(Note: This video is featured courtesy of The Saint Paul Foundation. To learn more about all of this year’s Ambassador Award honorees, visit http://www.saintpaulfoundation.org/ambassador_awards/)
Lucila Dominguez knows that change doesn’t come easily. Sometimes it requires personal sacrifice, as demonstrated by her work with CTUL, the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (Center for Workers United in the Struggle). In fact, Lucila’s first volunteer act with CTUL was a 12-day hunger strike outside a major food retailer to protest unfair wages and working conditions. She continued to volunteer with CTUL until 2014, when she joined staff as a lead organizer, fighting for the rights of low-wage immigrant Latino workers.
Prior to CTUL, Lucila worked a number of retail cleaning jobs, where she experienced sub-poverty wages, wage theft, extreme workloads and poor working conditions. “For years, I moved from job to job, trying to find a place that treated workers fairly. But at each job, I’d find the same injustices,” says Lucila. “So instead of changing jobs, I decided I would try to change the system. I would try to change the workplace.”
Lucila contacted CTUL regarding unpaid wages from two cleaning companies. CTUL helped Lucila and her co-workers recover thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and reimbursement for cleaning supplies they’d been forced to purchase with their sub-poverty wages. The effort also brought about policy changes that prevent the companies from stealing wages from workers in the future.
Wage theft is a significant problem for many immigrant workers in Minnesota, particularly in the cleaning industry. People come to CTUL every week with reports ranging from employers requiring “ghost” timecards to avoid overtime pay to employers who simply fail to pay.
“Immigrant workers don’t always know their rights,” explains Lucila. “They are afraid to organize and confront their employers about stolen wages and unsafe working conditions. They need their jobs to survive.”
As the main organizer of CTUL’s Workplace Rights Defenders Program, Lucila educates workers about their rights and partners with them to address problems with their employers. Through her efforts–and the efforts of hundreds of low-wage Latino workers–CTUL has recovered more than $1.3 million in stolen wages and has succeeded in getting 31 companies to change policies that violate workplace law. These victories have resulted in on-the-job improvements for more than 5,000 low-wage workers, including raises that bring an estimated $3.9 million dollars each year to the poorest communities in the Twin Cities.
“Through the Workplace Rights Defenders Program, we help workers find their voices,” says Lucila. “They come to know that they have the right to ask their employers for workplaces that are safer and more equitable.”
Lucila is currently leading a committee of low-wage Latino workers who are documenting workplace abuses in the Twin Cities. This group will compile data and publish a report in fall 2015, which they plan to share with elected officials, corporations and the community. “The report will come directly from workers who deal with injustice every day,” says Lucila. “The workers, the experts on this topic, will be the ones asking for changes in employment laws and policies.”
Outside of her work at CTUL, Lucila is also helps lead the Mesa Latina campaign at the Minnesota Legislature, working to pass a bill that would allow people to obtain drivers licenses regardless of immigration status. Without the ability to get legal drivers licenses, undocumented workers are forced to rely on public transportation, which limits access to employment and can add many hours of commuting time each week.
“Being part of the struggle to change all of this makes me feel powerful,” says Lucila. “I now know that together, with many others, I can help make a change.”