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Workers’ rights classes seek to turn workers into leaders — in their workplaces and at city hall

Courtesy of CTUL/Uche Iroegbu
Low-wage workers in the cleaning and fast-food industries staged a 24-hour strike in front of Macy's in Minneapolis on Nov. 10 for higher wages and predictable schedules and an end to wage theft.

Lucila Dominguez had been working in the cleaning industry for 10 years, hopping from job to job and running into problems at each one. “I started to discover there was injustice in all these jobs,” she said.

Dominguez said at each job she experienced issues from wage theft to poor working conditions to employer intimidation. And when she finally decided to say something about it at one job, they fired her on the spot, she said.

“That’s when I made the decision to stop looking for a better job and try to work to change the whole industry,” said Dominguez.

Now Dominguez works for Minneapolis-based workers-advocacy group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), helping others learn their rights and navigate Minnesota’s legal system to avoid the same pitfalls she faced.

Workshops on rights, hotline, law clinic

Most of her work is done through CTUL’s Workplace Defenders Rights Program, launched last year. The program offers four in-depth workshops where workers learn different aspects of their workplace rights, a workers’ rights hotline where people can call with specific questions, and a biweekly legal clinic where volunteer attorneys come in to explain legal issues in the workplace. The program also released a survey report earlier this month showing that most low-wage workers in the Twin Cities live below the poverty line and have experienced some form of wage theft.

CTUL officials say their workshops are filling in a much-needed gap for non-unionized industries by educating those workers of their rights and showing them how to negotiate with their employers over disputes of wages, wage theft and working conditions.

“The people who hold the power over the everyday working conditions are separating themselves in different ways from responsibility for what happens in the workplace,” said CTUL co-director Brian Payne.

Payne said most of CTUL’s work focuses on the cleaning industry, where workers are easily exploited because it’s not unionized and because the employers have found ways to separate themselves from being held accountable for what happens to their workers. The industry is also highly populated by poor people of color and immigrants, he said, who face cultural and economic barriers.

Subcontractors pitted against one another

For example, said CTUL organizer Terin Mayer, there’s a structural problem with big retail stores like Target and Macy's that hire people to clean their stores who aren’t employees but subcontractors who work for third parties. Some retailers hire whoever will clean their stores for the lowest price, Mayer said, so those subcontractors end up pitted against one another and often suppress their workers’ wages or even risk breaking the law in order to offer the cheapest service.

Many of the people who come to CTUL don’t understand at first that there’s a larger systemic issue at play within their workplace, Dominguez said, and CTUL’s workshops help to show them that.

“It wasn’t about not being a good worker or failing in certain types of work,” she said. “It really had more to do with a broader system that we’re a part of.”

Lilia Lopez has worked in the dry cleaning industry for 15 years and started going to CTUL’s classes about a year ago, she said. The classes gave her the courage to approach the owner at the dry cleaning company to ask for a raise when she started putting more responsibility on Lopez and the other workers there, she said.

Earlier this year, one of her coworkers left the company and the boss forced the remaining employees to pick up the extra work, she explained. “We picked up her work, but also realized that they were basically pocketing this woman’s salary and not sharing it among the workers who are doing the work this woman used to be doing,” she said.

So Lopez spoke with the other employees and together they approached the owner to ask for more money because they were doing more work in the time allotted to them, she said. By showing up as a unified front, they persuaded their employer to give them each a dollar-per-hour raise, she said.

“It was because I had taken the classes at CTUL,” Lopez said. “That’s how I got the courage to do this.”

Encouraging leadership

CTUL has also played a major role in rolling out the Working Families Agenda, one of the most sweeping workers’ rights bills in the country, but Payne said their workshops’ main focus is to bypass traditional channels of political power, by showing workers how to become leaders — both in their workplaces and in the broader policymaking process.

By participating in the workshops, workers will learn the knowledge and skills to approach their employers directly and even take part in the policymaking process themselves, Payne said. “Having these laws are good, but there are things that can be given and things that can be taken away,” he said of the Working Families Agenda. “Leadership development is something that can never be taken away.”

Payne said he’s frustrated to see Minneapolis officials taking a slow approach to passing laws that would benefit low-wage workers, but for now CTUL will continue to show workers how to play an active role in the workplace and at the Capitol. CTUL also plans to expand its workers’ rights programs soon, Payne said, just as soon as it can find additional funding.

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Comments (10)

Just a quick question for

Just a quick question for those who think this article made sense, when you need your transmission changed, do you go to the guy who can do the best job for the least amount of money or not? Why would you expect Target or Macy's not to do the same thing? It is called shopping around for value. If retail stores can get their stores cleaned for less money why wouldn't they? It is skilled labor versus un-skilled labor. Skilled labor (welders, electricians, plumbers, heavy machine operators ect) will always win in the wage war, harder to find, harder to replace.

Naive Sophistry

The thought that skilled labor can name it's own price is ridiculous. Let's look at three examples:

Just 2 or 3 years ago, it was discovered that 6 Silicon Valley employers were conspiring to hold down the wages of soft ware engineers. These are the rock stars of today's economy; when you hear, "If you want to make more money get skills that are in demand," these are the people they're talking about. And yet, Google, Micro Soft, Apple and three other large firms agreed not to lure the others' employees by offering better wages. So much for the vaunted free market of competition.

A year or two back Boeing, a very profitable company, leaned hard enough on it's employees to give up their pension plan. Not because Boeing was losing money, but because they had the economic leverage to. Airplane machinists are among the most highly skilled workers in the world.

Wages, both union and non-union, in the construction industry have been flat (enjoying no real growth relative to the cost of living) for decades now, similar to other industries. It's tough to off shore the construction of a new Target or Viking's, er make the People's stadium.

Who ever said skilled labor

Who ever said skilled labor can "Name" your price? Simple question do you pay more to have your car fixed or your yard raked per hour. Labor that anybody can do never will be paid as much as labor a select few can do. Union or non-union it doesn't matter, skilled labor pays more.

Why can't soft ware engineers get paid more? That market has been flooded in Silicon Valley if there was a shortage of engineers and demand was high the salary would reflect it. Same reason a welder in Mpls made half of what a welder in the oil sands made for 15 yrs.
Those wages you are talking about for Boeing or construction are so much higher than the folks who clean Target or Macy's I'm trying to figure out what your point is? No one is going to pay everyone $150,000 a year for every job. That is just too naive to even comprehend.

The Point Is

Higher skilled labor is not winning any "wage war" as you call it. Employers are winning the wage war, employees are losing it. All wage earners have been beaten down, and employers have adopted a "take it or leave it" attitude.

And why would Apple et al need to conspire to hold down wages if there were a surplus of engineers?

I'm not sure why you mention $150K/year. I didn't.

How much should skilled labor

How much should skilled labor make a year? How much should non skilled labor make a year? How are employers winning? Without employers there would be no employees. Have you ever ran a small business? Should employers make money? If so, how much? You seem dead set on the employer as the "bad guy". News flash: he is the one employing folks! Whether it is a small business or large corporation, they provide jobs!

Two Hang Men Hanging From a Tree

These people are being to to think, a crime much worse than all.

respect

Joe,
Isn't everyone worthy of respect? This article isn't about skilled vs. unskilled labor in my view. Instead its about inviting low wage workers to think about their individual and collective power. The examples of fear and intimidation used in the work place in the story are reprehensible in this day and age. What are our MN values with regard to hard work, honest pay and humane treatment? Don't we have a bottom line?

If we aren't going to pay folks a living wage today, could we at least let them take home their self-worth, their dignity and their humanity? Or are those things workers have to sacrifice too?

Chris, what would you suggest

Chris, what would you suggest we pay folks at the bottom of the pay level? What do you consider a living wage? I believe the dignity you get from earning a paycheck is huge, always have. I also understand that if you pay folks $20 an hour to clean Target, they will cut the workforce in half. Businesses have a right to look for the best deal they can get for labor, just like you do when you hire someone to plow your driveway. Do you pay 3 times the amount for groceries because you like the little corner store? If you do, that is fantastic and your choice, many choose not to, again their choice. Telling folks or businesses how they have to spend THEIR OWN MONEY is a stretch too far for me, maybe not for you however?

Great if this article is about folks thinking about their individual and collective power. I am sure after careful thought, consideration and going to the workshop CTUL is putting on the workers will go to their employees more educated about the process. Not sure how that will get them a pay raise for a low skill job but they will be more educated.

Who's Spending Who's Money?

Private corporations are constantly telling us how to spend our money. They are continually feeding at the public trough, for stadiums, big box stores, luxury high rise dwellings, manufacturing plants, contracts for weapons systems that suffer huge cost overruns and still don't work. Employers take subsidies (this is socialism) to locate in out state communities, then whine because their workforce can't afford housing. They ask the evil government to step in, "House our workers! We don't want to pay them enough to do it themselves!" Executive suite pay continues to rise despite a complete lack of relationship to increased productivity or value to share holders. Give stock holders a say on CEO pay? Oh, the horrors! The interlocking corporate directories mean that CEO pay is decided by other CEOs. Profits are private but loses are socialized. Those who worship at the alter of the free market had best get their snouts out of the public trough.

The problem with capitalism is that eventually you run out of working peoples' money.

How well has the beat down of workers' wages worked out? It's given us increasing piles of wealth at the very top and a complete breakdown of the demand side of the economy. The Fed's low interest rates are pushing on a string. Business wants consumers to spend more, but when wages continue to fall that's completely unrealistic.

There will always be low skilled workers in the economy. If everyone had a college degree, would everyone make the $150K you talk about? Of course not. But that in no way means that it isn't just or benefiaial for all of us for low wage workers to earn a decent wage and have a measure of retirement income security.

Nice....

"The problem with capitalism is that eventually you run out of working peoples' money."

Perfect. I'm going to use that one if you don't mind.