Veronica Mendez is a myth buster. Sadly, she says one of the biggest myths that needs busting is one of the myths Americans most want to believe about their country: The myth that if you work hard enough and long enough, you can succeed.
Not so much anymore.
“It’s such a myth that in this country you can work hard and get ahead,” says Mendez, who is an advocate for low-wage workers most affected by the decline of unions and the shipping of many good-paying jobs overseas. “My parents worked hard but my parents were lucky.”
Mendez is 34. She was born and raised in Zumbrota, Minn., after her father, Fernando, moved the family to Minnesota from Peru on a student visa. Mendez’s mother, also from Peru, had lived in Zumbrota when she was a foreign exchange student. Her mother, Anna Maria, was an artist who started a theatre company called Teatro Latino, which highlighted the experience of Latino immigrants.
Mendez says her family was lucky. Her parents worked hard to put her and her brother through college. They bought a house. They helped her buy a house. During her last year in college, at the University of Minnesota, Mendez was asked by an organizer from the AFL-CIO to go to Chicago to assist workers during a hotel cleaners’ strike. She was inspired by the experience, as she witnessed low-wage workers -– mostly women — fight employers by insisting that their workload was too heavy for the pay they earned.
Today, Mendez works in the Twin Cities as an organizer for CTUL, Centro de Trabajadores en Unidos en la Lucha (The Center of Workers United in Struggle) a non-profit organization which empowers low-wage employees of companies that provide contracted cleaning and other minimum-wage services to large, well-known corporations such as Target Corp. and Best Buy.
The big-brand corporations don’t employ the workers directly, which often makes it more difficult for the workers to join unions or to fight for better pay and working conditions. That’s where CTUL comes in, serving as a sort of union for the non-unionized.
The situation of a Latina food worker named Gerania Marta helps illustrate the importance and the impact of Mendez’ work.
Marta worked, for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, wrapping and packing pizza, cookies and other items in Styrofoam containers, trying to support herself and her three children. After working for a while, she and another Spanish speaking co-worker noticed that they weren’t being paid hours that they had worked but which weren’t being recorded on their time cards by a faulty machine. When they complained, a supervisor responded by saying that it wasn’t his fault they could not speak English or that the machine didn’t work. They felt they were being robbed, with Marta paying for a babysitter to watch her children while she worked, but not being paid for all the hours she worked. Fed up, she turned to CTUL.
The group organizes low-wage, contracted employees like Marta, teaching them how to advocate and speak out on their own behalf, helping them by giving them knowledge of labor laws and the tools to fight for themselves. Marta met Veronica Mendez and asked her for help. She would get what she needed from Mendez, but not the answer she expected. Marta would get help, but in the form of learning how to help herself.
Veronica Mendez is at the heart of this challenging work in the Twin Cities. Faced with countless low-wage and underemployed workers and declining union membership, CTUL launched a campaign to demand a code of conduct from contractors and service companies that provide cleaning and food workers to businesses like Target, Best Buy, Sears and other retailers.
Over the past five years, Mendez says, CTUL has recovered over a million dollars in wages owed to workers. At its office in the Bethany Lutheran Church on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, the dollar amounts that have been won from employers are proudly displayed on a cork-board, along with pictures of smiling families and traditional Aztec dancers performing at a recent picnic celebrating CTUL victories. Many of the employees that seek help from CTUL are Latinos whose first language is Spanish, making it sometimes difficult to go through proper legal channels. It’s also one of the reasons employers like Gerania Marta’s sometimes can get away with not paying their workers.
“The mission of the organization is to organize workers that aren’t organized by unions,” Mendez says. “We’re a non-profit worker center. And we know that over the last 40 or 50 years, labor unions have gotten a lot weaker, in great part because the economy has changed and a lot of employers have shipped a lot of jobs overseas.”
The battle that retail cleaning workers face is a new challenge for labor. According to Peter Rachleff, labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul, trade policies enacted as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement have created an influx of cheap labor in both the northern and southern hemispheres. As the economy grew unstable in the United States, he says, companies looked for ways to maximize profits.
“So a company like Target or Kmart or Sears that once hired the workers to clean their stores now contract with third parties to clean their stores,” Rachleff says. “Contractors hire the workers and sort of take a nice chunk of change for themselves (from the) pay those workers are getting.” In addition to taking money off the top, the contractors usually don’t provide benefits.
In this difficult situation, CTUL is one of the only allies to which low-paid unorganized workers can turn.
A few years ago, CTUL launched a campaign highlighting the plight of retail cleaning workers all over the Twin Cities. At one grocery store, cleaners complained that wages were so low that they didn’t earn enough money to shop there. That absurd situation became the rallying cry for a movement that included a hunger strike and ended with a deal to raise wages.
Recently, CTUL teamed up with SEIU Local 26 to negotiate better wages for other retail cleaners at Target stores, among other Fortune 500 companies. The Unlock Our Future campaign resulted in SEIU janitors getting a raise and a new contract after 31 hours of negotiation. Retail cleaners, unlike the janitors, are not unionized. They walked off the job in a targeted one-day strike. The end result of that effort remains unknown.
But the campaign has led to the consolidation of companies that hire contract workers, making it easier to hold the companies accountable. Besides low wages, some employees have complained to CTUL that they are locked in during late-night shifts. The only way to leave the store in case of a fire or other emergency was to ask permission from a manager. Mendez and other organizers at CTUL say OSHA now is investigating those complaints.
But while many large victories remain to be won, CTUL produces small wins for individual workers: Gerania Marta and her co-worker who were not being paid for all the hours they worked finally recovered the wages that were owed to them. They also got a raise, a pay hike of a dollar more an hour. More than that, CTUL got a new organizer.
Marta, inspired just as Mendez was by that Chicago hotel strike, quit her job to become an organizer for CTUL. During a recent visit to the CTUL office, Gerania was seen reaching out to other potential organizers — some who are in the same position she was once in. She has gone from being taken advantage of to working with others to assert their rights. Mendez, who has seen it happen countless times, approves.
She told Marta, when Marta first asked for help, that this is how it is supposed to work.
“My response to her was, ‘I can’t do anything to help you,’ ” Mendez recalls of her first meeting with Marta.
“ ‘But I can support you in developing the tools you need to be able to fight for yourself.’ ”
Uptake Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in an UpTake series of profiles on men and women whose names may not be widely familiar but whose leadership makes our neighborhoods, our cities and our state better places. — Nick Coleman, Executive Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)