Making the Invisible Visible: Immigrant Laborers

Veronica Mendez Moore, Photo Sarah Whiting

Veronica Mendez Moore, a child of immigrants from Peru, fights for the rights of workers as co-director of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), a Twin Cities-based immigrant labor rights organization. Sexual harassment, wage theft, worker safety, and fair working conditions are a few of the areas CTUL makes more visible through direct action (protests), negotiation with employers, organizing around class-action lawsuits and partnerships with other organizations.

Shining a Spotlight

In one high-profile case a few years ago, CTUL provided support to Leticia Zuniga, a member who took legal action after being sexually assaulted regularly at work. 

“She was made out to be the perpetrator, that she should have done something differently,” Mendez Moore says. “Unfortunately, so often, sexual harassment is the last thing people bring up, even if it’s happening all the time. I think it happens a lot more than we hear about.” 

Zuniga, who had come to CTUL for help, has stayed involved with its membership. Mendez Moore says, “She wants to do anything she can to make sure other women feel empowered to come forward, and that employers are being called out.”

In 2016, about 600 local retail janitors unionized, joining the SEIU Local 26, due to CTUL’s organizing efforts. One result was the creation of a Responsible Contractor Policy, which protects rights to collectively bargain, ensures worker safety, and prevents workers from being forced to work seven days a week. Without it, outside cleaning services can be hired that do not require safeguards. Best Buy, Macy’s, and Target implemented the policy.

CTUL has been working to convince Home Depot to join that group. Says Mendez Moore, “We have been publicly calling on Home Depot to enact a Responsible Contractor Policy.” CTUL is organizing a possible protest on February 2, during Super Bowl week, to call attention to the issue if Home Depot doesn’t meet a negotiation deadline.

“Through organizing, [people] have that moment when they realize that they can be powerful and are powerful.”

The organization successfully pushed the city of Minneapolis to put more funding into the Civil Rights Department, so that more city investigators can build community partnerships with organizations like CTUL who deal with vulnerable workers. “We have a better idea than the city ever will,” Mendez Moore says. 

Because the majority of the CTUL membership is women, sexual harassment is an important issue. Recently, the organization launched a series of discussions with members about misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace. Thirty women attended the first conversation in December. 

The Transformational Moment

Mendez Moore, who grew up in Zumbrota, returned to Minnesota after doing labor organizing in Chicago. “What moves me most about the work is meeting people who have been told their whole life that they are not and cannot be powerful,” Mendez Moore says. “Through organizing, they have that moment when they realize that they can be powerful and are powerful. Once people have that transformational moment, they can do anything.”