Published in the Asbury Park Press on 10/17/06
A no-show zone, not muster zone
Lakewood workers gather at usual site
BY JOHN VANDIVER
TOMS RIVER BUREAU
LAKEWOOD — It's 6 a.m., it's cold, and the concrete slab where the day laborers are supposed to gather is empty.
The only people on the scene on Swarthmore Avenue — about three miles from downtown — are a TV news crew and some local citizen watchdogs.
By 7 a.m. Monday, the picture looks much the same. Not much different an hour later, either.
There was no mustering at the muster zone Monday, where Lakewood's day laborers have been told they should wait for work in the mornings. Instead, the men are gathered where they always have, Clifton Avenue.
"Everybody wants to stay here," says Marco Gonzalez, 29, a per-diem worker waiting for his ride outside a coffee shop.
Police officers patrol up and down Clifton issuing tickets and warnings to contractors parking illegally.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Gonzalez sees his ride approach. He whistles loudly to the passing van and runs to jump aboard.
The van, though, is parked illegally and gets the attention of an officer on the other side of the street, who approaches the driver.
"Nobody has a license. Nobody is driving this truck. You parked in handicap," says Capt. Gregory Miick, in questioning the driver.
The van is later towed away. Many other contractors apparently are opting to simply stay away, as traffic is unusually sparse, according to observers.
Advocates and opponents
On Monday, day laborer supporters carried signs that chastised the township for initiating a relocated muster zone. Activists, local and from out of town, talked of how the policy is inhumane and unsafe.
Members of New Labor, a New Brunswick organization, were handing out cards to contractors, advising them on township ordinances and parking rules downtown.
"It looks like they're going after the contractors — strangle the source," said Carmen Martino, who's part of a Rutgers University program that examines occupational safety concerns.
There were also opponents of illegal immigration on the scene, opposed to both the muster zone and those who employ undocumented workers.
"I think it's a travesty. It's outrageous. Taxpayer dollars paid for this," Frank Shallis of Bound Brook said at the new muster zone.
Shallis represented the New Jersey chapter of the Minutemen, an activist anti-illegal immigration group.
The township has spent close to $40,000 to install the muster zone.
Mayor Meir Lichtenstein, the chief proponent of the zone, said the Township Committee is trying to improve conditions for business downtown.
Complaints from merchants that the assembled day workers are bad for business were a driving force behind the plan.
"One of the consequences is the day laborers will have a hard time to get work there (downtown). I hope the laborers will see to take advantage of" the muster zone, Lichtenstein said.
The workers have opposed going to the new muster zone for several reasons, safety being chief among them. Many workers ride bikes, and the route to the zone from downtown is regarded as perilous.
Larry Simons, a citizen watchdog, was at the new muster zone early Monday and said walkers could be killed if they attempted the journey on bike or foot.
"Whose conscience is it going to be on? The mayor's?" Simons asked.
Lichtenstein said there are alternatives to riding bikes, such as a township bus that loops from downtown to the industrial park.
"I have to say, we want to govern humanely, and I need to govern the local issues," Lichtenstein said.
Gerardo Perez, vice president of Hispano Power, a local advocacy group for the laborers, said he wants to meet with the mayor about "Plan B."
Plan B is to set up an assembly zone closer to downtown, a location the workers themselves would agree to oversee and keep clean, Perez said.
"That's our part," Perez said.
Lichtenstein didn't rule out another location.
"I will talk with any group that wants to work with me," Lichtenstein said.
While the concerns of merchants have been cited as one of the reasons for the muster zone move, some business owners weren't happy Monday.
"I hope they're not going after poor people," said Dave Raj, owner of Bakery Coffee Shop at the corner of Clifton and First Street.
"Nobody's here. This is our busy time," added Amanat Shah, coffee shop manager.
A small group of workers shuffled in and out of the shop, drinking coffee and reading Spanish-language newspapers.
"All these guys, they just come here for work. They're not doing damage to no one," said Michael Maximiliani, 28, who sat in the coffee shop while he waited for his employer to show up.
The same contractor picks him up every day. But when Maximiliani learned that contractors were being ticketed, he ran outside looking for his ride.
Back at the muster zone, coffee and doughnuts waited for the men who never showed.
"I'm not surprised," said June Stitzinger-Clark, pastor at Christ United Methodist Church.
The church hired a person, Luis Morales, to serve as an advocate for the workers at the zone.
For one month, Morales will be on the scene, keeping an eye out for the workers' safety and their rights.
Morales, who sat in his car waiting for the workers, smoked a cigarette and read a newspaper.
"We have no idea if they will come," he said.
After one month, if the new zone remains basically unused, there will be no point in the church maintaining a continued presence at the zone, Stitzinger-Clark said.
John Vandiver: (732)557-5739 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.