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labor Minnesota Is Headed for a Workers vs. Bosses Showdown That’s 10 Years in the Making

Labor and community organizations who have been aligning for years are escalating their fights at the same time.

Workers vote on strike.
At the October event, groups took a bold and unique step toward building greater unity within the broader labor movement, holding strategy sessions before coming together across sectors.,Geoff Dittberner, SEIU Minnesota

This spring, thousands of workers across Minnesota will have expired contracts all at the same time. Among them are healthcare workers, janitors, security officers, airport workers, construction workers, educators, education support professionals, and public workers. Organizers within Minnesota’s labor movement are making use of this unique moment to exert joint pressure on employers across sectors to meet workers’ demands. 

Over the past decade, unions and community groups in Minnesota have been creating partnerships with a shared analysis of power, and holding employers and leaders accountable, all while building an alignment strategy that they say grows their organizations and wins more for their members. It’s culminating in a joint escalation, with a deadline of March 2 kicking off a week of action. At that time, potentially six unions will have expired contracts at once, meaning they would legally be allowed to strike at the same time, and allied community groups, workers centers, and unions have agreed to push social demands. On February 3, SEIU Local 26, representing more than 8000 essential workers, voted to authorize an unfair labor practice strike at any time during ongoing negotiations. Metro Transit drivers with ATU Local 1005, whose members authorized a strike last September, have yet to vote on a tentative agreement offered on February 7. The Saint Paul Federation of Educators Local 28 (SPFE) has also scheduled a strike authorization vote for February 15.

These unions and community groups have coordinated specific demands addressing various community needs under the four tenets of dignified work, good schools, stable housing, and a livable planet. The unions and groups include SEIU Local 26, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos En La Lucha (CTUL), Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia, SEIU Local 284, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 (MFT), SPFE, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and Iowa, Laborers Local 363, and ATU Local 1005. Allied unions and groups standing in solidarity include Minnesota AFL CIO, Minneapolis Uber and Lyft Association, Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, UNITE HERE Local 17, Wildcat Cabaret, AFSCME Local 3800, and CWA 7250.

Under the banner of “dignified work,” workers are demanding higher wages that keep up with inflation, retirement pensions, safe working conditions, healthcare access, reduced racial and gender pay gaps, and a Labor Standards Board. for the city of Minneapolis. The call for “good schools” includes higher pay for educators and their support staff and more community resources. Urging “stable housing,” workers are insisting on community-owned social housing, rent stabilization, closing racial home ownership gaps, and holding developers accountable. “Livable planet” demands include clean air and water and sustainable transit and infrastructure. A common thread between these demands is holding corporations accountable for things like tax cuts and loopholes and climate impacts.

Labor and community leaders say that their strategy’s momentum stems from long-term struggle and partnering work that can and should be replicated in other states. The strategy involved more than a decade of coordinated investment in relationships and campaigns to align for opportunities leading to major gains for workers and their communities.

According to Bargaining for the Common Good Network, a nationwide network of unions and community groups, the strategy falls under the category of “bargaining for the common good,” defined as: “Community and union members partner around a long-term vision for the structural changes they want to see in their communities and using union bargaining as a critical moment in a broader campaign to win that change.”

In other words, union negotiations are one part of a campaign, and an entire community can be considered part of the bargaining committee. The strategy also involves identifying and targeting common enemies of labor and communities, like corporations and the financial elite.

The current labor spring traces back to broader campaigns challenging the concentration of wealth and power. According to a report by researchers at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, SEIU locals in Minnesota departed from SEIU’s national campaign Fight for a Fair Economy (FFE) in 2011, and decided to invest in deepening their collaborations with community groups, creating Minnesotans for a Fair Economy (MFE). Funds from MFE went toward creating a mobile research, communications, and policy team that worked for each organization at different times, pivoting to campaigns at strategic moments.

And then there was the campaign to take on Target, headquartered in downtown Minneapolis, which began in 2012. After first demanding Cub Foods sign a code of conduct giving workers a voice, CTUL pivoted its fight to Target to demand fair treatment of and union organizing rights for workers employed through outside contractors who clean Target stores. The workers who cleaned Target’s offices in downtown Minneapolis, represented by SEIU Local 26, had contracts expiring. TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive political organization, also decided to launch a campaign against Target in order to pass “Ban the Box” legislation that the Chamber of Commerce kept blocking. Additionally, statewide interfaith organization ISAIAH was working with residents of Brooklyn Park, Minn., who wanted more community investment from Target, which had failed to create the jobs it promised in return for millions in subsidies from the city to rebuild its campus. 

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The escalations against Target, which included three strikes in 2013 against the companies that clean Target stores, put enough pressure on Target to agree to their demands, delivering wins for workers and community groups in 2014. In 2016, after four more strikes, workers won union recognition. “Target knew they had to work with us, because they knew what we could do if they didn’t,” said Veronica Mendez Moore, co-director of CTUL in a January 9 webinar. “When we beat these huge corporate power players, we don’t just say ‘great victory,’ and walk away. We grab onto them and we say you gotta do more.”

On the legislative side, paid family and medical leave was also an example of a long-term win fought for over a decade. “We did the same work every single year, it did not always feel like winning,” said JaNae Bates, interim co-director of ISAIAH, in the webinar. “Even if political conditions weren’t set yet, we knew we were advancing them.” According to Bates, ISAIAH trained people to talk with their communities about issues of economic and social justice. Bates referenced Yes 4 Minneapolis, a campaign to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a department of public safety through an amendment to the city charter on which residents could vote. The amendment did not pass, but in 2023, reforms in criminal justice and public safety were won in the Minnesota State Legislature. “We made huge inroads…pushing Minnesotans to recognize that public safety is far more than just policing,” said Bates.

The report also highlights the first union-authorized climate strike in the United States. In 2020, janitors represented by SEIU Local 26, who worked in downtown office buildings responsible for high carbon emissions, staged a one-day unfair labor practice strike. After threatening an open-ended strike, they won wage increases and a joint labor management fund for green cleaning education.

After going on strike in 2022, teachers and education support professionals with MFT reached a contract with Minneapolis Public Schools that expired in June 2023. Vice president of MFT and leader at George Floyd Square Marcia Howard spoke during the January webinar about the strength of connection between workers and their communities. “While I was outside in the streets, people from my union came and stood with me, even though this remains an act of civil disobedience,” said Howard. “We are on the same block as CTUL, and they allowed us to be in that building to be safe. Those connections showed everyone that what we need as community, as labor, it’s all connected.”