Ric Urrutia isn’t proud that he took a photo of the dead union member.
It was 2008. Urrutia was participating in a conference in Detroit for a pro-union nonprofit. He and other workers were scheming to wrest power away from union bigwigs and give it back to rank-and-file workers. In California, a turf war had broken out between the two unions vying to represent nurses: the California Nurses Association and the Service Employees International Union.
The executive director of the CNA was slated to deliver a keynote address at the conference. SEIU members rolled up in buses and stormed the meeting. They wanted to stop the executive director from speaking and force the CNA to back off from organizing in California. The protest turned violent; punches were exchanged. Someone slipped into a diabetic coma and died.
Urrutia snapped a photo of the dead SEIU member and sent it to a friend who runs a labor blog. The friend posted it, and readers were irate. A few days later, Urrutia and his friend opted to take the photo down.
Standing down is not something Urrutia excels at. The forty-year-old unabashed socialist peppers his language with class-war rhetoric. He waxes poetic about the Cuban revolution and keeps a tattered copy of The Marx-Engels Reader close by. He’s a member of the socialist labor group Solidarity and a researcher who has spent his career with labor unions and nonprofits digging up dirt and data on people in power.
He’s the kind of poster child that unions and social-justice nonprofits love to pin up. His parents are working-class Latin American immigrants. He’s easy to look at, often decked in preppy sweaters, ironed button-ups and thick-framed glasses. He’s quick-witted. He has workingman chops, having installed billboards, worked in restaurants and painted walls for a living. He moonlights as a bassist for various Denver-based bands, including Latin hip-hop group Debajo del Agua, the Afrobeat Latin-jazz group Pink Hawks, and the Latin ska group Roka Hueka.
But this spring, Urrutia turned away from the labor movement. He quit his gig with the labor nonprofit Colorado Jobs With Justice and started speaking publicly about problems with the progressive nonprofits and unions backing a statewide ballot measure that would raise the minimum wage incrementally from $8.31, the current rate, to $12 by 2020.
Urrutia says Amendment 70 was crafted by the group backing the bill’s pay-to-play executive committee. He says executive committee members — representatives of billionaire-funded unions and nonprofits connected to the Democratic establishment — shut out smaller, grassroots labor groups from voting. The executive committee ran polls and held focus groups to determine goals instead of basing them on what’s best for workers: a livable wage, Urrutia claims. And those focus groups comprised Latinos and whites but not African Americans, the population that would be most impacted by a minimum-wage hike. When Urrutia shared his criticisms of the $12-by-2020 proposal with Westword in the spring for this story, his former employer threatened to sue him for talking about campaign details with the press, as it violated a gag order that Urrutia had signed.
Meanwhile, Urrutia is scraping together rent by washing dishes, delivering pizza, and painting homes in Stapleton. He says the $12-by-2020 minimum wage will do little to improve his life or the lives of working-class families like the one he grew up in.
Urrutia’s parents were born in El Salvador, his father into poverty, his mother into wealth. They eloped and fled scandal to New York City just months before Urrutia was born, in 1976.
In El Salvador, his mother’s family hired domestic workers. On Long Island, she worked as one. His father worked as a janitor and in restaurants. Too broke to raise a kid, Urrutia’s parents sent him back to El Salvador to live with relatives, who cared for him until he was four. After saving enough money to take care of him, his mother returned for him and took him back to New York.
On Long Island, Urrutia attended a public school with a mix of working-class kids like himself and wealthy students. He had few close friends. His father worked long hours, drank at bars and was rarely home. His mother raised him, taking him to Catholic church on Sundays for one quick prayer before sneaking out to scour a flea market.
Ric and his father, Eduardo, in New York in 1983.
Courtesy of Ric Urrutia
Melancholy overwhelmed Urrutia at age twelve. As a teen, he took deranged photos of things like roadkill. In one photo, he’s splayed out like Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” next to an animal corpse ground up under rubber tread. In another photo, he humps a McDonald’s Playland Apple Pie Tree, the kind of creepy cartoonish decor the chain has long since abandoned.
He left Long Island at seventeen to attend college in Buffalo, where he floundered for a semester, then dropped out and returned home for a year and a half. Then he went to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he enjoyed photographing the few friends he had, his first forays into leftist activism, and some college sweethearts.
Urrutia met his true love, Karl Marx, in class. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, he found theories that explained inequities in his world, like why his dad worked in a restaurant that his family couldn’t afford to eat in. He started getting more involved in the labor movement and unions; one even paid him $250 a week to work a low-paying job at a record store. His mission: Try to organize the workers into a union.
It was the late ’90s. The movement against police violence raged in New York’s black neighborhoods.
Urrutia participated in demonstrations against the “plunger cops” who cuffed, beat, tortured and raped with a broken stick — possibly a toilet plunger — Haitian security guard Abner Louima, a crime for which the officers were convicted. Urrutia also protested the police-involved fatal shooting of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, a crime for which the officers were acquitted. The young activist photographed the vestibule where Diallo was shot, which had been shredded by bullets and turned into a graffiti-covered memorial where New York’s black community mourned.
At one of those protests, an older African-American pastor tried to rally the crowd by singing “We Shall Overcome.” The move struck Urrutia as an anachronistic attempt to placate youthful rage. He was relieved when he heard a younger man tell the preacher there wasn’t room for those old Civil Rights-era pacifist songs anymore.
In 2000, he started working for the Service Employees International Union, organizing janitors. The union represents some 1.5 million nurses, social workers, home-care providers, janitors and security guards around the country. Urrutia’s job at SEIU was his first taste of what he calls “union democracy.”
SEIU was leading negotiations between janitors at a mall in Connecticut and the contractor that employed them, securing the workers’ first-ever union contract, one that would supposedly improve pay and benefits. But during negotiations, the union made significant compromises. Members voted on whether they would adopt the contract. It was a split vote. At the meeting, an SEIU employee pointed out that one of the workers wasn’t there and that she would have supported the proposed contract. He voted in her stead. When the worker was later told what had happened, she said she would never have supported the compromise, Urrutia recalls. Urrutia saw union representatives sacrifice their members’ best interests for an expedient compromise.
He quit working for SEIU and shifted his focus away from labor to neighborhood-related grassroots organizing. He advocated for tenants’ rights, education and safety in the streets of the Bronx.
In 2001, he moved to Detroit to train activists on how to research corporations and public records in environmental-justice campaigns, then moved back to the East Coast to earn his master’s in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He graduated and moved to Denver, both for a soon-to-fail relationship and a job at the Front Range Economic Strategy Center, where he worked for a little more than a year sifting through government and corporate documents for evidence of corporate maleficence.
After leaving that gig in 2006, he worked various odd jobs for the next six years, including installing billboards, researching Denver Public Schools for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, and managing a pizza restaurant. He also worked as a union rep for slaughterhouse workers and as a personal banker at U.S. Bank, where he took hundreds of calls each day from disgruntled clients. He would come home spinning other people’s tales of financial woe to his comrades in the labor movement.
Around 2012, the Fight for $15 movement picked up steam in New York. The SEIU-led campaign organized hundreds of New York City fast-food workers to strike for a $15 minimum wage and a union. Although he was thousands of miles away in Denver, Urrutia was paying close attention.
The movement won an increase in New York and California and even spread internationally. Closer to home, McDonald’s workers in Northglenn went on strike in August 2013.
In 2014, hundreds of fast-food and health-care workers and janitors protested in Denver for a minimum-wage increase. Over the next two years, as many as 1,000 would rally at once, demanding a $15 minimum wage.
A coalition of labor and community groups joined forces in February 2014 and formed the Everyone Economy Network. The Front Range Economic Strategy Center, SEIU Local 105 (Denver’s chapter), the Bell Policy Center, Together Colorado and other progressive nonprofits and unions all brainstormed on how to aid Colorado’s low-income workers using the political system.
Democratic lawmakers took a cue from the budding movement. In 2015, they proposed a bill to allow municipalities to set their own minimum wage, hoping expensive cities like Denver could set a higher rate than the state’s. A Republican-led committee killed the bill.
The Democratic lawmakers also tried to push a bill to put a $12.50-by-2020 minimum-wage hike onto the 2016 ballot. That also tanked.
Advocates of a higher minimum wage decided to take the fight straight to the ballot. Out of the Everyone Economy Network came Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, the main committee supporting Amendment 70.
Meanwhile, Urrutia received a call from a friend who sat on the board of Colorado Jobs With Justice, a coalition representing workers’ rights. Jobs With Justice needed a researcher and organizer. Urrutia signed on in the summer of 2015 and was hopeful; his socialist comrades from Solidarity were actively involved in the organization, and it seemed like “a playground for radicals in the labor movement,” Urrutia says. He was eager to use his new job to push for a minimum-wage increase in Colorado.
Urrutia joined the steering committee of Colorado Families for a Fair Wage as a Jobs With Justice representative. He and others debated how much to increase the minimum wage in Colorado, which was $8.23 last year and has increased to $8.31 this year. A single parent with two children in Denver must make $30.44 an hour to live in the city, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. In Colorado as a whole, that parent of two needs $29.80. In one of the state’s poorest areas, Crowley County, a livable wage for that family would be $27.10. Urrutia and other organization representatives struggled with how much Colorado Families for a Fair Wage should ask for in the ballot measure, though Urrutia says nothing less than $15 should have been accepted. Polling suggested that the $12 minimum wage was “within reason,” says Urrutia.“So was a $15 one. That was radical three or four years ago. Now $15 is moderate.”
But many of the organizations involved in Colorado Families for a Fair Wage were just giving informal input. They couldn’t actually participate in the vote that determined the minimum-wage increase the campaign pushed.
Colorado Families for a Fair Wage has two levels of leadership. The top level consists of groups that donated $10,000 or more to the committee. Members include Together Colorado, SEIU Local 105, the Front Range Economic Strategy Center and representatives of other progressive groups, including the AFL-CIO. They have the power to vote, write grants and network with funders, says Mike Kromrey, executive director of Together Colorado. The lower level of leadership, the steering committee, can’t vote and cost groups $500 to join.
This pay-to-play model shut out smaller organizations like Jobs With Justice from having real power, Urrutia says. But more troubling to him was the fact that minimum-wage workers didn’t hold leadership positions on either the executive committee or the steering committee.
Andy Jacob, political director of Local 105, refutes Urrutia’s claim that low-income workers’ voices were shut out from the process just because they weren’t in meetings and didn’t have a vote.
“They were part of the table,” Jacob says. “We didn’t make big decisions without consulting our members,” who are dues-paying rank-and-file workers.
Andy Jacob, political director of SEIU Local 105.
There is nothing abnormal about groups having to donate a certain amount to vote in a ballot-measure campaign, Kromrey points out, adding that he has seen ballot-measure campaigns that require a $100,000 contribution for voting power. A $10,000 price tag on leadership actually lowers the bar of entry — one of the campaign’s goals, he says. Had a minimum-wage worker or a tiny nonprofit that doesn’t have $10,000 really wanted a vote, the executive committee probably would have found a way to let them have power, he adds. But nobody asked. The committee did allow organizations to pay some of their fees in staff time and other in-kind contributions.
Kromrey and other Amendment 70 backers argue that campaigns need funds to win in Colorado, where most ballot measures cost millions to promote.
The first major donation the executive committee secured, $225,000, came from the National Employment Law Project, a workers’-rights nonprofit. Colorado Families for a Fair Wage used the money to hire a polling firm that surveyed voters around the state. Then the campaign held focus groups that homed in on feedback from whites and Latinos.
The campaign decided not to spend any of that money holding focus groups with African Americans, says Kromrey. Campaign leaders believed black voters would back any minimum-wage hike that would sit well with the majority of Coloradans, and there wasn’t enough money to include all perspectives in focus groups, he continues.
Urrutia recoiled when the mostly white executive-committee members spoke about the exclusion of black focus groups at a campaign meeting. African Americans, whose median household income is far lower than that of Hispanics and whites, should have had more of a say in this campaign, he says.
“It was a mistake,” admits Jacob now. “You learn from that and you grow from that.”
The Reverend Reginald Holmes, a member of the African-American social-justice clergy coalition the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance and a pastor at New Covenant Alpha Omega Ministries, was asked in the spring to endorse the measure to his congregation. He refused. His biggest concern was that the proposal was asking for too little for minimum-wage workers.
“It doesn’t help that they didn’t have blacks in the focus groups,” Holmes says.
When the executive committee floated $12 by 2020 by the Colorado Families for a Fair Wage steering committee in late 2015 for feedback — polls showed $12 was the highest winnable amount, Jacob says — Urrutia and others expressed their concern, but not loudly. They didn’t stand on a table and shout their colleagues down. They didn’t lead a coup. As Urrutia tells it, they simply bowed their heads.
“I was powerless,” Urrutia recalls. “At Jobs With Justice, I was making $33,000 a year. Our budget was tight; our budget only spoke to a $30,000-a-year type salary. How do I, Ric Urrutia, you know, argue with [$225,000] that just got dropped on this coalition from some foundation. You can’t push back on that, at least not without losing your job or creating a great deal of tension with yourself as a nonprofit staffer.”
Front Range Economic Strategy Center executive director Felicia Griffin, Colorado People’s Alliance executive director Lizeth Chacon and 9 to 5 Colorado chapter director Neha Mahajan all met in the women’s bathroom after the executive committee brought the $12-by-2020 proposal to the table. They considered walking away from the campaign, says Chacon, and sticking to $15. Ultimately they decided to bend, buying into the polling data that showed $12 would be winnable.
Urrutia believes that executive-committee members would have mustered enthusiasm to propose a higher minimum wage had they been low-income workers directly affected by the hike. But most of the leaders who set the agenda on the executive committee earn $60,000 a year or far more. In 2015, Jacob brought in a salary of $61,572, according to filings with the U.S. Department of Labor. Griffin earned $61,566 in 2014, according to IRS filings. Their salaries are each more than $40,000 higher than the full-time minimum-wage workers they represent. In 2014, Kromrey brought in $98,398, according to Together Colorado’s IRS filing, more than five times the salary of a full-time minimum-wage worker.
As to Urrutia’s criticism that union brass and nonprofit directors would shoot for a higher goal if they, too, were minimum-wage workers, Jacob, a lifelong professional labor organizer, says he works tirelessly for his members, often sacrificing time with his family.
“You raise the most you can with the power you have,” Jacob says. “We’re dedicated to improving the lives of other people.”
In 2015, Jacob didn’t want to compromise SEIU’s commitment to $15 and a union. But in meetings with his members, they assured him that $12 was still worth fighting for — particularly if $15 was likely to lose. One woman asked him not to tell her a hike to $12 wouldn’t change her life, he recalls.
Together Colorado’s Kromrey wrote off $15 as a utopian goal from the beginning. This is traditionally purple-state Colorado, he figured. To win, the campaign would need some rural and moderate-Republican support. Republicans, who largely dominate in rural Colorado, have long loathed government regulation of businesses and have virulently opposed minimum-wage hikes. Few in rural Colorado would view $15 as “reasonable,” Kromrey says.
“I guess we made a decision that we wanted to win,” he says. “[The 2016 ballot measure] is not a livable-wage campaign.” It’s a fight to win as much of an increase for low-income workers as possible — even if it’s far less than they need to get by.
Reflecting on the proposal, Reverend Holmes says that $12 by 2020 is far from enough. He can’t imagine why well-intentioned people who want to improve the lives of workers would shoot so low, unless it was a political calculation.
“It is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard of,” he says. “This is actually a progressive idea? This is what we get from these progressive groups that represent churches and nonprofit organizations. They stand for the people? This is just a bad, bad proposal.”
Holmes likens this proposal to the 2016 presidential race. “This is the election where there is no good choice.... You almost have to vote for it because it’s all that there is.”
Urrutia made a deal with himself in the spring of 2016: He wouldn’t go to the members of Jobs With Justice and to other workers and tell them they should sell out the Fight for $15 by settling on $12 by 2020.
So when the Jobs With Justice board of directors decided to put its weight behind $12 by 2020 that spring, Urrutia and the board agreed to part ways. He signed a gag order, agreeing to stay mum about the details of the campaign in exchange for his employers paying out his accrued vacation days, covering his health and dental insurance for a few weeks, and providing him with a reference for any future employment.
As the campaign caught wind in the spring that Urrutia’s criticisms might be aired in public by way of this story, Jobs With Justice issued a statement of unconditional support for the ballot measure and sent Urrutia a cease-and-desist order, demanding that he quit talking about the campaign.
That document stated: “Your actions constitute a clear breach of the confidentiality agreement. This violation has jeopardized CO JWJ, the Colorado Families for a Fair Wage Coalition [sic], as well as other partner organizations. Your actions have and continue to damage organizational relationships that could severely impact the future of CO JWJ and have hurt our ability as an organization to fulfill our vision of fighting for workers and our communities.”
As of this writing, no lawsuit has been filed.
Colorado Families for a Fair Wage volunteers spent this summer collecting signatures to make it to the ballot. The volunteers submitted the required signatures during a press conference outside the Colorado Secretary of State’s office in August that was hijacked by the fast-talking, statistic-citing Republican operative Tyler Sandberg, who represents Keep Colorado Working, a group with a healthy war chest funded by restaurant, hospitality and other business groups. Sandberg blasted the minimum-wage amendment as misguided policy that would ultimately shutter businesses, slash jobs and “be bad for workers and bad for Colorado.”
Sandberg argues that businesses in the San Luis Valley and other rural areas have fewer resources than those in Denver and resort towns. Why should mom-and-pop restaurants in the San Luis Valley be forced to pay the same minimum wage as thriving Denver restaurants, he asks. He points to other states that have passed minimum-wage increases that have exemptions for rural areas and small-business owners and wonders why Amendment 70 makes no such compromises. According to Keep Colorado Working literature, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that “a smaller increase in the federal minimum wage — to $10.10 per hour — would have the effect of killing 500,000 jobs across the country.”
To pay the increased wages, many businesses will be forced to raise prices and reconsider hiring inexperienced workers who desperately need the opportunity to break into the workforce, he says.
At the same press conference in August, Colorado Families for a Fair Wage brought out nursing assistant Marrisa Guerrero to speak in support of Amendment 70. She described her struggle as a single parent in Denver who works for $9.50 an hour. “I always thought if I worked hard and played by the rules, I’d be able to make it, but that isn’t going to happen until wages are raised.”
When asked afterward if she would be able to survive on $12 an hour, she said, “A lot of my supporters that back me up in this tell me, ‘Speak from your heart. Tell it like it is.’ To me, I’m trying to do what this union is telling me to do, but in all honestly, I want to fight for what’s in my heart. Doing $12 by 2020 is not justice for us. Fifteen dollars an hour would barely be getting us by by 2020.”
Much of the public-relations strategy for Amendment 70 mirrors communication prescriptions laid out in The Colorado Narrative: A Handbook for Progressive Communications, which is used by ProgressNow and the SEIU, among others, to sculpt messaging that wins voters over. The Colorado Narrative instructs organizers to quit advocating for equality and instead talk about fairness, to stop saying “social justice” and say, “Everyone gets a fair shot.” If a movement wants to go on the attack, it should say the opponents are “rigging the game for big money, special interests, CEOs.”
Urrutia says he couldn’t stomach the political and rhetorical compromises that polling suggests work.
Surviving in the “nonprofit industrial complex,” as he calls it, requires “perfecting the art of swallowing your own puke.”
Urrutia is embarrassed by how many mornings he’s woken up with a hangover since leaving Jobs With Justice. He’s been depressed, saving himself with bad habits: drinking booze, smoking weed, drinking coffee and watching porn. He’s trying to kick his vices one at a time and get back to researching maleficence in corporations and government — and, after his experience with Amendment 70, in nonprofits and unions.
One September night at the pizza shop where he works, Urrutia washes dishes under the watchful eye of the longtime owner, who looks like a Greek Papa Smurf.
South Broadway hipsters, bums and hungry teenagers come in for a slice. Urrutia greets the customers with whom he interacts with a handshake. He looks them in the eye.
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For Urrutia, this is what ideological purity looks like: If he can’t fight without compromise for workers through the nonprofit industrial complex and labor movements, he’ll just rejoin the working class instead.
The phone rings. A woman wants a pizza. He waits for one to bake, takes it to his beat-up old car with a huge amp in the back, struggles with broken locks, and drives to her house. She tips him $8.
Add that to the $8 bucks he makes each hour plus tips: “Hey, it’s better than $12 by 2020,” he says.
But that’s the only call that comes in that night. Add up the dollars he made and the hours he worked, and it isn’t, actually, much better than $12 an hour.