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Hungry for justice

Local retail cleaning workers seek "code of conduct" from companies

Allies of the hunger strikers hold signs near the Cub Foods at the corner of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue in Minneapolis. Metro Lutheran photos: Bob Hulteen

Eight Twin Cities retail and cleaning workers and their allies, including one Lutheran pastor, launched a hunger strike on Saturday, May 21, in an effort to bring the workers’ employer, Carlson Building Maintenance, and their workplace, Cub Foods, to negotiate a “code of conduct” for cleaning workers in the Twin Cities. Carlson, a professional cleaning corporation, provides overnight store cleaning locally for Cub Foods stores.
These cleaning workers, organized under the banner of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha ( CTUL), or The Center for Workers United in Struggle, have been trying for more than a year to meet with representatives of Cub Foods and Carlson to discuss the merits of a code of conduct, a set of rules that outlines proper practices for an organization or corporation.
Hunger strikers will use Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, located just two blocks from the Cub Foods at Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue, as their base of operations. Daily demonstrations will take place outside of that Cub Foods store.
Mario Colloly Torres, a member of CTUL and formerly a worker for Carlson at the Cub Foods in Richfield, told a crowd gathered at the announcement of the hunger strike, “Ten years ago, five workers worked [the shift I worked] and were paid $11 per hour; today there is half that number or workers and they are paid $7.50 or $8 per hour. … We cannot stand for increasing work and lower wages.”

Mario Colloly Torres, who worked as a retail cleaner at the Cub Foods in Richfield, Minnesota, until being fired on March 2, announces the beginning a hunger strike by eight people.

He explained that all attempts to talk with corporate leaders have failed and that “hearing no positive response from the company, we had been left with no choice but to call for this hunger strike.”

“We work each night surrounded by food on the shelves, but we can’t afford to put food on the plates of our families.”

The Rev. Jay Carlson, pastor at Holy Trinity, told participants in the announcement rally, “We call on Cub Foods to come to the table to negotiate a code of conduct … so that this [hunger strike] can come to a conclusion quickly.” In a prayer to close the rally, Carlson said, “Bless all those blessed people who hunger and thirst for justice in our society. Be with those workers in their hunger strike and work for justice.”

A call for repentance

The Rev. Grant Stevenson, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Paul, announced his intention to join the hunger strike because “these workers have a simple and just request — that they have a code of conduct [regarding] wages and working conditions.” Stevenson explained that church people have a long association with fasting. Fasts, he maintained, are an opportunity to cleanse, both spiritually and physically. The cleansing can open awareness that “all people are created in the image of God.
“This fast is an opportunity for repentance. I am a customer at Cub Foods. I invite all Cub Food customers and managers to join in this act of repentance, which simply means to turn around and make good” on what you say.
Cub Foods spokesman Mike Siemienas emphasized to Metro Lutheran that his company is a third party in this workplace conflict. “We do not believe that any of the people on hunger strike are Cub associates,” he said, pointing out the workers actually work for Carlson Service Company. “Since they are not Cub Foods employees, they need to talk to Carlson.”
“Our responsibility,” Siemienas continued, “is to provide a safe and inviting environment for employees, and to ensure that the sub-contractors we use follow all applicable laws.”
When asked about the positive benefits of a code of conduct for the workplace, Siemienas reiterated that Cub Foods was fulfilling all its legal obligations for its own employees and those employed by sub-contractors.

The Rev. Grant Stevenson, St. Matthews Lutheran Church, St. Paul, and Dave Snyder, community organizer with Jewish Community Action, visited while waiting for the announcement of the hunger strike.

Stacy Betison of Carlson Building Maintenance, White Bear Lake, Minnesota, did not have a comment for this story, although Metro Lutheran complied with her request for providing questions in advance.

A better option

At the Saturday, May 22 rally launching the hunger strike, the Rev. Patrick Cabello Hansel, St. Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, announced that Bishop Craig Johnson, Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA, would visit hunger strikers.
Hunger strike organizers will be monitoring the spiritual and physical needs of participants, according to Carlson. Although they are not eating food, they will be getting some nutrients through a juice-like liquid, and health care workers will daily monitor the effects of the strike on their bodies.
Holy Trinity member Allison Johnson, until recently, has been a national organizer on immigration reform issues. She explained to Metro Lutheran how a hunger strike becomes an option in situations like the one faced by the CTUL members. “When someone has been working on a campaign like this one for so long, and seemingly nothing is changing, a hunger strike becomes the last way to gain attention to the situation. People act out of desperation that they have nothing else to offer because they are so invisible. But they also act out of hope that things can be better.”

The Rev. Jay Carlson discusses the merits of a code of conduct for stores that sub-contract employees with Marco Antonio Salazar, SEIU Local 26.

That’s the desperation and the hope that Colloly Torres referenced at the opening rally. “We work each night surrounded by food on the shelves, but we can’t afford to put food on the plates of our families.” He went on, “So we fight for the future of our families.”
Marco Antonio Salazar, a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26, explained that union workers in similar positions earn $13 per hour, which, he said “makes an enormous difference when trying to survive with a family.” He promised that his union would support this effort by CTUL members. “Each and every one of us has the power to make a difference,” Antonio Salazar exhorted rally participants.
Clergy and lay leaders from a number of denominations have committed to be present throughout the Lake Street Cub Foods vigils, which take place daily at 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The vigils on Tuesday, May 24, will emphasize the support of area faith communities.

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