'This is a community building': Local worker advocacy group opens space to offer mutual aid, organizing follow Floyd death

Since 2007, the labor advocacy group Centro De Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha , or CTUL, has organized to empower workers in the Twin Cities to call for fair wages, safe working conditions and a stronger voice within the workplace.

The organization currently has campaigns that are working with those employed in the fast food and retail cleaning industry and played a role in Minneapolis' decision to raise the minimum wage to $15.

But in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis, the organization has turned to providing mutual aid to those who have been affected in the city's south side and greater community after businesses providing essential services were destroyed during recent unrest. 

With CTUL's building situated just north on Chicago Avenue from where Floyd was killed, CTUL communications organizer Isa Escalona said it only made sense the organization open its doors to the community.

As protests and demonstrations formed in the Twin Cities while COVID-19 remains a threat, CTUL member Ignacia Ambriz said the organization worked to supply protesters with hand sanitizer and masks.

"It was just, 'We're going to hand out face masks, water and hand sanitizer,' but because the community is the way it is, that we're always there for each other, they started donating more and more and more," Ambriz said.

Ambriz and Escalona said within days, CTUL was receiving donations of food, baby products, hygiene products and other household goods meant to help the community.

As the donations rolled in, Ambriz said her thoughts went to, "How are we going to do this? This building is not a food shelf."

She added, "We just decided to step up, help, organize and be ready. At that time, I didn't have any idea how this happened, but we knew it was our building, it was our people, it was our community and we just needed to get it done."

In the first initial days of the mutual aid, Escalona said they saw hundreds come to CTUL who needed aid.

"As soon as we get donations, they are out the door," she said.

During the organization's mutual aid operations, community members were able to come to the building for assistance or have needed goods delivered to their homes.

While the aid has expanded beyond face masks and PPE to help prevent the spread, providing those materials is still at the forefront of CTUL members' efforts.

CTUL board member Lloyd Brown said he spent time in north Minneapolis handing out around 500 face masks, and handed out nearly 1,000 to people in the crowd outside Floyd's memorial in Minneapolis.

Brown says it's been promising to see the kind of mutual aid that has occurred during the last few weeks in the Twin Cities.

"It's heartwarming, minus the destruction and the pandemic that's going on," Brown said. "It still gives you a sense of love in the community."

Looking for ways to help? Here are some community, donation resources in Twin Cities

For Brown, the work of providing masks and PPE for those who are protesting or volunteering is key to the workplace advocacy CTUL works toward.

"Who's got to go and rebuild the city?" Brown asked. "Workers. Some of the same people protesting got to go back to a job. They have to be safe. They should be safe to go in there and safe to go back to their community."

To continue the mission of keeping workers safe, Brown and CTUL plan to distribute PPE kits that also inform workers of their rights in regards to the pandemic.

Providing space for organizing 

While mutual aid has been a large focus for CTUL in the past weeks, Escalona says the worker advocacy group is turning its focus back to organizing. 

The mutual aid operation has been moved to the Bahá'í Temple just across Chicago Avenue. 

CTUL shares a building with the Central Area Neighborhood Association and Inxquilinxs Unidxs, but has opened its space to Black Visions Collective and other allied groups. 

"Organizing is what the space is usually used for," Escalona said. 

By opening the space, CTUL and groups they are working with are able to collaborate to reach common goals, Escalona said. She specifically pointed to the organizing work CTUL did with Reclaim the Block as the city of Minneapolis worked on its 2019 budget. Escalona said while the work was centered on defunding the Minneapolis Police Department, the two organizations called for additional wage theft investigators to be added to the city staff. 

"It's a very integrated kind of fight together," Escalona said. 

Along with organizing around the future of policing, Escalona says CTUL hopes to be at the table as the metro looks to rebuild.

"There is a lot of questions about what development will look like moving forward and we want to ensure community voices are at the forefront, not just corporate and businesses making decisions of what these places are going to look like," she said.

To continue the conversations around the future of public safety in Minneapolis, Escalona says people need to remain engaged. She said the group's work in providing mutual aid may help with that aspect of organizing as volunteers may return for other opportunities with CTUL.

"The mutual aid was a very immediate need, and even though it's not something we normally do, looking forward, there may be opportunities for people to volunteers," she said.  "I think the mutual aid effort of the last week two weeks required, and had so many volunteers and people in and out of the building who are then in the process of learning of our goals of worker organizing."

NOTE: Those looking to donate to mutual aid efforts can continue to do so at the Bahá'í Temple. CTUL continues to accept donations of masks, PPE and hand sanitizer. 

Other mutual aid sites can also be found here