Somos un Pueblo Unido
Emmanuelle Leal Santillán
Lluvia Ramírez Orozco was fired from her job at a Santa Fe hotel after she complained about being forced to work without pay. “I was told to look for another job,” said Ramírez Orozco. “I had been cleaning rooms there for over a year and would have to clock out before finishing my work.” Months later, she was not only able to get her job and stolen wages back, but she helped her co-workers do the same. Today, they have positioned themselves as a force to be reckoned with—on and off the clock.
For years the families who make up Somos Un Pueblo Unido have worked hard to make New Mexico a better place for low-wage workers and their families. In 2002, it was a group of immigrant women in Santa Fe that laid the foundation for a successful campaign to pass a state law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented workers. Shortly after, they worked with local unions and community groups to raise the city’s minimum wage. And in 2009, they pushed for a state anti-wage theft law aimed at protecting all workers from unscrupulous employers who steal their hard-earned money.
In spite of those and many other wins, low-wage workers, unprotected by union contracts, continued to see their rights violated on the job. And so through Somos, they began retooling old models of workplace organizing, making them relevant in today’s labor market.
The United Worker Center of New Mexico (UWC), founded by Somos in 2012, is working to help small groups of hotel-, restaurant- and other workers win big changes through small collective actions. In the last five years, the UWC has helped form more than 50 worksite committees to organize for improved working conditions. Together they recovered more than $1 million in stolen wages and back pay and fought sexual harassment, discrimination and health and safety violations.
“Many of the workers we see coming to our worker center are women,” said Rayos Burciaga, community organizer and co-founder of Somos’ worker center.
“They are moms with children who depend on their paychecks,” explained Burciaga. “They come in wanting to advocate for themselves out of necessity, desperation and outrage over their working conditions.”
Ramírez Orozco paid a visit to the UWC and quickly began organizing a worksite committee with some of her co-workers. At first they faced various forms of retaliation. Hours were cut and workers were threatened. But because their collective actions are protected under federal labor laws that were originally meant for unions, they were able to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and win reinstatement of hours and protection.
“Every hard-earned dollar that I was not getting paid was one dollar less I had to provide for my children,” said Ramírez Orozco. “I needed to find a way and Somos helped me understand that with my co-workers, I was stronger.”
Like Ramírez Orozco, many other women are successfully using this tool to change their lives and build power in the workplace. It is an innovative tool that has caught the attention of academics, labor activists and national news media like The New York Times.
Cecilia Lara, a Blake’s Lotaburger kitchen worker in Santa Fe, joined 10 co-workers to organize against repeated sexual harassment. “They laughed at us when we complained,” recalled Lara. “They thought we were weak and that we would not speak up for ourselves… Our manager would tell us that Mexican women are whores and other very vulgar comments,” said Lara. “But we were very aware that we could get fired if we spoke up.”
But after seeking help at the UWC, they organized a committee to gain protection against retaliation, filed various complaints and staged a protest. The strategy worked. “We forced our store to implement new sexual harassment policies, ban the regional supervisor from stepping foot in our store and won a pay increase,” said Lara. “And our work is not over. We are still fighting for all the other workers at Lotaburger, but at least we are doing it together.”
These women are standing up to those in power and, in the process, they find themselves transformed. “They lift themselves up, take great pride in what they accomplish and in turn teach their own children and families about defending their rights,” said Burciaga. “We all deserve to be treated fairly, with respect, and should be allowed to work with dignity,” said Brenda Bojórquez, another member of the Blake’s Lotaburger Workers Committee.
By lifting themselves up, they are raising the floor for all workers in New Mexico.
For more information about your rights as a worker, contact the United Worker Center of New Mexico at 505.983.6247, or go to somosunpueblounido.org
Emmanuelle “Neza” Leal Santillán is communications coordinator for Somos Un Pueblo Unido. Santa Fe: 505.424.7832, Roswell: 575.622.4486, ç