Hundreds march for justice for cleaning workers

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by Lisa Luinenburg

MINNEAPOLIS—On Nov. 6, over 300 retail cleaning workers, union leaders, people of faith, and other allies marched together down Lake Street to demand improvements in wages and working conditions for low-wage cleaning workers in the Twin Cities. This march was the public launch of the Campaign for Justice in Retail Cleaning organized by the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (Center of Workers United in Struggle, also known as CTUL) and cleaning workers in Minneapolis.

Their website states that “CTUL is an organization where workers build power to lead the struggle for fair wages, better working conditions, basic respect, and a voice in our workplaces. We are an organization of workers and for workers, committed to winning this struggle, and in doing so, create a better future for the next generation.”

CTUL is made up of and directed by low-wage workers (the majority of whom are immigrants) who lack the support of a union to organize in their workplaces. Through popular education, community organizing and public campaigns, workers involved with CTUL have been able to recover almost $500,000 in back wages.

Over the past decade, fierce competition between corporate retail giants to lower costs for consumers have resulted in decreased wages, employee layoffs, and increased workloads for cleaning workers. Retail cleaner Mario Colloly said in a recent interview with Workday Minnesota, “Many years ago at the stores I clean, some workers made up to $11 or $12 an hour. Now the workforce has been reduced, our workload has nearly doubled and many cleaning workers are barely making minimum wage. But it’s not just us, this problem is happening across the industry…”

In fact, working conditions for retail cleaners have recently degraded so much that they have led to many abuses of labor law. As people marched down a three-mile stretch of Lake Street on Nov. 6 (located in the heart of the Latino community in Minneapolis) chanting, “Target, escucha! Estamos en la lucha!” workers stopped in front of Target, Lunds, SuperValu, and Cub Foods to highlight these labor abuses.

The crowd booed as workers cited labor law violations while speaking through megaphones. These violations include a retail cleaning slavery ring uncovered in the Northeastern United States in July 2010; violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act that resulted in a settlement of $3.8 million for Maryland cleaning workers in 2009; and a 2007 investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor into 106 violations totaling $25,000 of unpaid overtime wages for retail cleaning workers in Minnesota.

Last April, Minneapolis retail cleaning workers represented by CTUL sent letters to Target, SuperValu, Lunds & Byerly’s, and Cub Foods detailing human rights abuses on the job and requesting a meeting with store managers. After their repeated requests to set up meetings were refused or ignored, the workers decided to make their fight public. The March for Retail Justice on Nov. 6 was the first step in a campaign to put public pressure on local retail chains to improve working conditions and wages. Workers announced that they would focus their campaign on SuperValu and Cub Foods, the stores that in their opinion have committed the most egregious violations of workers’ rights in Minneapolis.

Students, faith leaders, public officials, and representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, the United Workers Association of Baltimore, and UFCW Local 1189 all voiced their support of the campaign at rallies before and after the march. CTUL is demanding that representatives of SuperValu and Cub Foods meet with workers “to create a code of conduct guaranteeing fair wages and working conditions for the workers who clean their stores.”

Their next steps include a postcard campaign and organizing more demonstrations to raise public awareness about these issues and to increase public pressure on stores to meet the workers’ demands. To find out more information or to support this campaign, visit www.ctul.net.

> This article was originally published in the December 2010 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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