Shelly Ruzicka, a communications and development director at Arise Chicago, shed light on the history of the labor rights’ movement and called for more legal protections for workers in a lecture on Sept.28 in the Founder’s lounge.
During the Cesar Chavez intercultural lecture, Ruzicka connected Arise Chicago, a labor rights organization, with the work of Cesar Chavez, who was a labor and civil rights’ activist in the 1960s.
“One thing that Chavez did and something we do at Arise... We organize what is sometimes called, the unorganizable: low wage immigrant workers who are working really difficult jobs including... farm workers,” she said.
Ruzicka’s activism started at EC, where she graduated from in 2006. As a student, she worked toward implementing fair trade coffee at EC, and after graduation started at Arise as an intern.
Ruzicka also discussed how there are some groups of workers who did not benefit from the labor protections passed in the ‘30s because they were excluded from the labor protection laws.
“Farmworkers and domestic workers are two groups of workers that particularly face a lack of resources and lack of legal protections,” she said.
Ruzicka explained that such legal exclusion for these workers in the past has negatively impacted labor laws today.
“Doing so legally wrote sexism and racism into our laws,” she said. “We’re keeping these communities in poverty but not giving them the basic human rights like the minimum wage. Sadly, the remnants of those laws are still on the books today, especially at the state level.”
However, there has been a positive step forward for labor rights, at least in IL. The IL domestic workers’ rights bill, which ensured that domestic and home care workers were paid the minimum wage, grant- ed one day of rest every seven days and protected from sexual harassment while on the job was signed into law this past summer.
Still, Ruzicka had harsh words for IL Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“It passed not at all because of this governor. It passed be- cause of the domestic worker leaders who fought for this for five years,” she said in an interview with The Leader.
“Bruce Rauner is very anti-worker, anti-union governor in my opinion, and in many people’s opinions,” Ruzicka added.
During the interview, Ruzicka also discussed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s record on workers’ rights.
“[Emanuel] does have a contentious relationship with a lot of unions like the Chicago’s teacher union,” she said. “It’s actually too bad that the relationship is so bad because the Chicago teacher’s union is perhaps one of, if not the, most progressive and holistic-approach unions in the country fighting for not just their jobs, [but also] for their students and their communities.”
Ruzicka also emphasized a recurring issue in the work-place: wage theft
“Arise Chicago has recovered 6.9 million dollars in wage theft. Over one million dollars is lost for low wage workers in Cook County alone,” she said.
Ruzicka recalled several cases of wage thefts that Arise worked on, many of which were at small businesses. However, she stressed that wage theft also often occurs.
“It was at a downtown Dunkin Donuts. Workers reported different forms of wage theft,” she said. “The workers got together and said ‘that is not right.’ [Arise] approached the employer and the employer didn’t want to talk to us. And so we made some giant donuts and we went
downtown and chanted things like ‘Dunkin donuts, not wages!’”
Ruzicka explained how such issues like wage theft are combated by unions. She stressed the importance of unions in promoting democracy and a balance of power in the workplace.
“We talk about, at Arise, shifting the dynamics in power,” she said. “Unions are saying we want a collective voice, we want to be able to bargain with our CEO and say ‘we have some ideas on how to run things, we have some ideas on how much we think we can get paid.’ Let’s have a balance of power, let’s bring democracy into the workplace.”
Unions and nonprofits such as Arise do not have to be the only groups fighting issues such as wage theft and sexual harassment in the workplace. In an interview with The Leader, Ruzicka discussed small ways in which EC students can work for labor rights.
“If you’re working a job, make sure your rights are upheld as well,” she said. “We are consumers. If you go out to a restaurant, you know you’re tipping your server. If I’m paying with my card, I ask them ‘if I put the tip on the card, will you get it?’ If not, I try to tip in cash.”
“Also, stay politically engaged. Vote for people that you think are doing good things for workers,” Ruzicka added. “Stay engaged in your community. Get involved on campus ... Join an organization, join some group that [does] something you care about.”