The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) was officially founded in July 2001 in Northridge California at the first ever national gathering of day laborer organizations. It was formed as an alliance of 12 community-based organizations and worker centers dedicated to improving the lives of day laborers in the United States. In its 6 years, order NLDON has grown nationwide to 36 member organizations and is supported by a strong staff of 10. Its beginnings and growth are remarkable in that it remains committed to an authentic grassroots connection to its base of member organizations and the day laborer community. This section provides a glimpse of NDLON’s history and its development. However, try in order to trace the roots of NDLON, one must begin with the history and evolution of modern day laborer organizing in the US.
Day Laborer Organizing Pre-NDLON
The genesis of day laborer organizing dates back to the mid-1980s with early efforts to educate day laborers about their civil liberties and workers’ rights. Subsequent organizing evolved to include recovering unpaid wages, preventing labor rights abuses, and advocating on behalf of day laborers with police and community stakeholders. In the late 1980s, these efforts were consolidated through pilot projects that helped establish the first day labor worker centers. Concurrently, organizing efforts also ensured that day laborers’ right to seek work at informal, street-corner, hiring sites was protected.
The 1990s witnessed significant changes to the ways in which governments responded to the day labor issue. In few cases, municipalities became directly involved in establishing and operating day labor worker centers. However, more commonly, the response was to attempt to eliminate day labor hiring sites. Initially, this was accomplished by using repressive policing tactics, which then evolved to municipal codes that banned seeking work in public spaces. Organizers during this first period developed a two-pronged approach to defending the rights of day laborers. First, a litigation strategy in state courts that sought to challenge the constitutional basis of anti-solicitation ordinances. The second approach was built upon an organizing strategy that sought to increase the capacity of day laborer leaders to come together as an organized community capable of effectively representing themselves to government officials, law enforcement authorities, and other local stakeholders. This period also marked the first intentional efforts to enhance the leadership skills of the day labor workforce in a systematic manner. Through retreats and intensive leadership trainings, day laborers were encouraged to recognize their innate leadership abilities and to see themselves as a force for community change.
With leadership development moving to the heart of day laborer organizing, intensive community-building efforts continued to evolve at informal hiring sites. The protection of labor standards, setting of minimum wages, and shunning of abusive employers signaled a new, more proactive phase in day laborer organizing. Increasingly, workers were uniting to defend their rights. The maturation of local day laborer organizing in various parts of the United States coincided with the recognition that organizations engaging in local struggles are confronted by shared challenges and that these efforts would benefit from exchanges of organizing philosophy and practice.
In the mid- to late-1990s, informal exchanges between organizers led to the sharing of effective organizing tactics (such as the creation of wage claim booklets called libretas) that were quickly disseminated and replicated across the country. By the end of the decade, attempts were made to create a more formal collaboration between day laborer organizations. In 1999, a part-time national coordinator and in 2000 a second, full-time coordinator were hired to support an emerging collective of day laborer organizations. During this time, a national organizing and advocacy agenda was shaped, which soon would lead to the creation of NDLON.
NDLON Beginnings: Our National Conventions
NDLON was officially established at the first National Day Laborer Convention in July 2001. At this first convention, over 150 day laborers and organizers participated in the historic exchange of the twelve founding member organizations. During the convention, member organizations focused on setting the priorities for the Network. The strategic priorities for this gathering included the development of a robust internal organizational structure and the articulation of programmatic areas of work. Among the areas defined as priorities were: 1) protecting labor and civil rights, 2) creating day labor worker centers, 3) enhancing the education and organizing of day laborers, and 4) calling for a legalization program to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants. These areas would define and guide NDLON’s activities throughout the year until the following National Convention.
The second National Day Laborer Convention was held in September 2002 in Silver Springs, MD at the George Meany Center of the National Labor College. Over 250 day laborers and 18 community organizations participated in this second gathering. At the meeting, a steering committee was selected to help coordinate the growth of the network as well as its activities. Additional priorities were also established. These included a campaign to defeat municipal ordinances that ban the search for work in public spaces and a resolution to promote measures that recognize and elevate the work and contributions of women day laborers and organizers within the Network. From this point forward, the central steering committee and the national coordinating committee (and later, the Board of Directors) have been meeting on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, providing overall direction for the Network.
Following the second national convention, NDLON’s staff and internal capacity developed to the point where the Network could play a more significant role in accomplishing its mission of strengthening and expanding the work of local member organizations. During these times, NDLON was more capable to assess its strengths and weaknesses, reflect and adapt to the changing needs of its members, and shift its role as a prominent national network. As a result of this growth, NDLON redirected efforts to expand leadership development programs and engage funders, policy makers and community stakeholders as a national movement.
In light of this shift, a sizable cadre of day laborers and organizers with well-honed leadership skills was developed. These day laborer leaders and organizers assumed prominent roles in local organizations, setting the stage for the further evolution of day laborer organizing which included policy advocacy along with the everyday defense of labor rights. The capacity of NDLON member organizations to undertake ambitious local organizing campaigns, successfully build regional alliances between community groups, and effectively articulate policy concerns in national debates significantly increased during this time. Buoyed by the creation of dozens of worker centers as well as several notable legal and policy victories, by 2004, NDLON and its member organizations were poised to increase their influence within the labor and immigrant rights movements.
Since 2004, NDLON has continued to make significant strides in establishing itself as national vehicle for the day laborer movement as evident through our continued gatherings. The third National Day Laborer Convention was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY in July 2005. This gathering was attended by more than 300 day laborers and organizers representing 29 member organizations. At the convention, several important evolutions occurred for NDLON. Among those events were the election of NDLON’s first Board of Directors, which was selected through a democratic process of regional representation of member organizations. This act essentially launched NDLON on a path to become a sustainable and viable independent organization that would seek to establish itself as a 501c3. The solidification of a regional organizing strategy, another major shift in NDLON’s organizing work, also set the stage for the Network’s ability to quickly respond and engage in the attacks against the immigrant community that would only intensify over the following years.
In August of 2007, NDLON returned once again to the George Meany Center of the National Labor College to hold its fourth National Day Laborer Convention. During this recent gathering, NDLON members took time to reflect upon our collective accomplishments, review the preliminary draft of the 5-year strategic plan, and reaffirm the guidelines for the development and growth of the Network. Among the other actions that took place were 1) educative legislative visits, 2) affirmations of the growing relationship with the AFL-CIO and Change to Win member LIUNA, and 3) leadership development trainings as well as the distribution of leadership development materials for member organizations. NDLON’s advances in its leadership development training curriculum mark an important turning point in the intentional creation and recreation of day laborer leaders and organizers within the day laborer movement.
Today, NDLON’s membership is poised to grow well beyond its 40 current members. These organizations face numerous challenged yet are united by a shared mission and common vision that day laborers can be engaged in a civil and social right movement to recognize their contributions and rights in the US.