Grantees & Grantmaking | September 27, 2023

Minnesota’s Confluence Fund Supports Organizing by Workers Long Denied Just, Fair-Paying Employment: Part I

By Katti Gray    

Confluence Fund-supported organizations have won a series of legislative victories in 2023.

Through grants and other support, the Workers Confluence Fund of Minnesota, a Foundation grantee partner, has been teaming up with community-based organizations on efforts that are coming to fruition this year.

A number of these organizations are comprised of and run by rank-and-file workers who are among our economy’s least compensated and most easily exploited employees. Referred to as worker centers, these grassroots organizations transform employees who’ve long been marginalized into advocates for their workplace rights and for justice.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘How well are we taking care of workers? How well are we allowing for people to have basic needs met?’ Confluence and worker centers are asking these important questions; they’re pressing in on these issues.”

Jen Racho
Program Officer, Northwest Area Foundation

“We’re at a tipping point in our economic system,” says Program Officer Jen Racho, who’s the primary contact for the Foundation’s grant to Confluence. “Working hard for 40 hours often doesn’t pay enough to sustain one individual, much less a family.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘How well are we taking care of workers? How well are we allowing for people to have basic needs met?’ Confluence and worker centers are asking these important questions; they’re pressing in on these issues.” 

Confluence sees the tremendous potential of collaboration with unions.

Worker centers are not unions. They don’t have the same bargaining power and other legal protections as unions. They focus strictly on organizing workers often mistakenly labeled as “un-organizable” because of such factors as immigration status, residing in a rural area, or being classified as independent contractors.

Confluence’s funding has helped construction day laborers, childcare providers, fast-food workers, and other worker center members develop the voice to explain why they, too, matter and are a force that’s hard to ignore.

Confluence’s support has led to collaborations with unions that heightened worker centers’ impact. These include Education Minnesota, representing teachers and other workers in education; UNITE HERE, representing restaurant, hotel and other hospitality workers; and the Teamsters, representing everyone from warehouse workers to law enforcement officers. Union members’ support ranges from walking picket lines with worker center protesters to donating financially to centers to conducting labor research and analysis on behalf of centers.

North America Building Trades Unions (NABTU) members march in solidarity with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha’s (CTUL’s) non-union construction members. Photo courtesy of CTUL.

Together, unions and worker centers are amplifying each other’s messages and making the same case: Fair pay and safe working conditions are good for all workers, the corporate bottom line, and companies’ public image. That argument increasingly holds sway with state lawmakers—who, persuaded by worker centers, recently passed landmark laws—and with corporate chiefs alike.

Equally indispensable to worker centers is the organizational and campaign development coaching that Confluence provides. Confluence’s technical assistance includes strategy sessions with partners from labor unions. Worker centers benefit from labor unions’ deep history, strong infrastructure, and current rebirth of influence among policymakers in Minnesota (and elsewhere across the country).

“Worker centers have deep knowledge and trust of the immigrant communities and communities of color where they’re rooted. Many from those communities are living and working in the shadows, on the fringes of the economy,” says Jilian Clearman, Confluence’s fundraising co-director. “Unions and worker centers, together, are using these organizing tools to make things better for everyone.”

Worker centers fill a critical niche.

Worker centers were a needed innovation when they were established roughly 40 years ago by Black worker-activists in the Southeast, Chinese immigrant workers in New York City, and Latino workers along the Texas-Mexico border, says labor researcher Aaron Sojourner of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, MI.

Today, those centers continue to fill a critical gap by sharply redefining themselves. President Biden’s White House and a majority of Minnesota lawmakers have prioritized workplace equity in ways not seen in decades, but the barriers are still high.

“Worker centers specialize in identifying, developing, training, and bringing together workers who are in workplaces where there’s not a union,” says Aaron. “Unions, in some sense, are well funded; they have a steady stream of income from their members paying dues. They have agreements with employers, who take that money out of every paycheck, every pay period.

“The worker centers don’t have that. They are reliant on private philanthropy or contracts with the government.”

Building connections at the 2022 Confluence stakeholder convening are Confluence grantees Rod Adams of New Justice Project (left), and Burt Johnson of North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. Photo by Paula Vasquez Alzate, McKnight Foundation.

Confluence-backed efforts are overcoming barriers faced by low-wage workers and are building on wins.

Which is where, in Minnesota, Confluence helps make a difference. Confluence’s support has been vital to worker centers’ legislative efforts to protect and advance worker rights.

For instance, Minnesota’s state lawmakers approved the landmark Warehouse Worker Protection Act, pushed by the Awood worker center, Teamsters partners, and its East African-immigrant members employed at an Amazon distribution outlet in suburban St. Paul. Their worker injuries were four times that of injuries at non-Amazon warehouses in Minnesota.

Minnesota lawmakers also approved record-high funding for childcare workers and families who receive childcare subsidies, as well as the Construction Worker Wage Protection Act, which secures today’s wages and tomorrow’s Social Security for those who’d previously been wrongly classified as independent contractors.

Octavio Chung Bustamante, an investigator and marketer for the multiracial, women-and-veterans-inclusive building trades union Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Minnesota and North Dakota, rattles off other worker center wins:

Minnesota judges and juries rightly sided with immigrant workers in several key lawsuits.

A commercial developer fired a major contractor for withholding immigrant laborers’ earnings.

A federally insured credit union stopped financing a project where immigrant laborers, brought to the United States on H-2B employment visas that their employer obtained, were being paid up to $8 an hour less than what they were supposed to earn.

Octavio Chung Bustamante, investigator and marketer, Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Minnesota and North Dakota, speaks to union and worker center leaders and city and state agency staff about organizing immigrant workers. Photo courtesy of Workers Confluence Fund.

Those wins reflect a banner year for worker centers and related nonprofits that Confluence aids, says Casey Hudek, Confluence’s key labor strategist and campaigns manager for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

“There’s the bottom line, shareholder profits. And workers often tend to be numbers on a spreadsheet. You have to change the public narrative and public policy . . . so that there’s more equal footing between the community and workers and companies.”

Casey Hudek
Key Labor Strategist, Workers Confluence Fund
Campaigns Manager, Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation

But Confluence’s pursuits are long haul, he cautions. Even the worker center partnerships with labor unions must be sharpened as the centers keep influencing employment policy.

“There’s the bottom line, shareholder profits. And workers often tend to be numbers on a spreadsheet. You have to change the public narrative and public policy . . . so that there’s more equal footing between the community and workers and companies,” Casey says.

Policymakers at a Confluence event celebrating the 2023 legislative session’s many wins for workers. From left: Rep. Cederick Frazier, D–MN District 43A; Senator Zaynab Mohamed of Minnesota; Rep. Emma Greenman, D–MN District 63B; Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach, MN Department of Labor and Industry; and Casey Hudek, key labor strategist, Workers Confluence Fund. Photo courtesy of Workers Confluence Fund.

“You have protections. . . . It doesn’t matter what you look like.”

When Octavio visits workplaces and tiny houses where construction contractors have packed in way more immigrant workers than is legal or ethical, he tells workers, “You have protections here in the United States. It doesn’t matter what you look like, you have protections.” 

Their growing understanding of those protections and their capacity to change things is obvious. It’s one of the reasons why the AFL-CIO, with its 12.5 million members, believes in what worker centers can accomplish.

Comprised of 60 unions nationwide, the AFL-CIO prominently displays its national worker center partnership application on its website, alongside this mantra: “All workers deserve fair treatment, respect and a voice at work, regardless of how they are classified by employers or regarded by labor law.”

Foundation program officer Jen Racho states: “I’ve been so moved by the depth of these partnerships between unions and worker centers—the stories workers and union members tell me about how and why they’re getting involved, what they’re learning and achieving, together. They show heart, humanity, and depth.”

Part II Explores How Confluence-Funded Groups Achieve Impact

Later this fall, we’ll tell a follow-up story that delves deeper into how a worker center supported by Confluence builds bridges, helps workers amplify their voices, changes laws, increases worker power, and grows workers’ earning capacity.

Photo top: Sheli Stein of Confluence grantee Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota (ROC-MN) leads a workshop at Confluence’s 2022 stakeholder convening. Photo by Paula Vasquez Alzate, McKnight Foundation.

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