The following stories, told to David Bacon, first appear in the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online 10 June 2014
I first applied for a job at the Select agency in 2000. I’d just arrived from Mexico, and a friend explained to me about the agencies, that they’ll quickly send you out to work. They sent me to some other places before ACI. Then I was out of work for awhile, and I went down to the agency to ask them for another job. They said the only job they had for me was in the garbage.
A lot of people had told me that this job was really bad. The woman at the agency told me, go try it for a day, and if you don’t like it you can come back here. So I went. At first they put me on the cardboard line. That didn’t seem so bad because it’s not so dirty. It’s just that the cardboard stacks up so fast. But then they put me on the trash line, which was a lot dirtier. But the thing is, I needed the job. So I worked hard, and the years passed, and I was still there.
All day every day the trucks arrive, they unload and a machine starts pushing the trash onto the line. Down below, we start sorting it. The line brings all the trash past the place we’re standing, and first we separate out the cardboard. The next line takes out the plastic. Then the metal and aluminum gets taken out on another line.
The worst position — the one with the heaviest and dirtiest work — is the trash line. It’s really ugly. All the really terrible things are there. Things like dirty diapers. There are dangers too. Broken glass. Rusty iron.
I got punctured twice by hypodermic needles, and they sent me to the hospital. I was really scared, because you don’t know where the needles have been. You could get HIV. They kept checking my blood at a clinic in Castro Valley for eight months afterwards, for AIDS or hepatitis or other illnesses.
Afterwards Maria at the agency said the company had checked my papers and found out that they weren’t any good. I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I couldn’t give them new papers within a month. I told her I wanted to see this in writing, and I’d take it to a lawyer before I signed anything. I told her, “With the lousy wages you’re paying us, do you think you’re going to find people with good Social Security numbers?”
After the month was up they didn’t say anything. I knew three people after that who were called into the office after they’d been punctured by a needle, and the company then checked their papers. But they lost their jobs because they didn’t speak up the way I did.
The heaviest job is separating out the metal and taking it to the containers. Once I was sorting on the line and a heavy piece of equipment fell on me. It really hurt me bad, but they didn’t pay me anything for that or send me to the doctor or the hospital. Last November I slipped and fell while I was putting a cylinder on the forklift, and it hit me in the stomach. They didn’t do anything for me that time either. They just sent me home. They always look for a way not to send you to the doctor when something happens.
We don’t have any medical insurance. They tell us that because we work for the agency, we don’t have a right to this benefit or anything else. No vacations. Nothing. They call us temporary workers because we work for the agency, but we’re not really temporary. Many of us have been working at ACI for many years. We are permanent workers there. But ACI doesn’t have any of its own employees on the sorting lines. Down there we all work for the agency.
When I started at ACI they were paying me $8 an hour. They made us work ten or twelve hours every day, standing in one place all that time. If we got sick and asked for time off they’d deny it. Every Saturday was mandatory. If we stopped the line to get a drink of water because it was so hot they’d get angry. If we went to the bathroom, they’d look at their watch to see how much time we were taking.
Then in 2012 they started two shifts and raised the wages to $8.50 for nights and $8.30 for days. I don’t think that’s a fair wage. The job is very heavy and the pay is really low. In one safety meeting I asked them to give us a raise. Then the manager yelled at me and called me a grossera because I said the company was greedy. Afterwards he told me I had to go apologize in the office.
They’d yell at us and tell us to get out more production but they’d never raise the wages. Our hands were hurting from what they already demanded. Once a woman said we’d go on strike and Brenda, the manager, said we’d all be fired if we did. She said, there are four doors and they’re all open for anyone who doesn’t like it here.
Then they decided to motivate us by giving us clocks as presents, but they didn’t work. When I asked why they’d give us broken clocks the company was insulted, but I see better stuff in the trash.
Even though we were asking for raises, we never knew that San Leandro had a living wage law. Of course they never said a thing about it. They would just say, there’s not going to be any raise. We learned about it when we talked with the union organizer, Agustin. We decided to file a court case to force them to raise the wages. We didn’t want to get fired – we wanted them to pay us better.
Then in February they began calling us in to say they’d started checking our papers. They said la migra had checked our papers over a year earlier, but if that was really true, why did they wait until we’d filed the suit? When I asked Monica, a manager, why, she said it was partly because we’d sued the company and partly because the company had been audited by la migra. People have worked here for fourteen or fifteen years, and no one ever said anything to them before. Now that we filed the suit, we’re getting fired.
Since I got fired I’ve been very worried about my situation. I can’t get hired and my sons lost their jobs in Los Angeles and came up to live with me. My PG&E bill is very high, $258. The water bill came — $239. The rent is $1250. We’re all living in one room and renting out the others just to be able to pay it.
I’ve been here fourteen years, and it’s impossible for me to go back to Apatzingan, in Michoacan, where I was born. But I was never sorry I came. I worked hard for three years, and brought my two sons. I may not have a job right now, but I don’t regret anything. I’m going to struggle, and continue moving ahead.
Luis Valladares, his wife and two of their children. (Valladares’ name was changed to protect his identity)
My father is a farmer in Chiapas, and grows corn, mangoes and bananas. Our land wasn’t enough to support our family, though. The little we were able to grow was just to eat. When I went to school I didn’t have any money for lunch. I’d just bring some tortillas with salt, or some beans. We always suffered from poverty. Now we just try to forget.
Poverty closes doors in your life, to what might have happened if you could have kept studying. When I was sixteen I left home and school, and went to Mexico City. Parents never want their children to leave. But we, their kids, don’t belong to them, and we can’t stay. The majority of young people in my town have left, like me, looking for a way to help their families survive.
In Mexico City I found work as a musician, because I play the marimba. On weekends we’d go out to the markets with the marimba and make enough to eat. Then I met my wife who was living in Mexico City too. I was the one who suggested to her that we come here. She had a sister who was already here. We had no money, so her sister gave us a loan to get here. I came first and found a job with this same agency. It wasn’t very stable work, but after five months I put together enough money to bring my wife.
We had a daughter we had to leave behind. She was just three when we left, and she’s sixteen years old now. She still lives in Mexico. This was very hard for us. We send money home for her, but she doesn’t want to come live here and leave her grandmother. We don’t want to force her. And now, of course, it’s much harder to come. It’s not just more expensive, but you’re risking your life. Many people have died trying to cross the border.
When I came I crossed in the desert. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. You just make the decision to do this out of need. When we were thinking about coming here, my idea was that we’d stay here for two or three years, save up some money and then go back and build a house. But look. Now we’ve been here 14 years and we can’t go back. My children belong here, and there are a lot of benefits for them here.
I worked at ACI for twelve years. When I started I was a sorter on the line. Then they asked me if I wanted to operate machinery, and I got off the line. I ran the packing machine. I learned to drive the forklifts and the loaders – all the machines the company has.
The packing machine packs all the material that is sorted on the line — paper, cardboard, trash, aluminum, plastic, cans – into a dense package and puts the bands around the package. Each package has to have a certain weight. My job was to watch the line, and calculate the weight of the material going into the machine. If I let too much go in, the machine would seize up. It would be a big headache. It took me time to learn, but at the end it’s like the way you know your car.
Can they take someone who’s been working there a month and have them do this? No one is irreplaceable, but it takes anyone time to learn. It’s a very responsible job. You can’t go to sleep on this machine. If you fall in you’ll wind up in pieces.
If the machine jams, to go inside you have to stop it, take out the key, and pull the electrical switch. At another company a friend of my wife reached in to free a piece of metal that had jammed the machine. The machine was still on and he hadn’t unlocked it. The machine grabbed his foot. He didn’t lose it, but he’s disabled now.
This is a very dangerous place to work. Machines are always passing by. The line is moving and other machines are moving around them.
When I started at ACI they paid me $6.75 an hour. I left in 2009 because they were only paying me $8.50. One Friday, when I saw they were still paying me that same lousy wage, I punched out and told the supervisor that if they wanted me to give me a call. The agency fired me. But the person they hired to replace me wasn’t very good at the job. After a year, the agency called me and I went back at $10 an hour.
I didn’t know about the living wage, but some women at work talked with Agustin from the union and decided to file the suit. Whatever is for the benefit of us, the workers, I support. And I continue to support it. I never imagined they would fire us for this.
I always had the idea that unions had a lot of benefits for workers. They’ve never paid us any of these things. So I thought if we filed a suit, it might lead to having a union, and eventually the company would work with it. Instead Anna and Monica called me to the agency office and said, “We want you to reverify your Social Security number, and bring us proof that you can continue to work here.”
You know, when many people come to this country, we come illegally. I’m not going to lie. When we came we had to find a way to start working. And this is the basic thing you need – a Social Security number. You have to buy a number. If we had good numbers we’d never have the kind of problems we have now. By 2001, when I came, you could not get a real Social Security number, although long ago you could.
Since that attack on the twin towers it’s been really hard. They’ve started checking Social Security numbers a lot more. Jobs also just got harder to find. A lot of companies closed, leaving their workers without jobs. Now we’re in this ocean of unemployed people.
At first I was very angry. I felt helpless. And then quickly I began to worry. I have to pay the rent, the bills. The kids have to eat. When you’re working, you only make enough just to live. Do you think with the wage they’ve been paying that we were able to save any money?
I haven’t been able to find another job. My wife is working, but only part time in a hotel. Lately I’ve been going out to work with some friends. But it’s just two or three days a week. This week I didn’t work a single day. Every penny I make I’m putting away to pay the rent.
I don’t believe that what happened to us at ACI is just. We’re looking for the welfare of our families, trying to get a fair wage so we can live better. People need to understand what happened to us, the abuse and low pay that immigrants have to live with.