The HWC reflects upon its efforts in 2011

By: Abbie Kretz, HWC Organizer On Thursday, December 15, the Heartland Workers Center (HWC) held its end-of-the-year members’ meeting.  Among the participants were workers representing the construction, meatpacking, cleaning, and restaurant industries, board members, and staff, who discussed why they value and what they envision for the HWC in 2012.  The discussion, led by board member Maria Teresa Gaston, brought forth a variety of ideas regarding the two questions.  For some members, their appreciation in the HWC is having a place where they can feel safe and respected in venting their frustrations, but at the same time, begin to look for solutions with other workers who are experiencing similar situations.  Others valued having a place where they can get honest answers to questions they have regarding a variety of issues, such as their rights as workers or the current political and social situation in which we find ourselves.

In discussing the goals for 2012, there was a general consensus among all workers that membership and leadership trainings need to increase.  This does not only mean an increase in numbers, but also in members’ commitment to the organization, as well as in identifying the organization as their own.  HWC Board member, Lizzeth Castellanos, stated, “the  main focus for next year should be organizing and strengthening the organization from the bottom up.“

But as we look toward 2012, it is important that we look back and reflect upon what 2011 meant for us, and how this past year’s events are guiding us into the new year.  As a result of the relationships and alliances formed throughout the year, the HWC has grown as an organization, strengthening its abilities in its three main focus areas:  leadership development, worker rights, and civic engagement.  We wanted to share some of those highlights with you.

Leadership Development

One of the HWC’s most important efforts has been building institutional relationships with the emerging Latino/a leaders, who represent different organizations throughout the Omaha area.  The purpose was to spark their interest in organizing themselves in order to work collectively on issues facing the entire community, rather than each individual organization being solely consumed with its own work.  During this process of organizing, leaders began to emerge and a broad-based organizing model began to take shape, taking on the name Allied Latino Organizations (or OLA for its name in Spanish), which is made up from representatives from 40 different organizations.  These kinds of political alliances are important and must continue to grow and strengthen in order to voice the concerns of the community, in a way in which it comes from those who are part of the community.

Another key turning point in the growth of the HWC has been its involvement with the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), a national alliance of Latino/a-led organizations across the United States and Latin America.  In strengthening its relationship with NALACC, the HWC organized the Mobile Leadership Institute at the local level in October.  Aside from that, the HWC was also the host organization for NALACC’s 8th Annual Leadership Assembly held November 11-13 in Downtown Omaha, in which 40 local leaders participated, as well as 90 from across the country.  The result of both of these events is two-fold: 1. They allowed local leaders to receive training from a variety of high-quality trainers from across the country, and 2. They exposed the HWC and the work we are doing in Omaha to new audiences, at both the local and national levels.

As part of the NALACC Assembly, the HWC hosted the “Turning Challenges into Opportunities” reception and dinner.  With prominent Mexican politician Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as the Keynote Speaker, he challenged the audience – composed of organizations, politicians, funders, and workers - to be more active in the fight for immigrant rights in the U.S., especially when understanding where they come from and how they got here.

Worker Rights

In 2011, health and safety has been a major focus of our work.  For that reason, the HWC partnered with the OSHA-Omaha office and the Carpenter’s Union in providing OSHA trainings for workers in construction.  Through these trainings, workers become more aware of who OSHA is, and what are the rights and responsibilities of both employer and employee in a business relationship.  These types of trainings are important, especially as we see a variety of new small Latino/a construction companies emerging, in order for them to be in compliance with the law.

Aside from health and safety, one of the major issues affecting workers in all industries is wage theft (which is when workers are not paid for the work they have done).  Of the 128 worker issues we have seen throughout 2011, approximately 31 percent of them were for wage theft.  Although we are not a social service organization, in working together with workers regarding specific issues, problems affecting the community begin to surface, at times, ones which can no longer be addressed on a case-by-case basis, but rather through collective actions, such as wage theft.

Civic Engagement

Through the formation of OLA, its creation of political alliances, and its education important community issues, we have become participants in the public arena, rather than just spectators or subjects to be discussed.  As a result, we have created alliances with public officials, such as State Senators Burke Harr, Jeremy Nordquist, Brenda Council, and Brad Ashford, as well as with Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle.  And as we enter into another legislative session and political year, the formation of these alliances (amongst ourselves and with public officials) is evermore important in order to build a community that truly works for all.

As we move into 2012, the HWC will continue to focus in these three areas.  In doing so, the decision was made by the HWC members and Board of Directors to expand our organizing efforts.