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Organizing Low-Wage Workers

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PHOTO COURTESY OF ELSA CABALLERO
Elsa Caballero organizes workers in a right-to-work state.

Elsa Caballero knows only one way to make a living: fighting for other people’s rights. Caballero is the state director for Service Employees International Union Local 1, which led Houston’s janitors to victory in their fight for an improved contract in August. But when she was 16, Caballero was just a kid who needed a job.

She had emigrated with her family from Honduras to Pasadena when she was 12 years old. Her parents made little money, so as soon as Caballero was old enough, she started working at a job she got through an internship with the city, in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Caballero liked the work and proved invaluable as a translator. So while still a kid herself, she started answering the hotline for women and youth in crisis. She stayed on for years.

Meanwhile, Caballero wed and had three children. When her husband got a job in Oakland, California, the family moved there, and Caballero continued doing nonprofit work, finding housing and jobs for the homeless. “It became real to me how people could go from having a place to live one day, their family in an apartment or a home, and then lose their job, sometimes through no fault of their own, and within a month they’re homeless,” she says. “In California, at the time, with the housing market the way it was, it was so hard to find these folks a place to live even after they had gotten a job.”

Caballero saw firsthand what could happen when wages didn’t keep up with the cost of living. “So I was talking to some friends of mine who worked in the labor movement,” she says, “and it dawned on me that this work was something I would like, because it was dealing with the problem before they became homeless. It was helping people maintain jobs, and if jobs were good-paying, that could stop these people from being homeless. So I started an internship and I really liked the work and have been doing that since.”

Caballero’s first campaign organized workers in nursing homes in Los Angeles. “It was very interesting,” she says, “because there were a lot of non-union workers in nursing homes [in Los Angeles], but in Oakland, where they had been organized for a long time, nursing home workers had so much better standards. They made better money, and they had benefits. And they were doing the exact same work.”

Organizing was rewarding, but Caballero says it came with a cost. The L.A. campaign meant six months away from her family, and even when campaigns were closer to home, they required 12-hour days and sometimes more. “As an organizer, you make choices. It’s more than just a job to me, and you make sacrifices for it,” she says. “I’m not complaining, because that’s a choice I made. I didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. I wanted to feel like I was building something better, a future that was better not just for other folks but for my kids.”

Caballero says she tries to involve her children in her work when she can. “They come help me at rallies, and sometimes they come to meetings and just listen. I think it’s helped them have a whole different perspective about what life is really like for working people.”

In Oakland, Caballero organized home health workers and hospital workers. Then her work took a more personal turn. “I had the opportunity to work with developmentally disabled kids in California, to try to increase funding for them as part of my job. Later on, I found out that my son was developmentally disabled himself. Being able to talk to those families when I was organizing helped me ID that my son was autistic early on.”

A year and a half ago, Caballero got the chance to move her family back to the Houston area, where the rest of her relatives live, and take on the janitor’s strike. She found Texas a more challenging organizing environment because the laws “favor companies much more,” she says. But the workers and their needs are the same. “People don’t organize just because all of a sudden they want to take on this fight. They have problems and they’ve tried to address them on their own and they can’t. They’ve tried for years.”

She says the hardest part of being an organizer isn’t the long days or the calls at all hours from frightened workers. It’s being so close to people she can’t do more for. “You hear their stories and their heartbreak,” she says, “what their lives are like. They make such a huge commitment to fight alongside you. Many of them lose their jobs. Many get targeted or harassed by management. That’s what makes the wins so great. I never think it’s enough. I’m always going to want to take them and fight for more, but ultimately it’s got to feel right for them. It’s got to be their win, not mine.”

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.