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Women’s History Month: Women in Worker Centers

Women's History Month reminds us women have come a long way from the ubiquitous Rosie the Riveter icon. As the nature of work and the American workforce changes, so too have models of worker representation and the role women play. The service sector of our economy is growing and more people are working in the restaurant, domestic and retail industries. Organizers are finding creative ways to advocate for better working conditions for service and domestic workers through worker centers. Worker centers also can work outside the traditional union structure to advocate in fields that in fact are unionized.

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, we’re highlighting two amazing female leaders in the labor movement who both serve as executive directors for their respective worker centers—Nikki Lewis of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of D.C. and D.C. Jobs with Justice, and Cristina Tzintzun of the Workers Defense Project.

Cristina Tzintzun, Workers Defense Project

Tzintzun has been a part of the Workers Defense Project (WDP) for 10 years and has served as executive director for the past seven. WDP is a worker center in Texas that organizes workers in the construction industry. According to Tzintzun, “Our goal is really to shift the power balance in the state away from business interests and back towards working people….and each year we have about 3,000 people that come in and out of our organization.”

Always having a keen interest in the intersection of immigrant and workers' rights, WDP truly gave Cristina the opportunity to follow through and make a tangible difference in both of those communities. The worker center has just opened a second office in Dallas and is really working to implement a statewide strategy to change and improve the construction industry. “We’re up against a lot in Texas and it’s an industry that dominates our legislature and a lot of the different policies, both economic and business,” Tzintzun says.

In the past 12 months, WDP has had some serious tangible victories with the creation of 5,000 good construction jobs in Texas that will ensure living wages, safety training and follow certain local hiring criteria that benefit workers. It also monitors such standards ensuring they are upheld, and have won those with some of the largest corporations in the world, including Apple and Trammell Crowe, the largest real estate developer in the country.

Last month, the center had its Day of the Fallen, a day that commemorates those who have died on the job. With 100 construction deaths in Texas last year and 138 the year before, Texas is the deadliest state for construction workers in the country—it far surpasses any state.

“[It] is our statewide day of action for our pro-worker legislative agenda, where we do collaborations with the building trades unions, state partners and low-wage workers in the state, focusing on issues of misclassification, wage theft, safety and prevailing wage as well. At that rally we had every single legislative office march to the capital with gigantic puppets and construction workers and a high school marching band, and it was a really, really fun rally. We do it in memory of all the construction workers that have died and seek to really change how the industry works so that people don’t have to be injured or lose their life needlessly.”

After 10 years with WDP, Tzintzun does not see herself leaving anytime soon.

“I think to build any power in a place like Texas requires a long-term commitment and I’m committed to seeing real power be built for workers, so I’d be happy and honored to continue building that with our members over the long haul. About 52% of the workforce lives below the poverty line and one in five experiences wage theft. So we have a lot of challenges and a long way to go.”

Nikki Lewis, Restaurant Opportunity Centers of D.C., D.C. Jobs with Justice

Lewis has been involved with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of DC (ROC-DC) for the last four years. ROC-DC is part of a national network of worker centers collectively referred to as Restaurant Opportunity Centers United; they share the mission of improving working conditions and wages for workers.

“We are an organization for and by restaurant workers, but we also organize restaurant employers and consumers since they are all part of this industry. Our theory of change says to build power for workers by helping them with legal violations and doing workplace justice campaigns at real workplace fights,” Lewis explains.

She credits the worker center for giving her an outlet to work through years of frustration she had encountered as a self-described lifelong restaurant worker:

“I was pretty much brought up in that American mentality of pull yourself up by your bootstraps, so I felt very alone, and that all the problems I was experiencing were not uniquely my own but that it was my responsibility to do something about it….when I finally found ROC, I had experienced so much bad stuff, you know—I had been stolen from, not consistently [been] able to get paid, or make enough money, going to work sick—all this struggle.”

At ROC-DC, Lewis became a member and leader of the policy and research committee before eventually becoming the ROC-DC lead coordinator, a position that she has held for the last year. Focusing on issues in the District specifically, ROC-DC is  working to win earned paid sick days and an increase to the base tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour while supporting the Healthy Families Act and an anti-wage theft bill. ROC also offers free classes to restaurant workers so they can get the training they need to move up to higher-tier jobs and professionalize the industry, and promotes restaurants that are “doing good by their business” through its Diners’ Guide.

Lewis is now working for DC Jobs with Justice (DC JWJ) and serves as its new executive director.

“[DC JWJ and ROC-DC] have the same values; we’ve been fighting in solidarity. It doesn’t feel like I’m leaving ROC, it just feels like I’m taking on another role in the D.C. labor community. And whatever I learn, it’s not [just] my information, I will share it with future leaders at ROC, at Jobs with Justice, whoever I mentor, who mentors me and all of these communities.”

Working in Male-Dominated vs. Female-Dominated Industries

Interestingly, Lewis and Tzintzun have had very different experiences within the industries they organize. The construction Industry is typically very male dominated while the restaurant industry is very female. And for Tzintzun, at times it has been difficult being a young woman of color working in this field. She explains:

“In some ways I think folks from the construction industry, particularly through labor unions and also business leaders, have been skeptical of an organization that’s run by mostly women, and also very young women and also many women of color. So I think that we’ve had to work twice as hard to prove ourselves and that we’re serious about organizing and changing the industry.”

Even though the majority of workers In the restaurant industry are women, men are usually in positions of authority and often take advantage of the women working under them. According to Lewis:

“I could talk about that all day! I’ve experienced tons of sexual harassment and not just harassment, but direct violation of my actual space from many men, from not just managers but also from co-workers and customers. And often it’s never resolved. It’s awful and just kind of accepted.”

Despite their work with different demographics, Lewis and Tzintzun both believe their role as women organizers helps them do their jobs better. Tzintzun says, “Working with a very male-dominated workforce in some way is actually easier as an organizer. So when we go to worksites, it’s easier to get workers to talk to us and feel more confident.” Lewis agrees:

“I think in our minds we’ve been constructed to see male as leadership—if you look at our government or whatever of the society that we live in. It’s a construction, but in reality men and women are working equally as hard on different issues and I don’t know, I think maybe women have a softer, intuitive side, you know. Like we’re able to communicate our emotions and feeling and what not, and that’s a skill that's really important in organizing—being able to relate to people and build trust so that they stick their necks out and do something courageous and out of the ordinary, and so I think women, we have a natural place in the labor movement.”

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that WDP and ROC-DC not only have very strong female leaders, but also completely female-run staffs. Lewis thinks it makes sense for ROC-DC:

“The restaurant industry is majority women so that may have something to do with it…they are hardworking but they’re not considered traditional labor. It would make sense if we believe in organizing by the people for the people who are affected, then of course women are going to be involved in the new worker center model. I think historically in the movement—if you’re looking at civil rights, the women;s suffrage movement or the abolition of slavery, women are always behind it. They don’t get credit as men do, and glorified, but we are always there and we are also the people on the ground doing a lot of hard work.”

In WDP however, where the workforce is male, Tzintzun offers a different perspective:

“You know we live in a society where women don’t have as much power as men and so there’s something really empowering about working within a really male-dominated industry but then having a voice and power at the table, and using that for good. So I think that the organization attracts people because they see other women in leadership and feel that they can do that, too. So it inspires other young women to be involved.”

It is truly remarkable to see the great work that women have been doing in workplace organizing and Lewis and Tzintzun are great examples. This is a true testament to the diversity, inclusivity and acceptance of the labor movement today. These new models of representation, and the brave people leading them, are giving thousands of workers the chance to be heard on the job and are changing millions of lives.

Tzintzun agrees:

“When given the opportunity to participate in coalitions with diverse people and diverse interests, [everyone is] very willing to do so. You know, I think why the last action we did is so beautiful to me is that we’re not letting the industry divide us, that we’re standing together with workers that are black, that are brown, that are white, that are undocumented and documented, that speak English and don’t and only speak Spanish. And so I think that for me, I’ve been really impressed to see how willing the building trades are to work across all of those things that people see as barriers, because we really have a common mission and vision to see all workers treated equally.”

And though Tzintzun is speaking specifically about the construction industry, the same is true for what the labor movement is building, and women are a huge part of that.

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