Veronica Mendez Moore is co-founder and co- director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (United Workers’ Center, aka CTUL), a worker-led organization that partners with other leaders on movements for racial, gender, and economic justice. In spring 2024, she will step away from the organization she co-founded 16 years ago, partly to spend more time with her two young children. We talked with her about the successes and long-term vision of CTUL.
How did you get started as an organizer?
In my final year of college, someone came into one of my classes recruiting people to come to a three-day workshop led by a union. I went, not with a labor background but with degrees in political science and sociology, and an interest in social justice — wanting to make the world a better place. From this training I got a job offer in Chicago. That’s when I started to understand what organizing is.
We were organizing housekeepers in hotels to reduce workloads. They were expected to clean 15 rooms in a shift, when 13 was a more reasonable number. After months of organizing, we supported housekeepers one day to have everyone clean only 13 rooms and then punch out together to demonstrate their unity around workload issues.
People were scared about how management would react. I got on the elevator with a group of housekeepers who were nervous. Floor by floor, as we went down the building, more housekeepers got on. I got to watch people go from feeling fear with their heads down to holding their heads high, recognizing their collective power. That was the inspiration for me, when I realized organizing is not about filing grievances or getting people to a meeting. It is about the moment when people recognize that they have power, and that collectively they can make changes. I was an organizer from then on.
I ended up really missing home. I heard that an interfaith network in the Twin Cities wanted to hire organizers to address wage theft. I was hired with another organizer in 2007. Eventually it became clear that workers making decisions about their lives should be running their own organization, so we spun off to create the independent CTUL in 2010.
In the 16 years since you started CTUL, what have been the frustrations?
When we started out, our primary focus was recovering wages that were stolen from workers. The primary industry impacted was non-union residential construction, which is a mess of an industry.
It was important to make a shift from the existing power dynamic: “I’m an expert, you tell me your problem and I will solve it for you.” We wanted to shift that dynamic to “you are responsible for your own future, you have the power, and we will support you.” Part of that was bringing workers together collectively to tell their stories and talk about problems they were facing. So often people come with a wage theft case and feel like they did something wrong by letting this happen to them. It is critical to shift people’s perspectives about the system itself.
In 16 years, we’ve recovered 7 million dollars in stolen wages in the construction, retail, janitorial, hotel, and restaurant industries. But wage theft persists. Some of it is blatant. Workers do a contracted job and simply don’t get paid. The employer disappears or says “you never worked for me” or “I’m not giving you a check for X reason or no reason.” It also comes in the form of people coming to work, prepping for that work, and then being allowed to punch in. They work a shift, are required to punch out, and then do the clean-up. It comes in the form of people working overtime that isn’t paid at time and a half. Much of it comes in tip theft.
It’s so prevalent, it’s become normalized for workers.
Wage theft is a much bigger problem than property theft. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that wage theft in the U.S. amounts to up to $50 billion annually, more than all robberies, car thefts, and burglaries combined. Yet so many more resources go to policing petty theft and burglary. That is a stark difference in priorities.
The industries in which wage theft is most prevalent are those that pay the lowest wages. People don’t report because there is a culture of retaliation. When people don’t speak up, it doesn’t matter what the law says. Nobody is checking to see if the employer is following the wage and hour laws they should be following. Even with the apparatuses that exist in government, there are just not enough investigators.
What stands out to you as an accomplishment at CTUL?
We organized with janitors who clean Target and other big box stores. The reason I am proud of that campaign is that it showed more people the way that many subcontractors work. Retailers that subcontract services are protected from legal liability — and we deeply believe they should be taking responsibility for what’s happening in their stores.
We were able to organize workers to go where the power was, with the big-box retailers. A big chain store like Target puts out the bid for “who wants to clean our stores?” We found they had a bidding process that encouraged cleaning companies to lower the cost of their contract in order to win the bid. The people who suffer are the janitorial workers. It was important for us to go directly to Target to ask them to give better support to anyone cleaning in their stores. We calculated at the time that the CEO of Target was making at least $10,000 an hour.
We were originally told by other labor leaders that retail janitors are an impossible workforce to organize — that they’re too isolated and marginalized. We said, “Watch us do it.” And we did. A small number of workers went on strike; then it was 25 people, then 54, then 72. It continued to grow.
We use striking as a tactic to call attention to the problem. In that case, we caused an industry shift. There were once 25 cleaning contractors in the Twin Cities outbidding each other. We shined light on the worst contractors, who were pushed out of the market.
Ultimately, Target signed a responsible contractor policy ensuring that workers could have a voice on the job. This led to workers being able to form a union, which is now SEIU Local 26.
Tell us about your work with minimum wage.
In Minneapolis, we became part of the national fight for raising the minimum wage to $15. The prevailing wisdom was: “It’s impossible, it’s illegal, we can’t make it happen at a city level.” But guess what? We did it.
We organized fast-food worker strikes and gained momentum. We aligned with an ecosystem of organizations and co-created the biggest wage increase in the Midwest.
We cannot pass policies, say hurray, and then move on to another campaign. The workers that we organize are the most vulnerable workers and the least likely to get the benefit they fought for and won, because they’re the most likely to get retaliated against. What is critical is to also spend time after winning the policy to implement it — developing the leadership of workers so they can make it real.
Some McDonald’s workers in Minneapolis told us, “My boss said we don’t do that here.” Others heard, “That passed, but it’s not for Latinos.” A law is just a piece of paper unless people can enforce it.
Do you feel the culture for workers’ rights has improved?
Many more people say they’re supportive of unions than when I started this work. Back then, I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to stand up in a room and talk about how capitalism is destroying our humanity. That’s no longer a problem, because more people understand how capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy are hurting communities.
At the same time, there’s been pushback, Trump, and attacks on people’s rights. I think the question to us now is, what do we do with that? Unionization at Trader Joe’s and Starbucks is bubbling up. How do we collectively take those bubbles and turn them into something solid?
There is a lot of young energy. Movement leaders need to collectively figure out how to unite those efforts and build something bigger, alongside experience and strategy, that will last.
Are you seeing the potential for solidarity? Or do you think localization and specialization of industry is key to success?
We’ve been a part of statewide policy shifts, but I think the localization has helped us have national impact in how to build partnerships and strategies.
We do not take on fights that we can win alone, because that is thinking too small. We need to think about campaigns not being so hyper-focused. We need to be expansive, thinking about who else we need at the table. How do we build deep transformational relationships with others?
Several years ago, we started to connect with other power-building organizations that mostly organize low-wage people of color in the Twin Cities and statewide. We built a new organization called Tending the Soil. It is an alignment of five different organizations: CTUL, SEIU Local 26, New Justice Project, Unidos MN, and Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Renters United for Justice). We don’t necessarily all work on passing one policy together — we each have our own lanes — but we do figure out how we can align our campaigns, timelines, and narratives.
What has allowed us to be successful is the upfront clarity of what we expect of each other. We know that each of us has a base that we’re accountable to. We don’t expect negotiations with companies to be an all-or- nothing situation.
Part of the legacy I feel proud of leaving with CTUL is being very serious about what solidarity and alignment means.
What is next for you?
It is a difficult shift for me to be preparing to leave. What helps me is that we have done an incredible job of building clarity around our theory of change, the way that we operate in ecosystems, the importance of leadership development, and what that looks like in our organization.
I’m excited for the new things CTUL will do in building that broader base and going after the real decision-makers — focusing not just on laws and elected officials, but the corporations that drive our economy.
When I started this work, I was working 60-hour weeks. That was unsustainable. We shifted the organizational culture.
This work is emotionally taxing. It breaks your brain sometimes. There’s conflict, and there’s tension, and we have to lean into all of it and have hard conversations. That makes anybody tired.
I’m leaving because I think it’s time for evolution in the organization. I’m also ready for transformation myself. I am going to take significant time off and spend more time with my kids while they’re little. Then I will figure out what’s next.
Resources and additional information
The Commonality of Wage Theft
Amazon paid $18 million to settle a wage-theft class-action suit in Oregon in November 2022, and paid a $61.7 million fine in 2021 over allegations of stealing tips from Amazon Flex drivers. From January 2000 to 2018, Walmart paid more than $1.4 billion in fines and settlements over wage theft violations, according to a 2018 report by Good Jobs. FedEx paid more than $500 million during the same period.
A 2021 study of the construction industry in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin reveals that those states lose out on at least $362 million in tax revenues annually due to misclassification of workers as taxable employees.
“About five years ago, most of Minneapolis’ Subway, Little Caesars, and McDonald’s franchise restaurants did not comply with city wage standards. Now workers at each of the locations that violated the law receive the required minimum wage and time off when they’re sick, thanks to a co-enforcement program.
Sources: Economic Policy Institute 2021 report; The Guardian; MN Reformer
Minnesota OSHA Investigates Complaints
Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance division conducts worksite inspections, responds to employee complaints, conducts accident investigations, and provides education and technical assistance.
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