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Hard at Work

By Kristine Breese

Published Apr 1, 2016 8:00 AM

For Abel Valenzuela, the acclaimed UCLA scholar of immigrant and itinerant labor issues, inequality isn’t just an academic exercise; it’s personal. He is determined to use empirical research to dispel fear and ignite change around one of the country’s most emotional and controversial subjects.

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Photos by Elijah Hurwitz.

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, son of immigrants Abel Valenzuela was rocked by a startling and unsettling revelation. Working for $3.35 an hour, he realized that you could work more than full-time, year-round, at the legal minimum wage, and still be at or below the U.S. poverty line. The American Dream didn’t seem to apply to the immigrants he knew. Thus was born the greatest area of interest and inquiry for the professor of urban planning and chair of UCLA’s Chicana/o Studies Department.

Your own experience within the immigrant labor market drove you to your field of study. What did you hope to achieve?

I was interested in more than understanding the contours of inequality, such as labor markets and workers, immigration and neighborhoods. I especially wanted to explore how we can use research to ameliorate, to problem-solve, to engage and to use knowledge to empower and to change.

What question did you seek to answer in your first research project?

I wanted to know to what extent, if any, immigrant workers displaced U.S.-born workers, especially [U.S.-born] African Americans and Chicanos. Then, as now, immigration and its impacts on labor markets, worker earnings, etc. were debated, but the rancor, volatility and mean-spiritedness that characterize today’s debate weren’t as transparent. I found that immigrant workers mostly complemented native workers. Any negative impact occurred in jobs and industries that were already declining and had an overrepresentation of minority workers.

What came next?

Shortly after finishing my dissertation at MIT, I came across an article in a local newspaper that mostly disparaged [itinerant] workers who were milling around in a public park, looking for work but mostly passing the time, as the window for securing work had passed. I recalled similar workers, here in Los Angeles, searching for work at busy intersections and in front of home improvement stores. No one had done a significant study of this population, which mostly performs difficult, manually intensive construction or related work. I led a large survey in Los Angeles and another in New York. Then, in 2004, I collaborated on a national survey of day laborers — the first of its kind in the world. For the first time, we could talk about a previously unstudied labor market, which was ubiquitous and invisible to so many in L.A. and elsewhere.

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What did you find?

What motivates these workers is the wish to obtain experience and learn a new trade or skill; the autonomy and flexibility of setting your own schedule and negotiating your wage based on the actual job; the ability to transition to more stable work in the construction industry; and the ease in entering the market. Day labor doesn’t provide steady or well-paying work. Wage theft and work hazards are frequent, and employers often take advantage of the worker’s tenuous legal status to require extra work or pay lower wages.

We also found that day labor is a national issue that is predominantly Latino and concentrated in large urban growth centers with large demand for construction and related work. Los Angeles has the largest and most diverse concentration of day labor in the country, and possibly the world. But not all day labor is comprised of undocumented participants; about 25 to 33 percent are in the country legally.

Do you see yourself as an activist as well as an academic?

I wouldn’t call what I do being an activist, certainly not in the strict definition of the term, or the more often used “activist scholar.” The difference is engagement. My work has to engage multiple audiences, beyond students and faculty at UCLA. In my field, many of my colleagues and I engage our work with multiple stakeholders who encompass a larger, more far-reaching community. Shortly after my study was released, I went to Washington, D.C., to share my work with congressional staffers, and I gave presentations to community organizations, municipal workers and local officials on how they might intervene more thoughtfully to ease some of the tensions that might arise in searching for employment in public spaces.

Does the current debate around Muslim immigrants impact your inquiry?

I see the attacks surrounding Muslim immigrants — the current “other” in our highly racialized country — as part of a larger context surrounding inequality; increased neighborhood, and especially rural, poverty; poorly paid employment prospects; and the fear of demographic change and what that portends for our country. Attacks on minority groups teach and remind us of America’s past with other newcomers, some who were forced and others who arrived voluntarily, and that good can come from hate and scorn. At the very least, we are forced to learn about new groups, customs, origins and religions.

What are you working on now?

I’m interested in better understanding and publishing, with colleagues, an edited volume on the impact of Los Angeles on globalization and, similarly, globalization’s impact on Los Angeles. Another project, with a similar focus on Los Angeles, explores the rich, varied and evolving nature of how [the relationship of] space and racial inequality has played out in Los Angeles, and how change has in some instances improved outcomes, and in other instances worsened them. Trying to get a better handle on this body of knowledge is important for UCLA’s own history and legacy in Los Angeles.