Like many immigrant workers, Pascual Tapia, a late-night janitor at a Target store in Minneapolis, was a victim of wage theft. He often worked 56 hours a week, but he was hardly ever paid time and a half for overtime. And like many immigrant workers in the Twin Cities, he turned to a highly regarded worker center for help: CTUL, the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (the Center of United Workers in Struggle). Tapia was delighted when CTUL won over $1,000 in back pay for him as part of the more than $1 million in settlements it won from cleaning contractors for Target and other big-box stores. But Tapia, CTUL, and many other Twin Cities janitors agreed that winning back pay wasn’t enough: The janitors wanted to end systemic wage theft, and beyond that, they wanted to somehow become union members.
In October 2020, on what Amazon calls “Prime Day,” Fadumo Mohamed and her co-workers at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Minneapolis stood in the whipping wind alongside a handmade banner that read “Amazon: Hear Our Voice.” As the wind howled, Mohamed, bundled in hijab, a face mask, a long black skirt, and track jacket, approached a microphone and shouted to be heard over the storm, “We are human, we are not robots! We have to speak up! We have a voice! We are risking our health!” In February, Mohamed’s two-and-a-half-year-old son took sick, and she had to take him to the hospital for emergency surgery. She’s a single mother, an immigrant with no family in the area—so caring for her son was all on her.
As organized labor grapples with the consequences of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s landslide defeat at the Amazon mega-warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, one potential direction for the labor movement lies in the types of power- and base-building activities of Black worker centers. That African American workers need to amass the power to better their conditions is beyond dispute. The American working class is in serious trouble, and Black workers most particularly. The median net wealth of Black families is just $24,100 (lower than any other racial group in America today), while that of white families stands at $188,200. Ongoing institutional and systemic racial discrimination against Black workers persists in housing, health care, education, and employment.