As part of our effort to highlight promising work leading to scale, sustainability, and power for US workers, we’ve asked Veronica Mendez, C0-Director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) to share reflections from a recent White House Summit on Worker Voice as well as lessons from their work organizing Retail Janitorial Workers.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Hearing President Obama quote the words of AFSCME leader Lee Saunders as the President addressed the White House Summit on Worker Voice was an affirmation of what we in the workers center movement have learned first-hand: if workers are not taking part in the conversations that shape labor and economic policy, our rights will be ignored, chipped away at, and sacrificed. The October 7th Summit brought together workers, organizers, policymakers and forward-thinking business leaders to explore ways of elevating workers’ voices on the issues that shape their lives, to assure that they “share in the benefits of the broad-based economic growth that they are helping to create”.
As Co-Director of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (Center for Workers United in Struggle), a nonprofit workers center in Minneapolis, MN where retail janitors and other low-wage workers are leading campaigns for fair wages, dignity, and a voice in the workplace, I was invited the Summit on Worker Voice to speak about CTUL’s successes in improving pay and safety conditions for the workers who clean big box retail stores overnight. I was honored to share how CTUL has developed the leadership of low-wage workers who are on the front lines of this fight.
It was energizing to travel to the nation’s capital, along with my two-month old son, to meet with workers and labor leaders from around the country and to have the President and his administration highlight the importance of centering workers’ voices. The barriers to workers’ voices shaping workplace conditions are all too real, however. In a recent study conducted by CTUL members with low-wage workers in the Twin Cities, 51% of the janitors surveyed did not feel that they could speak with their supervisor about problems in the workplace without facing some form of retaliation. Prior to CTUL’s organizing in the retail janitorial industry, wages and working conditions had been spiraling out of control for over a decade; wages had dropped by several dollars an hour while workload nearly doubled. Wage theft was commonplace, with workers at nearly every company in the industry complaining of different schemes used to withhold their wages. In one case, janitors who cleaned big retailers like Best Buy complained of having to work seven days a week. According to the workers, supervisors forced them to punch in with a “ghost employee” time card on the seventh day so the company could avoid paying overtime. And janitors at Macy’s reported wage theft so pervasive that it resulted in hourly wages of $4-5 per hour – far short of the already inadequate minimum wage.
The decision-makers at these retailers are insulated from the workers who clean their stores by layers of unscrupulous subcontractors. Executives at the big box stores have historically refused to meet with retail janitors to discuss wage theft and other workplace injustices; they deny any responsibility for the way their cleaning contractors treat workers, even though the retailers themselves instituted the multi-round competitive bidding process that has fueled this race to the bottom. CTUL’s low-wage worker members have broken through this wall of silence and opened lines of communication with the major retailers, applying pressure through delegations, strikes, direct action and public awareness campaigns. We have incubated wage theft campaigns in dozens of workplaces, through which workers have recovered more than $1.8 million in illegally withheld wages. In the course of the Retail Cleaning campaign we have also seen an average wage increase of $1.50 per hour for roughly 1,000 retail janitors, infusing about $2 million per year into the poorest communities in our metro area. And after public pressure from CTUL, Target executives agreed for the first time to meet with the workers who clean their stores. It is at this table that these workers’ voices were for the first time heard and had power.
At the Summit on Worker Voice we heard stories of similar victories from across the country, where workers have banded together, grabbed hold of the public narrative, and successfully demanded better wages and conditions on the job. However there was also agreement that we need to change the conversation on a structural level, or each of these gains can someday be taken away. We need to build worker power not just at individual jobsites but in the corporate board rooms and in the halls of government, where workers’ voices are still too rarely heard.
CTUL’s Retail Cleaning campaign provides one roadmap for this kind of structural change. Dialogue between Target executives and the CTUL members who clean their stores led to Target implementing a first-of-its-kind Responsible Contractor Policy, which creates an ongoing space for dialogue between retail janitors, cleaning companies, and Target executives. This policy ends the seven-day work week forced on many janitors, requires cleaning companies to support the formation of workplace health and safety committees made up of at least 50% workers elected by their peers, and affirms workers’ right to unionize without interference or retaliation. This was the beginning of a partnership between CTUL and Target that continues into the present as together we look for ways to improve the lives of low wage workers across the city. Other major retailers are taking notice and reaching out to CTUL to explore implementing similar policies of their own; thanks to the hard work and dedication of CTUL members who are leading this fight, workers’ voices are being taken seriously in an entirely new way.
It was moving to hear President Obama at the Summit speaking unapologetically in support for organized labor, saying things like, “If you work hard in America, you should have the freedom to decide for yourself — without fear or interference — if you want to join with others to advocate for yourself in the workplace, whether that’s through a union or any other means. And these are core principles that helped build this country.” It was even more moving that President Obama chose a fast food worker – Kansas City father of three Terrence Wise, who works at both McDonald’s and Burger King – to introduce him at the Summit, and that the President met privately with Mr. Wise afterward to hear about his struggles one-on-one.
When workers like Terrence are not just guest speakers but regular participants at the tables where decisions are made about wages, labor standards, and the structure of our economy, the promise of the Summit on Worker Voice will truly be fulfilled. We at CTUL are working hard toward fulfilling that promise, and at the Summit on Worker Voice we received confirmation that the Obama administration is also committed to this vision of workers’ voices leading the way. We find President Obama’s choice to highlight worker voices very promising, and we find equally promising the examples of workers from around the country taking risks to demand a voice in the workplace, as well as the leadership of companies like Target that are willing to engage with workers in the kind of dialogue that can lead to a stronger economy and a better future for every worker in our nation.