Outside a squat, one-story building on Chicago Avenue on the south side of Minneapolis, Alexis Collins, a 20-year-old Taco Bell employee, stands holding her baby, both of them bundled up against the piercing Minnesota wind. On the wall behind her, stretching all the way up to the roof, is a multicolor mural of a woman grasping a microphone, a rallying cry on her lips. Look closer and you see that that woman is Alexis Collins. And this is the wall of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha. CTUL. Everybody is somebody here.
Working is a grind. Nobody knows this better than people in low-wage jobs. Especially immigrants in low-wage jobs, who are, more often than not, eking out livings in ways other than stable full-time employment, adrift in the job market with neither corporate employer nor government nor union to protect them from being screwed over. Where do you turn when the shadowy subcontractor who signs your checks isn’t paying you properly? When you’re injured on the job with no recourse? When the doors of City Hall seem closed to your concerns? When the sweet waters of justice have dried up in the harsh heat of capitalism?
To the worker center!
The mythical golden post-war era of big companies offering ample middle-class jobs is over. Today, multinational corporations try to offload as much labor as possible to third-party firms; less than 7% of private sector workers have a union; the social safety net, built for a time when employment was wholly different, is crumbling; and, in much of our economy, you are expected to take the job and the hours and the payment you can get, and be happy for it. Worker centers—a catchall term for a broad array of local groups across the country—sprung up in the void left by the collapse of unions. They are a sort of one-stop shop of last resort for the problems of the working class. They organize campaigns for worker rights, wrangle with bad bosses, and more. And because worker centers have been at least somewhat effective in mitigating the horrors of life among the working poor, pro-business forces have long been anxious to undermine them.
In November, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta said ominously that he was “looking at” the possibility of imposing new regulations on worker centers that could hobble their ability to get funding and operate freely. This would be the regulatory equivalent of a sniper taking pot shots at the medic who has rushed onto the battlefield to tend to a dying soldier. It is a remarkably bold threat. To see what is at stake, I traveled to frozen Minneapolis, home to one of the most effective worker centers anywhere in America.
The story of how a 20-year-old fast food worker came to have a dramatic mural of her face on the side of a building is the story of CTUL itself—which is to say, a story of how regular people can become shockingly powerful forces for good. Alexis Collins was a 17-year-old Burger King employee when organizers from CTUL approached her about joining a rally to call for a $15 minimum wage. She was hooked. “We won paid sick days, and just to see all these people come together to fight for something, it was pretty cool,” she says. “Once I got pregnant with my daughter it was like, ‘Change has to come.’ With minimum wage, I was getting paid like nine dollars [an hour] at the time. I was like, ‘This is what I have to do to get to the next step.’”
She went to another protest. She began recruiting coworkers to come into CTUL and get involved in the movement. She spent days off speaking to people about why they should join in. She spoke up at rallies. She suffered, and suffers, the consequences. She was transferred to a different store, farther away. She cannot get a stable schedule to plan around. But that is all a secondary concern now, because: She won. Last summer, the Minneapolis city council passed a bill raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024—an enormous victory for the Fight For 15 movement that made headlines nationwide. (The law is being challenged in court by an employer, but there is no reason to think it will not be upheld).
Collins has been working at her new store for just over a month, but already coworkers are asking her about how to improve their jobs. She is ready to expand the movement to nearby towns. She persuaded her grandmother to return a washer and dryer to Home Depot, because Home Depot was the target of a CTUL campaign for treating workers poorly. Alexis Collins is not just a fast food worker. She is an activist. She was able to become a successful activist because CTUL gave her the tools to do it. And in the meantime, she got her face on the side of their building.
CTUL (pronounced SAYTOOL, with varying syllabic emphases depending on whether or not it is being shouted through a megaphone) was formed in 2007 as a project of the Workers Interfaith Network, a religious organization that promotes worker rights. The group began under the guidance of two professional organizers who are still there: Veronica Mendez-Moore, a Minnesota native whose parents immigrated from Peru, and Merle Payne, who spent five years organizing farm workers in Immokalee, Florida before moving to Minneapolis. The idea that set CTUL apart from most do-gooder groups was one that still guides it today—namely, that its purpose is not to be a heavenly force bestowing charity from above, but instead one that trains workers to organize themselves.
“We switched the model from being a service model—‘we’ll solve the problem for you’—to deep leadership development. We’re gonna partner with you, we’ll provide you with the tools, but you’ve got to be the leader fighting for the change,” Payne explains one painfully cold night over beers at a microbrewery, after he put his kids to bed. “A lot of things that call themselves ‘worker centers’ are social services. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a difference. The type of organization we are, we believe that systemic change won’t happen unless it comes from the community. From the people who are directly impacted.”
Written down, this approach sounds almost conservative. In practice, it is one of the most radical philosophies possible, because it represents a considerable investment in turning regular people into trained organizers capable of multiplying the power of workers many times over. It is not a spigot of charity that can be turned off at a moment’s notice; it is a factory for the production of activists. Combined with full-time staff and volunteers and financial resources and painstakingly cultivated political support in a relatively liberal city, it is a potent formula for making real progress.
For example: Minneapolis, for some crazy reason, is hosting the Super Bowl next month. For groups like CTUL, who are always on the lookout for ways to use bad PR as leverage against major corporations, this is an opportunity. I accompanied Veronica Mendez-Moore to a meeting of a city advisory board that included people from CTUL (an activist group), Target (the biggest corporation headquartered in Minneapolis), and city government staffers discussing how to prevent any workers from being screwed out of their wages during the course of Super Bowl week. That’s the carrot approach. The next day, I sat in a meeting of several workers at CTUL’s office, where they scrutinized the logistics of Super Bowl week to see how working people would be inconvenienced by security and transportation snags, and discussed whether they should plan a public protest—to the world’s assembled media—in response. That’s the stick. Ultimately, CTUL is determined to get things done, for the people that are often forgotten.
Each day, thousands of people stream through every Target and Home Depot and Best Buy big box store in the Minneapolis metropolitan area. And each night, every one of those stores is cleaned by a team of retail janitors. The janitors who clean those stores do not work for Target or Home Depot or Best Buy. They work for subcontractors. In this hands-off arrangement, the subcontractors have an incentive to drive down wages to lowest possible level, and the big corporate chains have an incentive not to ask questions. This structure ensures that the interests of the janitors are the absolute last thing that anyone will consider when making any decisions. A perfect case for CTUL.
Since 2010, CTUL has been helping those retail janitors organize for their own rights. After several years, their campaign persuaded Target to institute a “responsible contractor” policy that was considered a breakthrough in the relationship between corporations and the sort of subcontracted workers who have long been effectively powerless. The victory is even more remarkable considering the fact that Target is as staunchly anti-union as any company in America. It was accomplished by steadily increasing pressure using everything from coalitions with other activist groups to ceaseless pickets outside of Target’s flagship store. Better wages and less nightmarish jobs have been the result.
Maricela Flores, a graceful woman with a sly smile, was one of those cleaners. She has lived in the US for more than twenty years. The nature of her struggle seemed constant, timeless. Five years ago, she began talking to a CTUL organizer. At first, she had her doubts whether anything could change. “I was really afraid, mainly because I thought my employer would fire me,” she says. (Like all of the Spanish-speaking workers I interviewed, her remarks were translated for me by a CTUL employee). “But I took a chance anyway. I decided to come because there was nothing left. We were down at the bottom with no protections, nothing.” Ivonne Garduno, another retail janitor, calls the subsequent campaign a “constant fight”—a self-propelled, very public battle that saw some of the most vulnerable workers imaginable brashly passing out fliers decrying the behavior of their own (unhappy) bosses.
After much effort, she and her coworkers were able to win one single day off work per week. Then they won the cooperation of Target. Last year, they won the right to join a union. Flores and her fellow cleaners are now members of the SEIU. They get regular raises, and regular days off, and they are now protected from being instantly uprooted from their job whenever a new contractor rotates in. Simple things that were hard to earn. “A lot of the coworkers that I met through organizing have lost that fear, because they have seen that CTUL had our back,” Flores says. “And we have rights.”
This sentiment goes to the heart of why CTUL—and every worker center—exists. The American market economy is not a friendly place for the unchaperoned. Everyone needs a powerful agent looking out for their interests. Rich people have lawyers. Middle class people once had unions. Worker centers arose to look out for those that unions left behind—farmworkers, domestic workers, contractors, and others who fall between the cracks of our nation’s labor laws. CTUL does a lot of things, but in essence it is an ally for working people who are in some way being screwed by forces more powerful than them—employers, corporations, politicians, and anyone else. If you’re a Spanish-speaking immigrant who cleans hotel rooms in Minneapolis, and you find that your boss has shorted you by $200 on your paycheck, who do you call? The courts are too slow to serve you. The money is too small for lawyers to take the case. The boss tells you to fuck off or find a new job. You call CTUL. CTUL will get you your money. And then CTUL will train you in how to organize all of your coworkers into a unit that is too coherent and unified for the boss to rip off. And eventually, you will join with others across your industry to march in the streets and agitate until conditions are improved for everyone. That is how power is built from the bottom. And it starts with a door that is open to anyone.
Gerania Mata is a prototypical example of CTUL’s success. Nearly a decade ago she was working as a packager of frozen food, making $7.25 an hour. Sometimes the machines at work would break down for several hours. For those hours when everything was idle and no work was possible, the workers were not paid. This struck her as unfair. She, along with seven coworkers, went to the CTUL office seeking help. They put together a letter of complaint that was eventually signed by 200 workers, leading to a new computerized time clock at work, along with back pay. She was hooked on organizing. She left the factory and became a full time organizer for CTUL. She spent time standing outside Target stores in the early morning waiting to speak to cleaning workers coming off of night shifts. One by one, she persuades busy, tired people to come into CTUL’s office during their free time and sign up to risk their livelihoods for the uncertain prospect of improving their conditions. The work, she says, gets a little bit easier with each success.
Perhaps the only industry with a more perilous employment arrangement than subcontracted janitors is construction. In Minneapolis (as elsewhere), many construction workers are more or less forced to operate as independent contractors, making them responsible for everything from buying their tools to paying their own medical bills in the event of an accident. Elmer Santacruz Baires was a Minneapolis construction worker who has been working with CTUL since its founding days, and now serves as its lead organizer in the construction industry. He deals with forms of exploitation are even worse than the norm. “Sometimes bosses will bring construction workers here with a promise of not only paying them an hourly wage for work, but also promising workers they’ll cover their housing and meals. When they get here, they’re not covering their housing or their meals, and they’re also stealing their wages,” he says. “That’s what we consider labor trafficking. If bosses say they want to go back to where they came from, bosses use intimidation, and threaten to call the police on workers.”
Because Baires himself speaks Spanish and worked as a construction subcontractor, he is able to get guys to listen to him when he tells them that, no, acknowledging you are being exploited does not make you less macho, and by the way, once you pay all of your expenses as an “LLC,” you are making less than minimum wage. The logic of those messages tends to prevail. His long-term goal is to use grassroots organizing among workers to change the entire structure of the construction industry, so the more grotesque economic arrangements don’t happen in the first place. In the meantime, he has helped to rescue construction workers from conditions that he compares to “modern day slavery.” Without CTUL, those interventions may never have happened.
Take one step back from the day-to-day work of organizing, and it is impossible to miss the specter of the Trump administration hanging over everything that CTUL does. There is the aforementioned threat of reclassification of worker centers by the Labor Department, which would burden them with legal restrictions and regulatory scrutiny, and would be a victory that Chamber of Commerce types have been craving for many years. It could mean that simple community organizations even smaller than CTUL would face the same level of regulation as a labor union with a million members. (Republicans are seeking to make the preposterous case that worker centers, which do not administer contracts, represent workers in the same way that unions do—which is why worker center advocates are endlessly careful to point out in every interview that they neither engage in formal collective bargaining for workers, nor serve as a formal pipeline to union membership.) Sharon Block, who served as a Labor Department official in the Obama administration and is now the director Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, says that during her time in government the White House made a point to reach out to worker centers across the country as allies, a marked difference in posture from what is happening now. Though the language of this regulatory battle is dry, the underlying motivations are highly ideological. They are an attempt to thwart worker power. Block points out that the George W. Bush administration already scrutinized worker centers on the same basis—and the Bush Labor Department sided with the worker centers, twice. “Who am I to argue with the Bush administration?” she laughs.
On the most basic level, a national political attack on worker centers is just mean. Spend a few days talking to the organizers at CTUL and the workers they serve, and you find the following things to be true: The sort of people who end up turning to worker centers work hard. Harder than anyone. They make less money than anyone for harder work. Their jobs are mentally and physically grueling. In return for all of that work, they are offered no control at all over their hours or working conditions; they are discarded at the slightest whim of their bosses; they are denied benefits, forced to assume risk that should reasonably be borne by their employers or the state; and all of them have had money stolen from their paychecks, simply because their bosses thought they couldn’t do anything about it. The shockingly endemic nature of wage theft alone is sufficient reason for worker centers to exist. The vast majority of what CTUL organizes for is not any sort of new or special protection—it is enforcement of rules that already exist. Rules that are brazenly ignored, and that the government does not have the resources or inclination to adequately police. The Minnesota Department of Labor had four people tasked with enforcing wage theft laws. For the entire state. That number only rose thanks to lobbying efforts by CTUL. Working people who are being robbed are politely asking that the laws against robbing them be enforced. This is what the Republican party and its allies would like to put to a stop.
Lucilia Dominguez, who now works for CTUL on wage theft cases, tells a story about what brought her to the organization in the first place: She was so used to being ripped off and having her wages stolen that whenever it happened, she would go and physically sit outside the boss’s house to demand her check. Most of the time, they wouldn’t give it to her, and she would move to a new job. “When I got to CTUL, I started to understand that we have to get to the root causes of why this is happening,” she says. “Having support makes a big difference.” She started to recover thousands of dollars in back pay she was owed. In the past decade, CTUL has helped workers collect two million dollars that was stolen from them.
The people of CTUL have several characteristics that one might think would dispose them to orthodox left-wing purity—they are from Minneapolis, they agitate for workers’ rights, they are often immigrants or minorities. But when asked about Donald Trump, they do not speak in partisan platitudes or about abstract policy concerns. They speak about the fact that when the president of United States of America feels free to say racist things, the bosses they work for feel freer to take racist actions. It just makes their lives harder. A note of weariness creeps into the conversation.
It’s understandable if CTUL is weary. It does nothing but work, for working people, and the more success it has, the more work it creates. This is the actual work of “social justice.” It’s not easy. “Siempre es una lucha,” Elmer Baires said. It’s always a struggle. Any help would be appreciated.