The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Students protest firing, wages, and conditions at Cub Foods

By Jonathan McJunkin

About 30 Macalester students, along with several community activists, gathered in the University Avenue Cub Foods on Saturday afternoon and began to chant.”What do we want? Mario’s job back! When do we want it? Now!”

The students, mostly from MPIRG, Adelante, and Macalester Peace and Justice Committee/Students for a Democratic Society (MPJC-SDS), were protesting in conjunction with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), or Center for Workers United in Struggle, an advocacy organization by and for immigrant retail cleaning workers in the Twin Cities that is not affiliated with Macalester.

The protest was primarily organized and planned by Macalester students in those organizations.

In the Dewitt Wallace Library’s Harmon room, the students met with five CTUL workers and organizers, led by organizer Veronica Mendez, to discuss the conditions for cleaning workers at major retailers across the cities, including Cub Foods, and the story of how Mario Colloly-Tores came to lose his job.

As three retail-cleaning workers, including Colloly-Torres, spoke, they told of declining wages combined with increased workload and unethical business practices, such as forcing workers to work through breaks.

“Ten years ago, wages were $10 an hour,” said Mendez, “now they’re $7.75.”

The cause of these grievances, asserted CTUL, is store chains pitting sub-contractors of cleaning workers against each other in bidding wars to lower prices. These sub-contractors are forced to cut workers and their benefits to lower their price for the stores, leading to a squeeze in wages and an increase in workload, at times leading to two workers cleaning an entire store.

Another consequence of this system is that when stores switch contractors the workers are fired, often abruptly or with no notice at all. Colloly-Tores said that 12 workers were fired in the middle of their shifts last month.

The store protest had been planned for several weeks, and was originally solely focused on working conditions and wages in general. It became focused on Mario Colloly-Tores’s job with short notice, when his employer fired him on Mar. 2, allegedly because of his role as an organizer for CTUL.

Colloly-Tores’s role in CTUL was known to his employers, and he had been confronted about it before he was fired due to statements he made in a newspaper article. CTUL has filed charges with the Nation Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against both Colloly-Tores’s subcontractor, Carlson Business Management, and Cub Foods, as firing an employee for labor organizing is illegal.

Though Cub Foods, where he cleaned, was not his employer, he and others from CTUL said they had the power to change the situation. “The stores are responsible for this situation by promoting this competition between subcontractors,” said Colloly-Torres, “and more importantly they have the power to do something about it.”

Rebecca Jackson ’13, an intern for CTUL and the leading student organizer for the protest, emphasized the magnitude of Colloly-Torres’ firing, saying that it has galvanized the movement and made action even more necessary.

“We need to let them know that the fight just got bigger,” she said. “Firing Mario is not getting rid of the problem, it’s exploding the problem.”

The event is a part of a larger ongoing Campaign for Justice in Retail Cleaning by CTUL, which is working to get retailers to sign a code of conduct for their cleaning workers. This campaign is connected to store’s employees, who are already unionized and are currently in the middle of contract negotiations. One of their demands is a meeting between CTUL and retailers.

At the event, most of the protestors stood in the front lobby and chanted, while some handed out fliers about CTUL and Mario’s job to shoppers. The reaction in the store was generally confusion, bemusement, or amusement, though one shopper confronted the group as she left the store.

“You guys are bugging me,” she said, “you’re making it difficult for us all to enjoy our shopping experience and you need to leave.” After a short and impassioned conversation with Mendez, she exited the store.

Managers (who were not available for comment) and security officers confronted the demonstrators almost immediately. Mendez delivered a letter to the store manager informing him of CTUL’s case against them with the NLRB and spoke briefly about their grievances. After a few minutes, the group was asked to leave, and the protesters left the store without incident, chanting, “We’ll be back,” as they exited.

After the protest, Mendez spoke of the importance and impact of student involvement in movements like these.

“I think it’s huge,” Mendez said. “It sounds cliché to say that workers’ rights are human rights but it’s true-these are future workers, and what affects one of us affects all of us.”

Margo Worman ’13, head of MPIRG’s Economic Justice Task Force, echoed these sentiments.

“Just from a human standpoint, it’s important that workers have equity, rights, and a living wage,” she said, “and as residents of Saint Paul who shop at these stores, we’re implicated in this and have a stake in the process,” she said.

Full disclosure: the reporter of this story is a member of MPIRG

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