Workers Centers: Organizing the 'Unorganizable'


(Photo: CTUL)

On November 28, 2014, workers for a company contracted to clean retail stores staged a Black Friday strike in front of a Target store in Minneapolis, just blocks from the big-box chain's headquarters. The action was organized by the CTUL workers center. 

Most days Maricela Flores starts work at three in the morning—3:30 a.m. on a late day. Flores and her co-worker are tasked with cleaning an entire sprawling 125,000-square-foot Target store in six hours—every day. They sweep, buff, wipe, and scrub the store, erasing the evidence of the day of the previous day’s shoppers, who have streamed through the store.

It’s hard work, certainly not glamorous—and at just $8 an hour, neither is the pay. As a single mother, Flores finds that’s barely enough to support her four children. “I always have to be making decisions about what to buy,” Flores tells me in Spanish, through an interpreter. “It’s very difficult to have to stretch every dollar.”

Her family currently lives in a trailer home, which they used to share with another family. And for the two years that she’s cleaned the Target store in Shakopee, Minnesota—a city in an outer ring of the Twin Cities metro area—she hasn’t received a raise.

“I couldn’t even get a 25-cent raise if I wanted,” Flores says. And overtime is out of the question. “We have to make sure to finish quickly and punch out on time because they don’t want us to go over 40 hours.”

But it’s not Target that hasn’t given her a raise—in this case it is Carlson Building Maintenance, a company contracted by Target to clean a number of its stores in Minnesota. Over the years, contracting out janitorial services has become common practice for big box retail companies like Target, Home Depot, Walmart, and Sears. By hiring companies like Carlson, Diversified Maintenance, and Kimco Services that pay low wages to their cleaners, these high-profile retailers maintain a degree of separation.

Four years ago, the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (Center for Workers United in Struggle)—CTUL for short—started a campaign centered on organizing the Twin Cities retail cleaners, an industry made up largely of immigrant workers who often told stories of wage theft and poor working conditions.

At the time, there were 20 or 30 different cleaning contractors working throughout the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. “Everyone we talked to said we were crazy, that this is a completely unorganizable sector,” says Brian Merle Payne, co-director of CTUL. Now there are only a handful of companies doing contracted commercial cleaning in the Twin Cities.

CTUL is part of the growing trend of workers centers and other “alt-labor” organizing efforts that are picking up some of the slack from the weakened traditional labor movement. Workers centers are community-based organizations that typically provide some sort of combination of services, advocacy, and organizing for low-wage workers. According to a 2013 report, the number of U.S. workers centers has grown from only five in 1992 to more than 200 today. Through aggressive protest and organizing tactics, many of these centers have successfully improved conditions for the low-wage workers who are often swept to the margins of the U.S. workforce.

“The workers centers right now are on the cutting edge, really pushing the envelope of what it means to organize,” Payne says.

Rather than the traditional routes that unions employ to improve working conditions, workers centers are utilizing a new strategy for a new era in the labor movement—one that favors more of a militant minority than a unionized majority. By putting pressure on the companies that employ low-wage workers, many workers centers have opened a backdoor that has led to better wages and working conditions.

The Texas Workers Defense Project has seen success in organizing laborers in the state’s notoriously dangerous construction industry, which relies largely on a Latino immigrant workforce. For example, when a group of construction workers went to the group to explain how they hadn’t been paid for a job, the workers center advised the workers on filing a lien against the construction site and organized a protest march—that quickly got the subcontractor to cough up $25,000 in back wages.

In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) lobbied major food companies like McDonald’s and Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) to put pressure on the state’s big tomato growers to increase wages and improve working conditions for 30,000 agricultural workers.

For Minnesota’s CTUL, the first objective of its retail cleaning campaign was clear.

“When we looked at retail cleaning, Target is the company that runs the show. Target (which is headquartered in Minneapolis) has such a huge presence in the state. If we could get Target to move, our theory was that it would move the entire industry with it,” Payne says.

CTUL’s main focus throughout its retail cleaner organizing campaign has been on getting Target to hold its cleaning contractors more accountable for working conditions. Retail cleaners, including Maricela Flores, met multiple times with Target officials to air their grievances. Flores recalls that in the initial meetings, Target was quick to point the workers’ complaints back to their respective contractors.

In the summer of 2013, CTUL held a two-day strike and sent a delegation to Target’s annual shareholder meeting in Denver. Flores says the shareholders were curious to hear about the retail cleaners’ concerns and their organizing efforts. That’s when Target seemed to start treating CTUL as a force to be reckoned with. “I think that going there made them take us seriously and got discussions going,” Flores says.

During a Black Friday Strike in 2013, the group protested outside the downtown Minneapolis Target store, just blocks from Target’s corporate headquarters. CTUL and Target continued to meet (the retailer refused to call them “negotiations”) and go back and forth on proposals.

In June 2014, Target finally released a policy that heightens its standards for how contractors treat their employees. The “Responsible Contractor Policy” called for its cleaning contractors to ensure workers the right to collective bargaining, form safety committees, and to not require seven-day work-weeks.

“I was in the last meeting, [where] they agreed to sign the proposal that we had presented,” says Flores. “After the meeting, I cried. Finally we had achieved what we were working for.”

Target gave its contractors until this coming April to comply with its new policy. So far, the two cleaning contractors for Target in the metro area have yet to comply with the retailer’s new policy, but they’ve been in dialogue. CTUL’s campaign now focuses on putting public pressure on other prominent retailers and cleaning contractors to follow Target’s lead. So, this past Black Friday, retail cleaners who worked for companies contracted by Target and other retailers went on strike. CTUL organized a picket line on Black Friday outside of a Minneapolis Home Depot. “[The contractors] hadn’t been taking the process and dialogue seriously enough,” Payne says.

Luciano Balbuena cleans a Home Depot in a Minneapolis suburb from 5 a.m to 11:30 a.m.—seven days a week. Balbuena’s employer, Kimco Services, is an Atlanta-based company that provides cleaning services across the country; one CTUL says has refused to open dialogue with the group, and so far Home Depot has shown no sign of imposing a contractor policy like Target’s.

“I don’t care if the bosses don’t like it. I want to fight for our rights and wages for all our workers,” Balbuena tells me in Spanish through an interpreter. “As long as we keep putting the pressure on the company and don’t stop, I think eventually they’ll have to do something. I’m committed.”

Challenges ahead

The popularity and success of the workers center model has spurred numerous speculative headlines and wonky debates about its potential to reinvigorate the labor movement. But with this nascent model comes a host of logistical concerns and questions about its potential in the labor movement.

“What workers centers’ challenge is that they don’t have a scalable model. They don’t have a model that’s scalable built on revenue or people power,” says Texas Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún. “The models that have been crafted don’t address that incredible need and weakness in the workers center model. And I think because of that, workers centers…are not poised to overtake traditional labor unions.”

“I don’t think anybody’s figured it out…” Tzintzún says. “But they’re asking the right questions, and that’s important.”

As a relatively new workers center, CTUL’s model is still fluid, but its goals are clear: Continue pressuring retailers and their cleaning contractors to increase wages and provide basics like paid sick days and affordable health care while clearing a path toward unionization. But the challenges in defining a successful model will remain an obstacle to organizing success. 

“There are two big questions about the long-term place of workers centers in the movement, and those are finding independent sources of funding, and second: How are we moving to that next level of scalability and really organizing on large levels,” says Payne. “As we’re successful in big campaigns, we’re thinking about how that translates into a larger membership base and more revenue that’s coming from our own internal sources."

Without the steady stream of money that unions establish through dues collections, workers centers must come up with a patchwork of funding to pursue their missions. That can create financial instability that greatly affects these organizations’ abilities to broaden their operations and expand organizing efforts. Although CTUL has a member base of about 200 workers who each pay a $50 annual fee, the group must largely rely on funding from local organizations. Therefore, experimentation and flexibility are key.

The group has formed something of a partnership with SEIU Local 26, whose members currently include the janitors who clean the corporate offices of companies like Target, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bancorp. Payne says the group is currently toying with a “dual-membership” concept—one where workers would maintain active membership in both with CTUL and the SEIU Local 26. Payne says that CTUL envisions a future relationship that allows the center to continue organizing workers while the union deals with contract negotiation.

“As we’re winning in the retail cleaning industry and successfully bringing a lot of workers into the union, we’re thinking about our long-term relationship with those workers and with the union in terms of ongoing leadership development—and continuing to look at other types of industry that haven’t been pulled into the union,” Payne says.

Whether CTUL’s big box retail cleaning campaign could ever be scaled up to include all retail cleaners in Minnesota, in the Midwest, or even nationwide is a question that defines many workers centers—how do they emulate small-scale organizing successes on a larger scale?

CTUL is coming to a crossroads. It still remains to be seen how many retail cleaners it will be able to unionize through Target’s new policy and whether other contractors and retailers will follow suit. And its relationship with SEIU could provide a case study in how to maintain a productive, yet independent, relationship.

Still, the most important factor for CTUL will be whether it can maintain momentum and continue mobilizing the formerly “unorganizable” like Maricela Flores and Luciano Balbuena.

“The ultimate goal,” Payne says, “is to make sure workers have a voice in the workplace. Once that happens, that will pull it up to a better wage, better benefits.” 

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