Litigation at Work: Defending Day Labor in Los Angeles


Local opposition to day laborers is built upon a standard diagnosis of the day labor “problem” and a common approach to its “remedy.” The diagnosis views day labor as a public nuisance that imposes negative externalities on a locality by disrupting normal patterns of business, traffic, and pedestrian exchange. The remedy involves the enactment of new land use regulations, known as antisolicitation ordinances, designed to remove day laborers from the street corners—thereby undermining their ability to earn a living. Such ordinances regulate immigration indirectly by criminalizing conduct engaged in disproportionately by immigrant workers. Their proliferation, in turn, has invited a specific type of legal challenge focused on the deprivation of day laborers’ First Amendment right to seek work. This Article examines a pivotal struggle in the national day labor movement: the two-decade long legal campaign to contest antisolicitation ordinances in the greater Los Angeles area. It asks whether and how litigation—often portrayed as a nemesis of social movements—has advanced the day laborers’ cause. What it shows is that litigation has been an indispensible social change tool in the fight for day laborers’ rights, albeit one that carries inherent risk. On the positive side of the ledger, the Los Angeles day labor campaign has drawn upon strong legal capacity to mobilize a rights strategy, coordinated with grassroots organizing, against the backdrop of limited political options. It has thus avoided many of the familiar pitfalls of social change litigation in successfully challenging key ordinances. Yet, despite its success in preserving public space for day labor solicitation, the campaign’s outcome rests in the hands of a federal appellate court, underscoring a fundamental social change reality: Even the most sophisticated litigation campaign ultimately hinges on the presence of sympathetic decisionmakers in the court of ultimate authority.

About the Author

Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

By uclalaw