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

Minneapolis-based Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha tries to fill a role historically played by unions — educating workers about their rights and teaching negotiation skills.

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.
Courtesy of CTUL/Uche Iroegbu

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.

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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.

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“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.