“Hopefully this will be the start of reversing some trends, both economic and cultural, that have been around for way too long.”
These were the concluding words of President Obama at the 2015 White House Summit on Worker Voice, where I joined dozens of labor and business leaders from around the country to explore ways that we can ensure that workers have a voice in shaping their lives.
Now, one year later, we have done just that. Janitors contracted to clean major retail chains like Target Corp. have won a union, making the Twin Cities the first major metropolitan area where the retail janitorial industry is union!
For more than six years, retail janitors have been organizing with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a workers’ center that is fighting for fair wages, fair working conditions, and a voice in the workplace for all workers in the Twin Cities metro area. Retail janitorial work was an industry in crisis when workers started organizing. Workers faced poverty wages, dangerous working conditions and rampant wage theft. The industry was considered by most to be “unorganizable” because of its fractured nature. We were told it was impossible.
Through our organizing model at CTUL, we were able to change the entire industry and make the impossible possible. CTUL focuses on deep leadership development with a core group of workers, preparing workers to be leaders in their workplaces and in their communities. Over the past six years of organizing, workers have led a 12-day hunger strike, marches and multiple strikes, demanding a voice in their workplace. The leadership of these workers has transformed the industry:
-Hundreds of workers have recovered more than $4 million in stolen wages through legal and direct action, including two federal class action lawsuits.
-Workers in the area have increased wages across the industry by 33 percent.
-Two years ago, after a series of meetings between Target executives and CTUL members, Target adopted a responsible contractor policy in the contracted cleaning of its stores.
-And just this year, Best Buy, Macy’s and other retail giants have hired responsible cleaning contractors.
Now workers will have a permanent voice in their workplaces, as the majority of the retail janitorial industry in the Twin Cities is union.
Enrique Barcenas, a retail janitor who cleaned a Target store and a leader in the campaign, captures the power of this movement when talking about how he felt in the first meetings with Target Corporation: “When the meeting started I was scared and didn’t think they would listen to me because I am just a janitor. Then I realized that the only reason these powerful people were meeting with me is because I am powerful too.”
Within this fractured economy where workers’ voices are all too often lost, Enrique Barcenas and other leaders at CTUL are laying out a path to ensure a strong worker voice that can reverse the economic and cultural trends that President Obama named at the 2015 White House Summit on Worker Voice.
Veronica Méndez is the co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidoes en Lucha.