By Mark R. Day
When director Michael Weitz showed up recently at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, he couldn’t have picked a better audience for his new film, “A Better Life”. In attendance were more than 200 members of the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) gathered for a weeklong national assembly.
The protagonist of Wetiz’s film is Carlos Galindo, a Mexican gardener in Los Angeles, played by Damien Birchir. So compelling is Birchir’s performance that he was nominated as best actor for an Academy Award. (French actor Jean Dujardin won the award.)
The story: Galindo, a single dad, struggles to make ends meet while coping with his potentially wayward son Luis, who begins to tilt toward the gang life. Things get complicated when a co-worker steals Galindo’s truck, plunging him into a violent search that has sad consequences for both father and son.
Day laborers and household workers wept as the film ended, passionately sharing their stories with Weitz and three young cast members. A worker from Redondo Beach told Wetiz, “I, too have experienced many of these things. My son was lost in the desert, and with God’s help, we found him alive.”
Other speakers addressing the five day national assembly of day laborers were AFL-CIO president Richart Trumka, PBS commentator Tavis Smiley, and Tom Saenz of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.
“Your organizing, your pursuit of justice in the face of prejudice and under the threat of public power is what makes this nation great,” said Trumka. “Defending workers’ rights embodies the best of values of our country. I applaud you on behalf of the 20 million members of the AFL-CIO.”
Trumka’s visit to California included a trip to Sacramento to lobby for a domestic worker’s bill of rights and a rally for L.A. car washers who recently scored collective bargaining agreements and representation from the United Steel Workers of America.
Later, day laborers erupted into loud applause when NDLON president Pablo Alvarado announced a landmark decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned a 18-year-old City of Redondo Beach ordinance outlawing workers who solicit employers at street corners. The court victory has national implications, since other cities have drafted similar ordinances.
TV commenator Tavis Smiley lauded the decision and told delegates about visiting day labor sites as part of a nationwide “poverty tour” he took last summer with Prof. Cornell West of Princeton University. Smiley praised the workers for standing up for their rights.
“You represent the best of our black struggle, our black prophetic tradition,” he said. “How much longer can we be silent about what we are enduring? Someone has to speak truth to power.”
Smiley told the workers that their presence shows that there are severe challenges in this country. “Don’t forget that Martin Luther King, the greatest man America ever produced, said that if it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper—then sweep the streets like Michelangelo painted his murals, like Shakespeare wrote his poetry. There is dignity in all work.”
The five day assembly was geared to help promote day labor centers and corners, defend worker rights and occupational safety, form alliances, and to assist victims of wage theft.
Some municipalities have passed ordinances making wage theft a crime. Currently there is a bill before the Los Angeles City Council that will place stiff penalties on employers who refuse to pay their workers. According to the bill, employers found guilty will pay a surcharge that will be used to enforce the law.
The gathering included a march to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to protest Sheriff Lee Baca’s support of ICE’s Secure Communities program which has been responsible for the deportation of thousands of non-criminal immigrants.
After the screening of “A Better Life,” Cecilia Garcia, a household worker, posed for a photo with director Chris Weitz and cast members. “This film reflects our life experiences,” she said. “We, too, have passed through the desert. We have been assaulted, mistreated and exploited. People think we have come to rob. No, we have come to work.”
Mark R. Day is a filmmaker and co-founder, with Nidya Ramirez, of the San Diego Day Laborers and Household Workers Association. firstname.lastname@example.org