Interviews for Resistance: Strike Targets Donald Trump and Home Depot

Sarah Jaffe January 24, 2017

On Friday, January 20, as Donald Trump was being sworn in as president, workers in Minnesota went on strike. (CTUL)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. In this series, we talk with orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers, and thinkers who are work­ing both to chal­lenge the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and the cir­cum­stances that cre­at­ed it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequal­i­ty are impos­si­ble to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sex­ist and xeno­pho­bic vio­lence. But around the coun­try, peo­ple are doing the hard work of fight­ing back and com­ing togeth­er to plan for what comes next. This series will intro­duce you to some of them.

On Fri­day, Jan­u­ary 20, as Don­ald Trump was being sworn in as pres­i­dent, work­ers in Min­neso­ta went on strike. They are staff at Kim­co, a com­pa­ny that cleans Home Depot stores, and their strike tar­get­ed not only the sub­con­trac­tor but Home Depot and Trump, too. Strik­er Luciano Bal­bue­na, a mem­ber of Cen­tro de Tra­ba­jadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), and CTUL direc­tor Veron­i­ca Mendez Moore spoke about the strike and the poten­tial for chal­leng­ing cor­po­rate pow­er under Trump. Their inter­views have been edit­ed for length and clarity.

Sarah Jaffe: Tell us about the strike on Friday.

Luciano Bal­bue­na: Prin­ci­pal­ly, we are fight­ing over the issues of them pay­ing us pover­ty wages and we hope by hav­ing the protest that we are able to get in dia­logue with the company.

SJ: What does the whole thing have to do with Don­ald Trump and the inauguration?

LB: The com­pa­ny pays very low wages. We are try­ing to put a stop to the pover­ty wages. Don­ald Trump, he sup­ports these low wages and he has said that he doesn’t think work­ers deserve bet­ter wages. He is a per­son that is very racist against Lati­no work­ers. So, for all of these rea­sons, that is why we are com­ing together.

SJ: Can you talk a lit­tle bit more about the orga­niz­ing at the Home Depot and how long this has been going on?

LB: This strug­gle has been going on for four, five, six years that I have been involved. We have had sev­er­al strikes, many, many protests. I have actu­al­ly gone to the Kohl’s share­hold­er meet­ings — Kohl’s is the oth­er big con­tract of Kim­co — and have spo­ken direct­ly to the CEO of Kohl’s about this. It has all just been over these issues of low pay and want­i­ng to make things bet­ter at work.

SJ: What else should peo­ple around the coun­try know about this strike and about the con­di­tions of Lati­no work­ers, in general?

LB: Peo­ple just need to under­stand that whether it is Lati­nos or who­ev­er else, peo­ple come here to work and we work real­ly hard whether it is in clean­ing or any oth­er kind of job. We are putting in a huge amount of work at these com­pa­nies and we want to make sure that we are treat­ed fair­ly for doing so.

SJ: Can you talk a lit­tle bit about your wages?

LB: Yes, my wage is prob­a­bly going to make some peo­ple laugh. I have been work­ing for eight years and my wage has only gone up when there has been a change in the min­i­mum wage laws.

The one final thing I would like to add is I hope that the reporter just empha­sizes … there are not ben­e­fits to this job, either. We are all human beings. These are just the basic things that we are fight­ing to win here.

SJ: Can you tell us a lit­tle bit more about the cam­paign that led to the Inau­gu­ra­tion Day strike? Why strike against Trump?

Veron­i­ca Mendez Moore: This is a cam­paign that has been going on for about six years. Ear­li­er this year, we cel­e­brat­ed a tremen­dous vic­to­ry of work­ers that clean Tar­get stores, Best Buy, Macy’s stores, that actu­al­ly won a union and now have a voice on the job and are able to start bar­gain­ing their first con­tract. That was a tremen­dous leap for­ward. It is the first major met­ro­pol­i­tan area in the coun­try where that indus­try is union­ized. That is extreme­ly exciting.

At the same time, there is still one major com­pa­ny that is left out of that because they have refused to talk to us, they have refused to engage at all with work­ers, and this is a com­pa­ny that cleans Home Depot. The com­pa­ny is called Kim­co. We have been orga­niz­ing with these work­ers and are going to con­tin­ue orga­niz­ing with them so that they can have a voice on the job.

As we know, Trump has an agen­da that is very anti-work­er, anti-immi­grant, anti-women, anti-most of our com­mu­ni­ty. We think it is crit­i­cal that we stand up and resist that. That we resist his agen­da of hate and his agen­da of division.

SJ: Talk about, first of all, why it is impor­tant for Lati­no work­ers, immi­grant work­ers and undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers to take part in a strike like this against Don­ald Trump.

VMM: I think it is impor­tant for all work­ers to resist. Even before Trump, we have seen cor­po­ra­tions have mas­sive, sky­rock­et­ing prof­its while work­ers are get­ting paid less, while they are get­ting hours shaved off of their checks, while they are being asked to do more in the same amount of time, and it is only going to get worse. I don’t see any oth­er path but to stand up and resist. All work­ers need to stand up and say, We are not going to take this any­more. We are going to strike right now, before you start to attempt to imple­ment any of your new agenda.”

SJ: Talk about the par­tic­u­lar pow­er of the strike and what role that plays and what role you think it will play going for­ward in resist­ing that agenda.

VMM: I think it is going to be crit­i­cal. I think over the last cou­ple of years we have seen more and more work­ers stand­ing up and get­ting past that fear to take actions and improve their lives and their com­mu­ni­ties. You look at the Fight for $15 and fast-food work­ers that have been orga­niz­ing — we are also part of that nation­al cam­paign — we look at the retail jan­i­tors here, we look at the work­ers in many indus­tries across the coun­try that are all start­ing to stand up.

That is the engine of our econ­o­my. If work­ers don’t work, our econ­o­my doesn’t work, their com­mu­ni­ties don’t work, and it begins to break down for the cor­po­ra­tions. I think the strike is such a crit­i­cal tool because it real­ly is a tremen­dous amount of pow­er that work­ers have. The boss­es spend hours and hours com­ing up with strate­gies to teach work­ers that their voice doesn’t mat­ter and that they have no pow­er and that they just need to fol­low the rules and lis­ten to the boss. Our job is crit­i­cal to help peo­ple under­stand how much pow­er they actu­al­ly have and that the strike is the most pow­er­ful tool they have to be able to use their voice and their power.

SJ: Let’s back­track a lit­tle bit and talk a lit­tle bit more about the orga­niz­ing that you have been doing with these sub­con­tract­ing com­pa­nies. Explain that for peo­ple who are not famil­iar with the way that works and the role the big com­pa­nies, the Tar­gets and the Home Depots, play in this whole economy.

VMM: Many decades ago, work­ers that cleaned a store like Tar­get or Home Depot were actu­al­ly employed in-house. If you look at super­mar­kets that are pri­mar­i­ly union, that meant that the clean­ing work­ers were union. Then, some maybe 30 or 40 years ago, that changed and they began to sub­con­tract out the work. They did that because it is less respon­si­bil­i­ty and, at the end of the day, it is cheap­er. They sub­con­tract­ed out the work to many dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies. What we saw when we start­ed tak­ing on this indus­try was you have one big retail store and they have got 25 dif­fer­ent small­er con­trac­tors that are vying for the con­tract with that store. What do they do? They under-bid each other.

When you have got 25 clean­ing sub­con­trac­tors under-bid­ding each oth­er, it is a race to the bot­tom. We saw that about 15 years ago, work­ers who were work­ing in retail jan­i­to­r­i­al were mak­ing about $10 or $11 an hour and there were about four or five work­ers clean­ing a store. Then, you fast for­ward after all of this race to the bot­tom, to about five years ago and work­ers are mak­ing $7.25 and there are two or three work­ers clean­ing the store. So the wages have gone down and the work­load has dou­bled. That is when we got engaged in the campaign.

It is just very clear who holds the pow­er in those sit­u­a­tions. The con­trac­tors do not hold the pow­er. We need to look the retail­ers to play a lead­er­ship role if we are going to change the indus­try. That is, when through our work and work­ers strik­ing and orga­niz­ing and seek­ing dia­logue, we were able to engage Tar­get and did all of the respon­si­ble con­trac­tor pol­i­cy that Tar­get then imple­ment­ed, which got work­ers on a path so they could join a union.

SJ: One of the tac­tics that we have seen work in recent months and years is tar­get­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of these big brands. We saw this around pres­sur­ing the big brands around HB2 in North Car­oli­na and the work that you do lever­ages that in a dif­fer­ent way. What kind of lessons are there from that to think about, again, stop­ping the most hel­la­cious things that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion can push for? Is there a way to lever­age pow­er against these cor­po­ra­tions to then, in turn, have them pres­sure the fed­er­al government?

VMM: I think it real­ly comes down to build­ing a base of work­ers that are ready to stand up and tell the truth. Because all of the com­pa­nies have images that they want to pro­tect. The image they are try­ing to pro­tect is an image of good­ness. It is an image of being an asset to com­mu­ni­ties. It is an image of being a good place to go shop, or what­ev­er the busi­ness is. That is the image they want. There is so much truth to tell under­neath that about how that is not what they actu­al­ly are and all of the ways work­ers are get­ting squeezed and squeezed more and more every year. What we have learned is that it is about telling the truth and, like I said, build­ing a base of work­ers that is will­ing to stand up to the repres­sion. That hap­pens when work­ers start telling the truth.

SJ: You have done a lot of work around the Fight for $15, and Trump’s labor sec­re­tary nom­i­nee is lit­er­al­ly a fast food CEO. What has been the response of the work­ers that you work with to that nom­i­na­tion? What does that look like going for­ward think­ing about that?

VMM: It is a hor­ri­fy­ing prospect to think that some­body who, we know, in their own busi­ness has a sig­nif­i­cant amount of wage theft and all kinds of oth­er prob­lems with­in their com­pa­ny, that that is a per­son that could be in charge of mak­ing sure that work­ers have rights on the job. That is a hor­ri­fy­ing prospect. We, and many oth­er dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions around the coun­try, have been dig­ging into that and real­ly iden­ti­fy­ing some of the prob­lems that exist in the stores and want to high­light that to make sure that the truth is told.

Work­ers that work at Hardee’s stores, at Carl’s Jr. stores across the coun­try are going to be tak­ing action and turn­ing in to the Depart­ment of Labor all of the vio­la­tions that are being found in their stores around sex­u­al harass­ment, about retal­i­a­tion of the work­ers orga­niz­ing. There are so many prob­lems hap­pen­ing just with­in his com­pa­nies. Imag­in­ing him hav­ing that posi­tion is just absurd.

SJ: Is there any­thing else that you want peo­ple to know about the work that CTUL is doing, the orga­niz­ing that work­ers are doing around the coun­try to resist this?

VMM: I think we have had a lot of real­ly impor­tant vic­to­ries that are mov­ing things for­ward nation­al­ly and on the cut­ting edge, but there is so much more work to do. What the future holds for us at CTUL is real­ly look­ing to How do we not just orga­nize the work­ers here and the work­ers there?” but, How do we actu­al­ly start orga­niz­ing and restruc­tur­ing our econ­o­my such so that work­ers can actu­al­ly be in dia­logue with the peo­ple who con­trol our econ­o­my, with the 1% of Min­neso­ta, of Min­neapo­lis, of the coun­try, who are actu­al­ly the ones who, right now, have all of the pow­er?” That is the real ques­tion and that is what we are going to make strides for over this next year.

SJ: Where can peo­ple find more infor­ma­tion on CTUL?

VMM: They can find us at www​.CTUL​.net or CTU­Lucha on Face­book, as well.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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