Grassroots: Central Ohio Worker Center Fights for Workers’ Rights
It’s easy to feel invisible as a minimum wage worker, washing dishes as people gather and socialize over brunch, or whacking weeds as the neighborhood joggers pass by. These workers no doubt contribute to the growing success of the city, but their minimum wage status often allows for this success to hover over them, just out of reach.
There to help lift them up is the Central Ohio Worker Center (COWC), an organization that supports workplace rights and equity.
“Columbus is seen and built as this opportunity city and smart city and all these hashtags. And what’s featured on the high gloss magazines is the building and the presentation of food, but what you don’t see are the workers,” said Rubén Castilla Herrera, COWC co-founder. “We let people know that they exist.”
COWC became a formal 501(c)(3) organization about three years ago, but its core members — Herrera, Uli Cruz, Nick Pasquarello, and Jessica (who asked her last name not be used) — were meeting for several years before that. What brought them together was May Day, an annual worldwide celebration and advocation for immigrant and worker justice.
Further inspired by groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization, the group established COWC to affect similar change locally.
In their outreach to the minimum wage working population, COWC educates people on the rights they have as employees, protects them when those rights are violated, and is organizing to change the policy that allows those violations.
Herrera said that, because of the blend of people who are low-wage workers, COWC bases its work on intersectionality. Minimum wage workers tend to belong to other marginalized groups, identifying as queer or trans, belonging to the immigrant community, or living over the age of 50.
On the fringe, it’s easy to be taken advantage of, with employers attempting wage theft or withholding overtime pay. COWC works with lawyers from the Moritz College of Law to put pressure on employers and resolve workplace issues on a case by case basis.
To know more about the issues these workers are facing, the organization is currently circulating a survey that asks them about their pay, benefits, and working conditions. It also inquires about discrimination and healthcare.
“From that information we are going to go into actual policy, working within our own group or with other organizations,” said Cruz, “and that’s how you create policy. You first listen to the people, and then you create policy.”
The survey won’t be found online. COWC relies heavily on interpersonal exchange, and its core members don’t do their work from the office. They hand surveys out personally, believing relationship-building to be the first step to widespread change.
This method of outreach facilitates their Sanctuary in the Streets (SIS) project as well, which is creating a network of sanctuary spaces throughout the city. The project starts with prevention, which involves SIS members going into the community — grocery stores, churches, events, work sites, schools, homes, flea markets, the streets — and building trust with those who are undocumented and vulnerable. SIS members hand out “Know Your Rights” information that includes a hotline to report ICE raids.
SIS will also respond to these raids and other deportation events and support detained immigrants and their families.
While aiding families in their realtime struggles, COWC continuously works behind the scenes to change the system that creates them. Their short term goals are to gather enough workplace data to form policy, and help marginalized people move throughout the workforce by creating interim drivers licenses or municipal IDs.
The best way to get involved and support COWC would be to donate, as they are sustained completely by fundraising and small grants.
For more information, visit centralohioworkercenter.org.