CTUL's campaign for retail custodians like Leticia Zuniga

CTUL's campaign for retail custodians like Leticia Zuniga
City Pages cover by Abbey Kleinert

When Leticia Zuniga was first allegedly sexually assaulted by her boss, she didn't know what to do or where to go for help.

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As this week's cover story describes, her employer didn't provide sexual harassment training or make clear where or how employees could or should report workplace abuses -- or that they would be protected from retaliation if they did so. So instead of reporting right away, Zuniga stayed on the job even as the assaults allegedly continued, before ultimately quitting.

Not long after, while at an employment fair, Zuniga met an advocate from CLUES, an organization that provides health and human services for the Twin Cities' Latino communities. For the first time, she says, she realized that she had options.

CLUES connected her with Veronica Mendez, an organizer with CTUL --  Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, or The Center of Workers United in Struggle. When Zuniga told Mendez what she had experienced, "I was blown away. I was so angry to hear that this had happened to her," says Mendez. "But honestly, unfortunately, I wasn't that surprised. It's an industry that's plagued with problems, and sexual harassment and even assault is just one of them."

While many workers who clean commercial buildings are part of a union like the SEIU, the janitors at places like malls, big box stores, and other retail locations aren't, and don't have the same protections. CTUL is one of the only local organizations that focuses on injustices in the retail sector of the cleaning industry.

In the five years that CTUL has been around, and the three years that the organization has focused on retail cleaning, Mendez estimates that she's heard of about 50 different instances of sexual harassment in the work place, 30 of which have been "severe."

Most of the incidents, Mendez says, have happened to retail custodians like Zuniga. "It's such a rampant problem in the industry," says Mendez. "Of all the industries we've been working in, this has been the one with the most sexual harassment."

The first thing Mendez advises workers to do: Get safe. "People need to make sure that they're in an environment where they're not at the level of danger that someone like Leticia was in," Mendez says. "I would advise them to just leave and get somewhere safe."

Once the victim is out, "whoever's doing that tends to stick around and continue doing it to other people," Mendez explains. "So when that happens, we organize."

CTUL will often work on parallel tracks. On one, the organization connects victims of workplace abuses with other people who have had similar experiences, so that they can "feel more support," Mendez says, "and not feel isolated the way they did when they came in." On another, it takes public action, such as rallies demanding that a manager be investigated or fired.

In Zuniga's case, Mendez herself contacted the mall where Zuniga worked -- the Ridgedale Center, in Minnetonka -- and informed mall management of Zuniga's allegations.

"The clients of the cleaning contractor have so much power and so much say over what the cleaning contractors do," Mendez explains. "It's important for them to be educated about what's happening in their building, because if they wanted to, they could make a change."

Now, CTUL is working on a bigger action: Helping the janitors who clean Target's retail stores organize. For one day in late February, workers picketed Target's downtown Minneapolis store. Next up: If their employer won't begin a conversation about their right to organize by the end of the day on June 10, the janitors have announced that they will strike for 48 hours.

Abuses like sexual harassment and wage theft, says Mendez, "happen so often in this industry that it's become really clear to us that if it's not made a bigger public issue, then it's not going to stop."

"As long as people don't know that this is happening," she continues, "and it just stays between a few workers and management, then it's going to keep happening."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers more information about what sexual harassment is and how workers who encounter it should respond.

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