US Representative Keith Ellison (in red CTUL shirt) and Minnesota Representative Jim Davnie join CTUL hunger strikers on the picket line, Sunday, May 29, 2011. Courtesy CTUL.net.

When I was growing up in the ’70s, I shared a paper route with my brother. He did the mornings, I helped him in the evenings, and our parents sometimes helped us on the weekends — if nothing else by making sure we got out of bed on time.

The paper we delivered was the St. Paul Pioneer Press in the morning and the St. Paul Dispatch in the afternoon; the two papers were once separate entities, but were both bought by the Ridder company in 1927, and ever since then were essentially the same paper. In 1990, as TV news continued to eat into print media’s market share, the Dispatch was shut down and the PiPress has been a morning-only paper ever after.

The Pioneer Press was and is a “union” newspaper, in that its reporters belong to a union, the Minnesota Newspaper Guild. Most major newspapers have a unionized reporting staff; this has been the case for decades. The people who deliver the paper to your front door, however, are not unionized employees of that paper. In fact, they’re technically not even employees of the paper, but “independent contractors”, which in essence means they get paid a pittance (and in our case the pay depended on going door-to-door each month to collect the subscription fees, which we didn’t mind doing as at least that way we could get tips or even Christmas bonuses, which didn’t happen when subscribers opted for automatic renewal by mail or credit card).

The “independent contractor” concept shows up in other fields, too. Did you know that Vince McMahon’s wrestlers aren’t actually employees of the WWE, but “independent contractors”? That means that Vince doesn’t have to do diddly in terms of providing benefits, sensible work hours, or job security. That means that he can overwork them as much as he wants without letting them have time to rest and recover — and that means that alcohol and drug use and abuse is rampant, as it’s hard to take such a punishing schedule unless you’re sloshed or doped to the gills, and often not even then. (Jesse Ventura’s first brush with politicking was when he attempted to form a union in the 1980s back when he worked for Vince McMahon — oh, pardon me, I meant was “an independent contractor whose paychecks just happened to come from Vince McMahon”.)

This brings me to discussing the persons that clean the stores belonging to local grocery chains such as Cub Foods. While other grocery-store workers, both at Cub and at stores like Rainbow and Byerlys, are unionized employees, the cleaning people are all too often “independent contractors”, which in their case means they work for an agency that farms them out to various stores and pays them a pittance, thus allowing the grocery-store chain to avoid paying them a living wage, much less provide benefits or acceptable working conditions:

All night long, Jose Garcia performs his job while surrounded by food — a painful bit of irony, he says.

The 52-year-old Mexican immigrant works the overnight shift cleaning floors inside a Cub Foods store in Minneapolis, Minn., a job he’s mostly appreciated for the nine years he’s held it down. But lately, waxing aisle after aisle filled with groceries has simply reminded him of how little he has.

Despite his long tenure with the same cleaning company, Garcia says he earns a wage of $9 an hour — more or less the same rate he was making when he started cleaning floors back in 2002. Taking inflation into account, his salary has effectively gone down since he started working on the cleaning crew.

There are times when he can’t afford as much food as he’d like. He says it pains him to see workers at the store throw out unsold perishables like roasted chicken at the end of the night.

These are jobs that once were good union jobs held by unionized employees. Not any more. They’re all contracted out to third-party companies, who sometimes subcontract to other companies, all in the quest to keep wages low even as the workload grows.

The contracting agencies depend on exploiting the labor of people like Mr. Garcia, immigrants who may not be aware of what rights they may have as workers in America — and may find themselves trapped in untenable situations as a result.

This is why Jose Garcia and his fellow cleaning-crew workers are saying: Enough!

At the Lake Street Cub Foods, CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha), began an open-ended hunger strike to change the unfair wages and working conditions of workers who clean Cub Foods and other Twin Cities stores.

For over a year cleaning workers have asked Cub Foods to negotiate a Code of Conduct ensuring fair wages and working conditions for the workers who clean their stores. Ten years ago, many workers who clean Cub Foods made up to $10-$11 an hour. Now, most workers make as little as $7.50 an hour and the workload has doubled. The workers’ requests for dialogue with Cub have been ignored and in one incident peaceful protesters and bystanders were pepper-sprayed by Cub security.

“Every night we work in grocery stores and are surrounded by food, yet often many of us cannot even afford to feed our families. I am hunger striking to bring to light the injustices workers face every day cleaning Cub Foods and to call on Cub Foods to meet with us,” said Mario Colloly Torres, a former cleaner at Cub Foods and who was fired from his job after the protests against Cub began.

One thing that the wrestlers, paperkids, and cleaning crews here have in common is that society has been encouraged to think of them and their concerns as trivial. This is especially true in the case of the cleaning crews, where because so many of the cleaners happen to possess darker skins and non-Midwestern accents, the specter of bigotry plays an unsavory role.

It will be interesting to see who sides with whom in this fight. Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 union, which has endorsed the campaign, are appearing at the CTUL protests in solidarity on the picket line with the CTUL hunger strikers. Sadly, some persons one would expect to be sympathetic to CTUL’s cause are in fact very friendly with Cub Foods management, and may well want to keep on the good side of Mike Erlandson, the former DFL party chair who now works for Cub’s parent chain, SuperValu.

Time will tell.

(Crossposted to Mercury Rising and Renaissance Post.)