Beatriz Almazán arrived in the United States just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Around that time, she managed to secure a job as a cleaner for a large movie theater chain in the city. Although the work was exploitative, it was her only means of supporting herself and her daughter in Mexico.
Many of Almazán’s co-workers quit due to the heavy workload, leaving her to handle tasks meant for six people for several weeks. She single-handedly cleaned up popcorn messes, dealt with sticky spills, and retrieved left-behind items from more than 15 theaters. Despite her best efforts, she was frequently reprimanded for not meeting these unrealistic deadlines. Her supervisor was also indifferent to her multiple pleas for additional help.
Almazán’s reprimands eventually escalated to the point where she was relocated to a distant work site, where she had her hours reduced, and was even denied her final paycheck. Faced with these challenges, Almazán decided to leave the job.
Several weeks later, while shopping, Almazán was approached by a familiar face who noticed her anguish and offered her a pamphlet about Trabajadores Unidos Workers United (TUWU), a San Francisco-based organization founded in 2002 dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights and improving employment conditions.
For 20 years, TUWU has advocated for improved standards for all workers. Their advocacy has transformed the employment environment in the city, with notable achievements including helping to recover unpaid wages for workers at the Mission District restaurant, La Taqueria. TUWU organizers believe that workers should be able to control their lives professionally and personally.
The organization strongly believes that when workers unite and are aware of their collective power, they can substantially improve their work environments and challenge unjust systems. Over the past decade, they’ve successfully reclaimed over $800,000 in unpaid wages for workers all across the Bay Area.
“We have the right to strike and ask for better conditions. We all have rights whether we have documents or not,” Andres Pomart, the associate director at TUWU, told El Tecolote. “We need people to understand that we are not alone and there is strength in numbers.”
TUWU has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with low-wage workers in San Francisco for years, educating people about their cause and harnessing collective strength. In 2006, they were pivotal in advancing the nation’s inaugural paid-sick leave legislation in San Francisco. Collaborative efforts with other coalitions led to the establishment of some of the most progressive minimum wage laws in the U.S., culminating in San Francisco’s landmark $15 hourly wage by 2018.
“They negotiated with my employer, came to a resolution, and I was finally rightfully compensated,” expressed Almazán. “This experience has compelled me to want to help as much as possible.” She is now active as an organizer with the group, distributing pamphlets, much like the one that first introduced her to the organization.
When an individual approaches the organization, they first undergo a consultation. During this consultation, the person is educated about their rights and responsibilities as a worker. They are taught to identify potential violations of these rights and understand what might not be fulfilled in their current employment scenario. From this understanding, they are then introduced to various options that they can pursue to ensure that their rights are respected. If the worker is being wronged, one first step can be to draft a formal demand letter. This letter details the worker’s grievances, explicitly mentioning what the employer owes them or what hasn’t been provided as per the employment agreement. The letter might request remedies, such as reinstating their job position.
Once the letter is prepared, the worker is guided on how to officially present it to their employer — typically by visiting the office and handing it over directly. If there are complications or the situation escalates, the organization can offer external consultations and provide further assistance. The worker also has the option to delve deeper into the specifics if they wish.
When discussing the challenges she has encountered while advocating for workers’ rights, Almazán emphasizes the importance of realizing they possess rights, even if they lack legal documentation. Many individuals fear retaliation if they report abuse or labor exploitation, even when the laws are there to protect them.
“Often, an individual worker, especially if they are an immigrant, might feel overpowered by their employer due to the existing power dynamics. The employer might think they can easily dismiss an immigrant worker’s concerns, knowing the worker’s vulnerable position,” said Pomart. “This power imbalance between the employer and the worker changes when the worker receives support from their fellow workers. This collective backing shifts the dynamic, challenging the employer’s dominance.”
Pomart also talked about how one of the things that many employers don’t want is for workers to communicate with one another. When employers mistreat workers, they make it seem like an isolated incident. However, when workers talk to each other, they realize they’re not the only ones experiencing abuse. They see that others are being paid less than the minimum wage or that more people should be assigned to a particular location. Recognizing these shared experiences can lead to collective action. In such cases, there have been instances where employers retaliated against workers for coming together.
Another example of TUWU’S advocacy can be found in their latest newsletter. That newsletter included the story of Alicia, a worker who was an employee at the San Francisco restaurant Boug Cali. Alicia also faced challenges when she tried to uphold her rights. Despite having enough paid sick leave to look after her sick child, her boss still warned her not to do so. Alicia and her co-workers also realized they weren’t getting all the tips they earned. When Alicia tried to address both issues, her boss fired her.
However, with support from her co-workers and guidance from TUWU, Alicia learned about her rights and fought back. In the end, Alicia received over $6,000 in withheld tips and her final paycheck.
Alicia and Almazán’s experiences underscore the crucial role labor organizations play. They provide not just defense but also empowerment for workers. The organization now looks to broaden its reach, especially in places like Oakland, where worker support is notably lacking. They’re committed to making sure every worker, including immigrants, gets the respect and fair treatment they should expect at work.
For further information on their mission, activities, and how you can get involved, readers can contact them directly at 415-621-4155 or drop an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, their comprehensive website, https://www.tuwu.org/, provides a wealth of resources and updates on their ongoing initiatives.