On Tuesday, May 23, members of Carleton’s Union Solidarity Association and Wellstone House gathered in Leighton 236 to learn from special guest speaker Tre Tellor.
Tellor comes from a family of sharecroppers and miners, so “labor was always a part of the culture at home.” A self-described “pink diaper baby” — a play on the turn of phrase “red diaper baby,” which describes someone raised by parents with radical (typically communist) political views — Tellor’s family background eventually led him to organizing and working for social justice.
He envisions “a world where values of liberation and dignity of all human beings [are] upheld in the home, labor, and the entire community including the earth and our eco-sphere itself [through a] true and direct democracy, where every individual has agency in decision-making about meeting community needs and how we labor together to meet those needs.” Tellor is now the Worker Solidarity Coordinator for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), building worker power by fostering relationships with community members and organizations.
CTUL is a Minneapolis-based “worker-led organization where workers organize, educate and empower each other to fight for a voice in their workplaces and in their communities.” Their work includes significant contributions to the Retail Janitorial Campaign from 2010 to 2017, which sought an end to the downward spiral of wages and working conditions in the Twin Cities. After years of hard work, they made substantial progress in effectively ending wage theft, seeing an increase of almost double for wages across the industry and winning a Responsible Contractors Policy with Target Corporation. This is vital work, as Tre informed listeners that one in four jobs in these vulnerable positions is expected to face wage theft. CTUL has supported working people in winning back over $2.7 million in unpaid wages since 2007.
CTUL, Tellor mentioned in his talk, is based around the idea of “workers’ centers” rather than traditional unions. While both unions and workers centers are membership-based, the former engages directly with employers, while the latter organization does not. Tellor explained how CTUL’s approach lets workers focus on members’ leadership development. This is seen in the structure of workers’ centers as well, as the organization’s board is made up entirely of worker members. CTUL stresses that solidarity is the act of standing with — not for — someone else.
Tellor’s talk with Carleton students focused on the ways in which students and workers can find empowerment together. In breaking down the issue workers face, Tellor pointed out that pressuring banks and city governments requires more than just individual action. As a solution, Tellor introduced the idea of “self-interest.”
Tellor was met with mixed reactions — generally lukewarm, if not entirely negative — when he first brought up self-interest. However, Tellor defended this term by explaining his belief that self-interest bridges the gap between workers in need and community members who hold power. Both extreme selfishness and selflessness can have negative repercussions: Complete selflessness leads to burnout and martyrdom; complete selfisness begets a power-hungry “me-first” mentality. In the middle of this spectrum, Tellor asserted, self-interest lies. Tellor points to self-interest as the starting point for conversations between initially isolated groups.
The groups Tellor aims to connect with are students, neighborhood boards and communities of faith. Each group has unique self-interests and strengths they can bring to the fight for workers’ rights.
A neighborhood board’s self-interest, for example, includes the desire to increase property value, maintain localization and be part of the conversation in their neighborhood’s development. Compared with workers’ self-interest of safety and fair pay, workers and neighborhood boards share a common adversary: developers. Tellor argued that cooperation would develop from this shared point of interest as neighborhood boards bring time, voters, resolutions and sway in their city council that can help support workers’ rights. He described the process as one of enabling each group to “see each other’s personhood and begin to feel a level of responsibility. That feeling is apolitical.”
Similar logic applies to student populations. Tellor and the audience brainstormed what areas of student self-interest were relevant to CTUL. Students noted that “our future is at stake,” describing the disastrous consequences of allowing developers to manipulate vulnerable workers. Additionally, they expressed the desire to be on the “cutting edge” of progress and “escape the bubble of college” in the battle for workers’ rights. Finally, students also voiced their hopes for leveraging their education inside and outside of college for the cause, whether learning the specifics of the labor movement or improving their Spanish. Working from this place of self-interest, Tellor encouraged students to bring their energy, time, connection to institutions and large numbers to create positive change alongside CTUL.
This summer, Carleton students will be interning for CTUL and planning events for the coming 2023-2024 school year. You can learn more about CTUL, volunteer opportunities and internships at their website.
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