Mazahir Salih learned about the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa by coincidence. In 2012, she moved to Iowa with her family. They settled in Coralville and her children went to school, with the exception of her 2-year-old son.
Two months after moving, Salih took her son to the Coralville Public Library to pass time until school let out later that afternoon. She noticed a group filing down the stairs into a meeting room. Some of those people were fellow Sudanese immigrants.
This was the very first meeting of the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ), which was called the Immigrant Voices Project at the time. She asked if the meeting was public and decided to attend.
“I wasn’t invited by the way. I just walked in there,” Salih said. “And here I am, the executive director of the organization.”
The initial coalition formed in reaction to brewing xenophobia in the state, as well as long-standing anti-labor policies in the state legislature. Salih had always been passionate about social justice and workers’ rights, so she signed up immediately.
“It was founded by low wage workers, Iowans and immigrants,” she said.
There were immigrants from 18 different countries, from Africa, Asia, Latin American and Europe. And while they spoke different languages and had different cultures, they had many issues in common, from abusive landlords and employers to negative interactions with law enforcement.
“At the time it was formed, anti-immigration feelings were very high in the nation and the state,” said Charlie Eastham, one of CWJ’s founders and current treasurer. “And there were people who were trying to form organizations that could eliminate those hostile feelings towards immigrants, and hostile policies and practices.”
Eastham attributes CWJ’s success to the consistent leadership who have remained focused on immigrant and workers’ rights. From the beginning, low-wage workers, immigrants and people of color have held leadership positions in the organization. In fact, CWJ’s by-laws require low-wage workers to hold the majority of board member positions.
“What we’re doing and why we’re doing it has stayed very much the same since we began,” Eastham said. “That is because the people who are affected by what is wrong, and what we’re trying to correct, are and have been, and continue to be, leaders in CWJ.”
After its first meeting in January 2012, CWJ became a formal 501(c)(3) nonprofit in July, electing its first board of directors. Members met on the weekends or evenings at the library. They didn’t have an office or meeting space, so they kept all the paperwork in their trunks.
“Basically, our cars were our office,” Salih said. “We didn’t have money, everything was volunteer.”
But CWJ had support from several local organizations and unions, primarily the University of Iowa Labor Center, which has been instrumental to their funding success, Eastham said. CWJ’s first grant came from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) in Davenport, which helped them hire an executive director.
Salih served as a CWJ member while she attended Kirkwood Community College, studying electroneurodiagnostic technology, which records brain activity and helps diagnose and treat head trauma, seizures, epilepsy, etc.
Salih joined the CWJ Board of Directors a year later. Then she became the vice president of the board. Then she became the president. During this time, she worked on-call for local hospitals, and after graduating from Kirkwood in 2016, she looked for a permanent position in the area. In the meantime, she joined CWJ staff as a community organizer. In 2020, she became the interim executive director of CWJ, and assumed the position in 2021.
“I never thought I’m going to do this for a living, because if I were going to do it for a living, I should have went to the school of social workers,” Salih said. “I never knew that I was going to do this full time. It always was my passion.”
The center’s first major victory was the creation of a community ID program, the first of its kind in the Midwest. CWJ, along with other groups like Iowa City’s Human Rights Commission and the Iowa City Federation of Labor, petitioned the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to create the program, which it unanimously approved in April 2015.
The local government-issued photo identification cards, which cost $8 and are valid for four years, can be used to open bank accounts at some participating banks, confirm identity when using credit cards and to interact with schools, city and county municipalities and law enforcement. In addition, over 20 local businesses offer discounts to community ID holders.
In 2015, CWJ campaigned to increase the minimum wage in Johnson County to $10.10 per hour, from the state minimum wage of $7.25. The Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed, but in 2017, Gov. Terry Branstad and state Republicans passed new legislature to override the county.
The center decided to bypass the state government altogether and ask local businesses to honor the county minimum wage. If businesses pledged to pay $10.10 for current and future employees, then CWJ would advertise that business online and encourage community members to support it. Over 165 businesses in the county signed up, Salih said.
During the pandemic, CWJ created a program to help people who weren’t eligible for federal and state COVID-19 relief. They asked the community to donate their stimulus checks to low-income and immigrant families. The From My Home to Yours program raised over $500,000, which was redistributed to over 700 families.
Earlier this year, the center advocated to reform the Iowa City Housing Authority’s (ICHA) guidelines for extended absences in the Housing Choice Voucher program. In March, Iowa City Council unanimously agreed to increase absences from 30 to 60 days without prior authorization. This change helped immigrants who travel overseas to visit family and care for loved ones.
In May, CWJ successfully pushed for a relocation program to help the residents of Forest View Mobile Home Court. The park’s owners abandoned redevelopment plans, leaving residents in deteriorating homes. City council passed $1.3 million in assistance to help residents find new homes.
While these initiatives helped thousands of people, Eastham remembers another victory from the early days of CWJ’s formation. Local law enforcement had arrested a mother while she was leaving a grocery store with her children. Within a couple hours, they formed a demonstration outside the county jail, and she was eventually released.
“What really made me remember that was how quickly that group came together, and how genuine was their concern was for that person and her family,” Eastham said.
Eastham has also served on the Iowa City Community School District Board of Education since 2019, which he said complements advocacy work. As a CWJ and Black Voices Project member, he’s able to build relationships with people in the community.
While CWJ hasn’t grown much in the past 10 years, he said, it has improved. It’s better at upholding its core mission to empower low-wage workers and immigrants. Looking forward, he anticipates wage theft will become a dominant focus.
CWJ is the only organization in the area that helps workers recover wages, Salih said. When workers never get paid — either from illegal deductions, the misclassification of an hourly employee as an independent contractor, unpaid overtime, a paycheck bouncing, and so on — CWJ will call the employer.
Sometimes, it’s a simple miscommunication that they solve immediately over the phone. But when employers refuse, CWJ forms a delegation of local elected officials, community leaders and union representatives; writes a letter explaining the issue and the amount owed; and confronts the employer, giving them seven days to pay.
Usually, the matter deescalates here, but if employers still refuse to pay, CWJ asks the employee how they’d prefer to proceed. In the past, CWJ has filed complaints with the Department of Labor, sent press releases to news organizations and held protests in front of the business, Salih said.
In the next 10 years, Salih said they will continue to help immigrants and low-wage workers with monthly Know Your Rights trainings and other programs.
Salih said she learned from CWJ herself.
“I learned a lot about my rights. I learned about how the system works,” she said. “I give the Center for Worker Justice a lot of credit.”
Even though CWJ is only 10 years old, Salih thinks they’ve become well-known throughout the community.
“Most of the immigrants in the area, they believe that this is a safe hub for them, where they can come if they have any issue,” Salih said. “A lot of work needs to be done in this community, and we are really here and ready to continue the good work that we started.”
CWJ will celebrate its 10-year anniversary this September with a fundraising gala. The event will feature cultural foods from local restaurants, a silent auction, musical entertainment and an awards ceremony.
The gala is the biggest fundraising event for CWJ, but it hasn’t held the event since 2019 due to COVID-19. That year, every table was sold out, Salih said. She anticipates 300 people in attendance this year.
CWJ will hold the gala on Sept. 24 from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at the Iowa Memorial Union, on the second floor. Tickets are currently on sale on their website at either $55 a person or $420 for a table of eight.