city as a whole.

“These are marvelous guys who have really needed skills,” she said.

Moore said that donations of funds, jeans (preferably size 32 to 36), shoes (size 6 to 10) or other goods can be dropped off at or otherwise made to the Resurrection Church, 3043 N. Francisco Ave. Chicago, Illinois 60618. For more information, e-mail northsidelatinprogress@hotmail.com.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on August 8, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.