Earlier this month, 80 people crowded into the entrance of an Outback Steakhouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and asked to see the manager. Instead of a table reservation, they were there to demand $2,300 in unpaid wages that Kossiwa Agbenowossi, a mother of five children, says she is owed by the restaurant’s cleaning contractor for overnight work she had performed cleaning the restaurant.
Led by the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ), the protesters included a diverse mix of union members, low-wage immigrant workers, students and leaders of congregations and community groups. CWJ Executive Director Misty Rebik said:
[W]e are here to demand that the Outback pay Kossiwa for the work that she did at the Outback Steakhouse and that the Outback end the contract with this shady, fly-by-night cleaning contractor. Our community will not tolerate a business model that robs workers of their wages and undermines good business practices.
After delivering the strong message to the manager, the group went into the surrounding streets with signs and fliers to publicize this latest case in a local epidemic of wage theft, which robs Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million each year. (See more photos of the action on CWJ’s Facebook page.)
CWJ is Iowa’s first “workers’ center” and is a community-based organization where low-wage workers come together to learn about their civil and workplace rights and take action to defend those rights with support from community allies. CWJ recently became the newest affiliate of our central labor council, the Iowa City Federation of Labor, through the National Worker Center–AFL-CIO partnership.
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 from at least 18 countries of origin; most are recent immigrants from Latin America and Africa. Its network of organizational affiliates is a powerful new coalition among unions, churches, affordable housing groups, university staff and students and immigrant advocacy organizations that had not previously worked together.
The Iowa City Federation of Labor chose to partner with CWJ because we recognized that its mission to organize against wage theft and provide a voice for low-income and immigrant workers is also labor’s mission. The group’s new location reflects this collaboration: in 2013, CWJ joined with the Iowa City Federation of Labor and the Sudanese-American Community Association to open a new, shared meeting space that has quickly become a hub for civil rights and worker rights organizing activity.
Rather than running parallel worker’s rights campaigns, we have joined together to not only share organizing space, but to coordinate our efforts into one movement, with phenomenal results. Together, our successful struggles to collect thousands of dollars in stolen wages for unorganized workers have shown other community organizations that labor is committed to all workers—not just those who are currently covered by collective bargaining agreements. At the same time, direct actions and issue campaigns spearheaded by CWJ are reinvigorating our local labor movement.
In its first year alone, CWJ made impressive strides, assisting local workers in recovering nearly $5,000 in unpaid wages, educating more than 150 low-wage workers about their rights, mobilizing hundreds to protest misuse of local law enforcement to target peaceful immigrant residents and advocating for immigration reform. Labor has brought a lot to this partnership, including volunteers, relationships with elected officials, an in-depth knowledge of workplace struggles and a history of workplace victories. CWJ has brought in new workers, young activists, immigrant leaders and community organizers and is merging these important components with labor’s traditional base to provide a stronger and more effective movement that unites all workers against the united enemies of working families.
The Center for Worker Justice is part of the labor movement (and is now an affiliate of the central labor council). The labor movement is part of the Center for Worker Justice (and is officially represented on the board of directors). We are separate organizations but one movement because together we are stronger, and when we’re united—workers win.
Jesse Case is the vice president of the Iowa City Federation of Labor and a board member of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa.