After Omer arrived in Iowa City from Sudan, he first found work through a temp agency working on a fast-paced production line at a local factory. Instead of giving him a paycheck, the agency assigned him a debit card and promised to deposit his wages onto the card on each payday. After he left the factory, Omer realized that he had been shorted nearly a full week of wages. He tried for months to recover his pay, unsuccessfully, until activists from the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) knocked on his door as part of a neighborhood education campaign. CWJ worked with Omer to send a letter to his employer demanding his pay, signed by dozens of labor and community allies. Within a week, the employer paid the full wages he was owed. Since then, Omer has remained active in CWJ, to help other workers who face similar abuses.
The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ) is Iowa’s first “workers’ center” – a non-profit, community-based organization where low-wage workers can come together, learn about their civil and workplace rights, and take action with support from local unions, churches, and community groups. For decades, many of the fastest-growing job opportunities have been concentrated in sectors with low unionization rates and poverty wages. In these sectors, underfunded enforcement agencies provide very little protection from abuse, and employers increasingly evade unionization and workplace laws by shifting to temporary work arrangements and misclassifying workers as “independent contractors.” The result is a “wild west” environment, in which workers’ most basic rights are routinely violated. CWJ and other workers’ centers use grassroots, community organizing strategies to shine a public spotlight on employer abuses, and demand dignity for all workers both on the job and in their communities.
Established in 2012 with strong support from local labor unions and churches, CWJ’s core membership has grown to include nearly 300 low-wage workers. Its members come from at least 18 countries of origin; most are recent immigrants of Latin American and African origin. At its core, CWJ shares the labor movement’s belief that workers themselves must lead any meaningful efforts to improve their lives. Just as CWJ’s diverse membership represents a new alliance among low-wage workers, CWJ’s network of organizational affiliates is a powerful new coalition between unions, churches, affordable housing groups, university staff and students, and immigrant advocacy organizations that had not previously worked together. The group’s new meeting space reflects this exciting collaboration – in October 2013 CWJ opened a new, shared meeting space with the Iowa City Federation of Labor and the Sudanese-American Community Association.
Members of CWJ have identified three current priority issues for the organization: education and action in defense of workers’ rights, protecting and promoting affordable housing, and organizing for civil rights and immigration reform. In its first year, CWJ has already chalked up an impressive string of victories in each of these areas, such as:
· Worked with local factory and service workers to recover nearly $5000 in wages they were legally owed
· Educated over 150 low-wage workers about their rights at work, through home visits, worker justice meetings, and community workshops.
· Sent a leader to Washington D.C to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of comprehensive immigration reform, and meet with Congressional leaders.
· Mobilized over 200 people to attend meetings and vigils to demand immigration reform.
· Organized a neighborhood association to defend affordable housing.
· Sent eight leaders to a 1-week national organizer training with Interfaith Worker Justice, which coordinates a national network that includes dozens of workers’ centers
· Sent three leaders to attend an OSHA train-the-trainer program in Wisconsin
· Partnered with the University of Iowa Labor Center to conduct a monthly “Know Your Rights” series on topics such as: wage payment rights, health and safety at work, civil rights of immigrants, rights of tenants, and the impact of the Affordable Care Act.
On a national level, the labor movement has recognized the importance of partnering with workers’ centers, civil rights, and community groups whose members may not yet have unions, but who share labor’s values of dignity and equality for all workers. Iowa unions are already acting on this principle, as evidenced by the numerous forms of support they have provided to help establish and strengthen the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. This alliance will soon be formalized – the AFL-CIO has indicated that it plans to award CWJ a certificate of affiliation next month, through the National Worker Center / AFL-CIO Partnership. CWJ is proud to join with Iowa unions in the struggle for dignity, justice, and a voice for all workers.
Robin Clark-Bennett works at the University of Iowa Labor Center, and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa