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Worker Justice Wisconsin’s year of new tactics and deep thinking

Operating at the intersection of religion and politics, the Madison organization leads the charge against immigrant worker exploitation.
Worker Justice’s staff pose outside their office. Pictured left to right: Frida Ballard, Bowen Cao, Socorro Cortez, Robert Christl, Katrina Woods, Gretchen Baumgardt, Rebecca Meier-Rao, Caleigh Judd.
Worker Justice’s staff pose outside their office. Pictured left to right: Frida Ballard, Bowen Cao, Socorro Cortez, Robert Christl, Katrina Woods, Gretchen Baumgardt, Rebecca Meier-Rao, Caleigh Judd. Photos by JT Cestkowski.

Operating at the intersection of religion and politics, the Madison organization leads the charge against immigrant worker exploitation.

Operating at the intersection of organized labor and religion, a Madison nonprofit has embraced a new model for inspiring solidarity among immigrant workers. This past summer yielded promising returns for the group’s new strategy, but now they face the daunting task of organizing entire industries with a small part-time staff.

Worker Justice Wisconsin is an employee resource center with an office in Madison’s Labor Temple on South Park Street. It has aided exploited wage-earners in the area since the turn of the millennium, partnering with faith communities where possible.

For the past two decades it has provided one-on-one services to workers. Staff have helped a single wronged employee at a time resolve their dispute with their workplaces and then moved on to the next individual problem.

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But that was the old way of doing business. Now, the organization has set its sights on catalyzing systemic change. Over the last several months, Worker Justice has pivoted to encouraging workers to band together to improve or revolutionize their workplaces. 

“Get out of the way,” says Worker Justice Wisconsin Program Director Robert Christl, when asked to give his advice to companies navigating labor’s resurgence.

Christl gives the advice with a chuckle, acknowledging that he and his organization are not likely to give much useful advice to employers as his group focuses on empowering employees, specializing in the Latino immigrant community which extends back to its founding.

The before times

The Latino Worker Project launched a study of Madison’s immigrant workplace conditions in the late 1990s and found a need for a workers’-rights center.

Known at its inception as the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South-Central Wisconsin, it continued under Latino Worker Project’s umbrella until 2007 when the two organizations divorced after a disagreement over funding sources.

They continued on their separate trajectories until 2018 when they merged once again due to financial difficulties. The amalgamated nonprofit soldiered on for over a year, propped up, according to Executive Director Rebecca Meier-Rao, by its board’s dedication and sweat.

Worker Justice’s offices sit in the basement of Madison’s labor temple. A photo shows an office window with the organization's name stenciled onto it in large black letters. Behind the window, out of focus, are people working at desks.
Worker Justice’s offices sit in the basement of Madison’s labor temple. 

Meier-Rao came on in 2020, shortly before the pandemic shut down much of normal life in Wisconsin. Six months into the job, she raised a question to the board: Why on our website do we profess our commitment to collective action when our operations do not reflect that strategy?

For over a year, Worker Justice wrestled with that contradiction. Eventually, the board chose to embrace its new model of rallying workers together based on the efforts of Arise Chicago, a workers’-rights center in the windy city.

Clarion call

A rising tide lifts all boats; Worker Justice’s tide came in over this past summer.

Christl stepped aboard in May, tasked with putting wind in the sails of the board’s vision of championing collective action. His first chance came in July.

Staff from the Clarion Suites hotel, which is attached to the Alliant Energy Center, were overworked and underpaid. Employees who had served the hotel for 20 years earned $16 per hour, according to Christl. Management had never replaced everyone laid off during the pandemic. As a result, skeleton crews struggled to keep pace as tourism to Madison increased over the summer months.

Approximately 10 hotel employees in housekeeping and laundry brought their concerns to Worker Justice. Christl says he and the other staff offered a spectrum of options, ranging from a simple letter to scorched-earth strikes. 

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The workers opted for the least aggressive tactic, a letter signed by an organizing committee of workers. The group asked for $4 per hour pay raises, a return of lost holiday benefits, and a cap of 10 rooms per housekeeper per day.

Program Director Robert Christl and Faith Outreach Coordinator Gretchen Baumgardt discuss upcoming dealings with faith communities in Christl’s cubicle which drips with the iconography of the local soccer club, Forward Madison FC. Christl is shown sitting in an office chair with one foot propped up on a desk, while Baumgardt stands in the foreground talking with him and gesturing.
Program Director Robert Christl and Faith Outreach Coordinator Gretchen Baumgardt discuss upcoming dealings with faith communities in Christl’s cubicle which drips with the iconography of the local soccer club, Forward Madison FC.

More than half of the Clarion housekeeping and laundry staff signed. The letter demanded negotiations to begin within a week. It made an immediate impact. Clarion management first attempted to speak to workers individually, but solidarity held and employers and employees met as equals in negotiations.

In a counteroffer, management proposed a $2 pay rate increase, three additional paid days off, and a cap of 12 rooms per housekeeper each day. After the discussion with management, workers reconvened at the Worker Justice office and considered the counteroffer. In the end, they agreed to accept the revised terms and not to escalate the situation.

The increased pay brought the workers more into line with the broader hospitality industry and helped assuage the worst of their workload concerns.

For Worker Justice, the move functioned as a proof of concept: this kind of organizing can work and the organization can serve as the catalyst for positive change. The nonprofit kept the Clarion employees at the helm throughout the process, Christl says. He and other advisors at Worker Justice only offered guidance when needed and acted as interpreters with the English-speaking hotel management.

Trial by fire

The Clarion example buoyed hopes that better working conditions await on not too distant shores at other Madison-area businesses.

Worker Justice’s first voyage into the world of collective organizing predated Christl’s arrival. Meier-Rao recounted helping a group of employees for a cleaning company with an out-of-state headquarters late in the fall of 2021. She withheld the name of the business to protect the workers who still remain there.

As Worker Justice would later do with Clarion staff, the organizers helped the cleaning company’s employees draft a petition to management. Managers and human resources attempted to talk to the signatory employees individually.

“We didn’t properly prepare them [the workers] for the pushback they would get from management and HR,” Meier-Rao said. “And they started to turn on each other.”

Within a few weeks, the effort dispersed.

Meier-Rao acknowledged the defeat with some shame, a solemn inflection in her voice and a droop in her posture. Most of the organizing employees found themselves out of job, she says. Another push for workers’ rights killed. Cause of death: divide-and-conquer tactics. 

The effort did not wither in vain. Meier-Rao says that Worker Justice staff internalized their mistakes and came away from the effort wiser for having tried.

Crushin’ It

Riding the wave of their success with Clarion workers, Worker Justice’s organizers would soon get their chance to prove themselves against a more outwardly hostile employer. 

In August, five employees of Madison’s Crushin’ It Apparel walked into the Worker Justice office. The business provides screen printing and embroidery services on Madison’s southeast side. The employees recounted working in an intolerably hot environment. Management had required employees to work though heat waves without any kind of climate control. Staff resorted to purchasing their own portable A/C units to make work bearable. No one cleaned the bathrooms, they told Christl, rendering the facilities unusably filthy.

The workers also felt management did not do an adequate job of metering out new work orders, resulting in lulls early in the week followed by a mountain of orders on following days.

Like in previous instances, Worker Justice helped the employees draft a letter to management. The organizing committee of Crushin’ It’s labor petitioned for the shop’s owner to cool the workplace to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, a $4 per hour pay raise, proper protective equipment and clean bathrooms. They submitted the letter on Aug. 26.

Owner Jeremy Kruk did what any reasonable person would do: threaten to fire anyone who did not take their name off the letter by Monday. No one budged, and Kruk followed through, laying off the signatories.

Worker Justice helped the employees file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and staged a strike that drew several dozen community members, including Clarion staff, to picket alongside the Crushin’ It workers.

That Thursday, according to Christl, an NLRB agent contacted the shop’s owner. The next day, Kruk invited all of Crushin’ It’s laid-off staff back to work. As it turns out, it is illegal to fire workers for trying to improve their working conditions. Oops.

While the work stoppage had ended, problems in the workplace continued and the employees opted to move toward one of the most aggressive tactics Worker Justice presents to those it advises: unionization.

Worker Justice put Crushin’ It Apparel employees in touch with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. By the end of September, the workers had filed for a union election with the NLRB.

Voting began on Friday, October 14, and will continue until Halloween. The NLRB will tabulate the results November 1 at the NLRB’s office in Milwaukee.

A win would mark the second major success of Worker Justice’s Hot Labor Summer and its new collective action direction. But the Crushin’ It workers will decide the outcome.

All Worker Justice’s staff can do now is wait for the results and pray.

Jesus was a worker

Christian pastors, a rabbi, and a Muslim community leader have all served the organization. That’s not a setup for a joke. It’s just a fact.

Religion has been a cornerstone of Worker Justice’s modus operandi since its inception as the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South-Central Wisconsin. To this day, the organization works with faith leaders to connect with communities across Madison, handing out materials emblazoned with prayers for workers.

Gretchen Baumgardt leads theological operations as Worker Justice’s faith outreach coordinator, a position she came into after a long career at the intersection of progressive advocacy and religion. A Catholic, she stresses the importance of justice as a core tenet of every faith.

“All religions believe in some sort of justice,” Baumgardt says. “The dignity of the human person, the dignity of work, and working toward a more just society are aspects of these different religious traditions.”

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story said that religion remains a crucial part of Worker Justice’s mission because it plays a similar role in the lives of the workers who come into the offices looking for help.

While a lot of simplistic political analysis would place labor as an area of concern to the left and assign faith-based issues to the right, categorizing real people’s beliefs proves more vexing. President Joe Biden, a pro-choice advocate on the issue of abortion, regularly attends Catholic mass and famously took a stand in 2012 saying that he would not seek to impose his church’s anti-abortion views upon the rest of the nation in his capacity as an elected leader. Many people in the US hold contradicting opinions on a host of issues, including labor and religion.

After hearing Baumgardt’s analysis of faith and class, I felt the need to crack open my Bible and make sure “Thou shalt not cross a picket line” didn’t lurk at the end of Exodus as an eleventh commandment nine years of Catholic grade school failed to teach me.

“Often referred to as ‘the best kept secret in the Catholic Church,’ is Catholic social teaching,” she says. “Organizing is protected and encouraged under these rights of workers.”

Worker Justice’s target audience benefits from Baumgardt’s Catholic background and firm grasp on the church’s teachings because the group has long specialized in aiding Latino immigrants, a largely Catholic group.

¿Barrera del lengua o oportunidad del lengua?

The average white Madisonian could forgive themselves for having not heard of Worker Justice despite its over two decades of service to the community. While the organization happily fights for any worker that walks through its door, its staff focuses on Latino immigrants. Most of the staff speak both English and Spanish and will switch between the two depending on the context.

Worker Organizer Socorro Cortez learned English as her second language, and she shares a lived experience with those she helps.Through an interpreter, Socorro relayed to me her experience laboring on an assembly line for 22 years. Her bosses passed her over for promotion and commensurate pay raises in favor of her male coworkers.

At the time, she did not understand the numerous rights she theoretically enjoyed as an employee in the US. Taking on her current role with Worker Justice opened her eyes. Now she helps other immigrants avoid similar prejudice and exploitation.

Frida Ballard (left) and Socorro Cortez (right), shown sitting at a table in an office with colorful posters and postings in the background, discuss their work as organizers for Worker Justice. The two converse as much in Spanish as English. Many of the staff are bilingual.
Frida Ballard (left) and Socorro Cortez (right) discuss their work as organizers for Worker Justice. The two converse as much in Spanish as English. Many of the staff are bilingual.

Meier-Rao calls Cortez an invaluable asset to Worker Justice for her ability to inspire workers to reach for what they deserve.

Cortez’s passion bleeds through the language barrier. Asking her if she feels she makes a difference prompts Cortez to attempt English in our interview and pass along her feeling without the translator’s modulating tone.

“I believe everybody, when we work here, we are really passionate about [our] work,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t know it, [but] we work so many hours.”

Our chat began haltingly and with many awkward pauses but quickly gave way to fits of giggles as we took turns confounding our interpreter with untranslatable idioms.

It’s that same sense of camaraderie that Worker Justice hopes to instill in the Latino working class. 

Multiple Worker Justice employees I spoke to for this story agreed that within certain industries Latino immigrants often exploited other Latino immigrants. You can come up with hundreds of theories as to why, but organizer Frida Ballard speculates that immigrants who have established themselves in the US seek to emulate the perceived successes of American capitalism by exploiting workers in the same way they see American bosses do.

“If you’re abused, there’s a chance you’ll end up becoming an abuser yourself, because you’re replicating that same pattern that you experienced,” Ballard says. “But now to feel a sense of control, you become the abuser.”

Worker Justice wants Latino immigrants to band together and recognize their shared enemy: the bosses who seek to exploit the second-class status of recent immigrants.

To push against traditional business structures that place immigrant labor at the bottom of a hierarchy upon which the boss hoards immense profits, Worker Justice has helped two groups to establish worker cooperatives.

Under the worker co-op model, workers take equal stake in the business and can collectively decide on the company’s policies, including compensation and benefits. Cooperatives bring democracy to the traditionally dictatorial setting of work. They also reduce pay disparities, according to a report published by a federation of cooperatives.

What comes next

How will we all think about Worker Justice once it has sunk several victories in its effort to champion collective action? Each employee had a slightly different answer, but they all centered on a central theme: remember the name.

“I think it [Worker Justice’s brand] will bring a little bit more dread in the minds of employers, particularly those who want to utilize the system such as it is to eke every penny out of their employees, no matter the cost to those persons,” says Meier-Rao. “That’s going to bring fear.”

Executive Director Rebecca Meier-Rao (left) and Worker Organizer Socorro Cortez (right) meet in Meier-Rao’s office. Meier-Rao first brought to the idea of more collective action efforts to the board of directors shortly after her hiring.
Executive Director Rebecca Meier-Rao (left) and Worker Organizer Socorro Cortez (right) meet in Meier-Rao’s office. Meier-Rao first brought to the idea of more collective action efforts to the board of directors shortly after her hiring.

Christl hinted at plans to partner with industry groups to help focus Worker Justice’s efforts in a couple of sectors. What sectors? He isn’t saying just yet.

“I’m sort of enjoying this quiet period, because it’s allowing us to do a lot of deep thinking,” he says. “Where’s the need? What are our strengths? What do we have capacity for? Where can we really build up an industrial focus?”

He believes that Worker Justice only has enough staff and volunteers to tackle one or two sectors of the economy at the moment.

While he didn’t say what areas they will target, he did list some industries where he has seen need for Worker Justice’s aid, including hospitality, construction, and restaurants.

Christl doesn’t want to over-promise or tip Worker Justice’s hand. Though he did let slip that you can expect more news on this front in the new year.

“We want to see and hear more worker victories,” says Communications and Development Associate Caleigh Judd. “We want to see movements besides ourselves.”

Judd, who grew up in a union household, spent much of our conversation focused on a bigger picture beyond Worker Justice’s efforts.

Baumgardt, the group’s faith outreach coordinator, keeps her eye on the Madison community as a whole. 

“Hopefully, we’re making a positive impact in the community, by building relationships with faith and labor, allies and interested citizens who want to contribute to a more just society,” she says.

Baumgardt also spoke of a desire for Worker Justice to avoid developing a “Messiah Complex.” A fitting concern for an employee tasked with keeping the godly in good graces.

Ballard, one of Worker Justice’s organizers who has shouldered all construction labor disputes for the past several months despite no background in the industry, says he hopes the organization will be able to devote more resources to that industry in particular.

“Hopefully in the next year, we’ll have a full time construction industry organizer,” says Ballard. “The construction industry is so rotten, you need at least one person dedicated to that.”

Switching between English and her native Spanish, Cortez turned sentimental. 

“[People] are going to say ‘Thank you, Worker Justice, for keeping open these doors.'”

This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the relationship between Latino workers and employers.

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